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As Nadeem Khan fixes leakages in a pipeline supplying water to his house in Gilgit town, he makes a shocking revelation.
The water he and thousands others in his area use for drinking comes from the Gilgit River, which is troubling as sewage from their own houses spills into the same river, merely 10 yards upstream.
“It was shocking to know that this is what we all have been drinking,” says Khan, whose neighbourhood is located across the river. “The sewage from our own area goes into the river before it is lifted back to us for drinking.”
The contamination becomes worse another 20 yards upstream in Chamogarh colony, where sewerage lines from houses are directed to the river.
Gilgit River is a source of drinking water for a majority of the population living in a town of nearly 150,000 people. The river, emanating from fresh water reservoirs in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, is where the sewage from densely populated areas such as Kashrote, Domiyal, Baseen. among others, falls as the town lacks a proper sewerage system.
The sewage is not just coming from households. It also emanates from car wash centers, hospitals and barbershops. Until recently the combined waste of Gilgit town would also be dumped on its banks as part of solid waste management, but has now been shifted to barren land in Chilmis Das.
“The problem with my area is there is no sewerage system in place and the sewage flows directly into the river, as the safety tanks in almost every household have overflown,” Khan says of the heavily populated Konodas area, where unplanned construction has multiplied people’s woes.
Another issue, Khan says, is the water supply pipelines including the main pipeline that has been tapped at several points by locals to avail illegal connections. “Again the result is [that] sewage spills into the pipelines and mixes with the water which is ultimately used for drinking.”
Dr Maisoor Nafees of Karakoram International University says various laboratory tests have established high levels of contamination in the Gilgit River, adding, “Behind many diseases in Gilgit is this water.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Shehzad Hassan Shigri says the Gilgit Development Authority (GDA) and engineering consultants have prepared a master plan for Gilgit city to settle the issue for good. “It’s a three year plan and will cost Rs11 billion,” he said of the plan, which he says chief minister Hafeezur Rehman has personally looked after.
According to an EPA report, presently all the wastewater from Gilgit city is being discharged into its river. “This contamination may undermine the water quality of the river, apart from adversely affecting aquatic and human life downstream.”
The lack of a sewerage system has led to ruin of what could be one of Gilgit’s main tourist attractions. The two historic water channels — referred to as Ajeeni daljah (upper canal) and Khireeni daljah (lower canal) by locals — have also turned into sewerage pits. Dadi Jawari, a 17th century female ruler of Gilgit, built the channels to irrigate what are now called the Kashorte, Nagral, Majini Muhalla and Khomer areas.
“These historic channels have now turned into gutter lines,” laments Ahmad Alam, a resident. “This should’ve been preserved but instead it is in ruins.”