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Tale of two cities: why is garbage a problem

December 11, 2016
AN open sewer in Islamabad’s F8 sector that also serves as a dumping ground for garbage collected in the area. Such sights are common throughout the city’s back alleys and across the country’s major urban centres.—Photo by writer
AN open sewer in Islamabad’s F8 sector that also serves as a dumping ground for garbage collected in the area. Such sights are common throughout the city’s back alleys and across the country’s major urban centres.—Photo by writer

ISLAMABAD: A walk in Islamabad amongst the Margalla Hills and city’s plentiful picturesque neighbourhoods should be a pleasurable experience but there are alleys and dead ends throughout the city strewn with garbage.

On some nights, the smell of burning waste permeates the air and thick smoke engulfs entire locales. This in a city with a much smaller population than the country’s other major urban centres.

In Karachi, the garbage issue is nearing an environmental catastrophe. And even in smaller tourist destinations such as Murree, garbage can be seen everywhere — almost as if it has become part of the environment.

A friend and fellow journalist recently went on a rant about garbage in Murree, fearing that it was an irreversible problem. When asked about why he thought this, he replied “there is garbage dumped everywhere” and required enormous effort and resources to have it cleaned.

Far from a problem faced by specific neighbourhoods and urban centres, the issue of garbage disposal and collection has become a national problem. The state infrastructure for waste management has not developed enough to handle the amount of garbage produced while little emphasis is placed on education for the general public.

The result can be seen on street corners, ravines, public parks, nalas, empty fields, and so on. The state infrastructure currently only deals with approximately 50 per cent of generated waste, which is far lower than the minimum standard of 75pc to ensure an acceptable level of urban cleanliness.

Nargis Latif, CEO of an environmental NGO, Gul Bahao, said in Karachi “garbage is gold.” Her organisation turns plastic waste from factories into houses and furniture, and has been pioneering effective forms of waste management focused on recycling and composting.

And yet, the city continues to dispose of waste inefficiently or not at all. In most low-income areas of Karachi, valuable garbage that is recyclable or reusable is collected by the local communities and sold off — leaving only compostable and packaging materials on the street. Low-income neighbourhoods are therefore the most active in garbage collection and its effective disposal.

Ms Latif argues that a lot of Karachi’s garbage-related woes are connected to a “garbage mafia” that exercises control over waste management. In a city of 26 million people where thousands of tonnes of garbage is produced daily, waste is a billion-rupee business.

“The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation for example pays people to pick up garbage,” said Zahid Farooq, a joint director at the Urban Resource Centre. “But there is another person who gives money for the garbage in the dumpster to be left there.”

He said this person had a team of scavengers who sift through garbage and take anything of value. “Only after this has taken place can the garbage be moved to landfill site,” he added.

That too is another problem according to Mr Farooq: “In Karachi there are two landfill sites... It is not practical for a garbage truck to travel 60 kilometres to dump at a landfill site.”

Similar issues exist in Islamabad where the Capital Development Authority (CDA) has failed to establish a permanent landfill site resulting in garbage being dumped in ravines and open sewers throughout the city.

“In the absence of landfill sites, where will people throw their garbage?” asked Mr Farooq.

The issue of waste management is bigger than simply making garbage disappear from sight. It involves the overall handling of garbage, including campaigns to reduce the actual production of garbage.

Mr Farooq pointed out the “role of the community” in this process was very important. This involves the collection and management of garbage from the household till the moment it is removed from the locality.

An emphasis here is placed on a collective responsibility for waste where it is handled properly and also used efficiently in recycling, composting, and energy production.

Walking around in the country’s major cities there appears to be little care taken in maintaining shared public space. People throw wrappers out their car windows, litter as they walk down the street, garbage pickers dump waste on street corners and burning garbage leaves patches of ash everywhere.

Other than the odd sign providing perfunctory acknowledgment of the issue, little action is taken by the local governments. Yet climate change and environmental issues have been identified as perhaps the greatest threat facing Pakistan and current development projects are only exacerbating the issue.

Recently, garbage collection in Karachi’s South and East districts was handed over to Wuzung, a Chinese company. The government identified this as a way of dealing with the growing waste management issue in the city and resultant environmental complications.

However, the move raises questions about why a foreign firm would be charged with municipal affairs when there are major unemployment issues in the country and such a move would do nothing to develop local infrastructure and awareness.

Years ago, a close friend narrated a story about how he came to stop throwing garbage on the street. One summer, his cousins from America were visiting and after getting food from McDonalds and eating in the car, they threw the contents out the window on the street. My friend found this disconcerting and asked if they would do this in the US. “No, but this is Pakistan,” his cousin replied.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2016