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Afghan children sift through the garbage. — Photo by author

Lifting 10 years of garbage in Karachi, a gargantuan task for solid waste board

As authorities struggle to do their job, citizens also need to play their part in cleaning the city.
Updated Aug 04, 2019 12:50pm

This piece originally appeared on TheThird Pole and was reproduced on Dawn.com with permission on April 4, 2018.


Razia Ghulam Hussain's work, like her surroundings, is monochromatic and monotonous. She lives and works as a scavenger in the 500-acre landfill site of Jam Chakro, one of the two landfill sites (the other Gond Pass near Hub River), some 30-35 kilometres from Karachi's city centre.

Swatting the thick grey curtain of flies, you can get a clearer, but grey-hued view of mounds of garbage, some with smoke stealthily coming out. The deathly quiet is intermittently broken by passing motorbike, or a rickety truck groaning under the weight of the garbage or one that has just emptied its ware and is lighter and in a hurry to leave the godforsaken place.

Abdul Ghafoor and his wife are scavangers while all their eight kids go to a school set up by a charitable trust inside a village in Jam Chakro. — Photo by author
Abdul Ghafoor and his wife are scavangers while all their eight kids go to a school set up by a charitable trust inside a village in Jam Chakro. — Photo by author

A kid scavenging through a garbage heap. — Photo by author
A kid scavenging through a garbage heap. — Photo by author

Further in, you can see people (even children as young as seven or eight) rummaging through the ashes, or a herd of cows munching away, undeterred by the millions of flies or the putrid smell. The sky is speckled with crows and eagles, circling endlessly as if caught in a time warp.

Hussain, a mother of five, adjusts the dupatta over her head, to hide her face and continues to separate the bones, which are sold for Rs10 per kg, aluminum sold for Rs 70 per kg and panni sold for Rs 20 per kg — her hands and nails blackened from poking through the cooled down ashes.

Razia Ghulam Hussain, a nymph of a woman, mother of five, busy sifting through garbage. — Photo by author
Razia Ghulam Hussain, a nymph of a woman, mother of five, busy sifting through garbage. — Photo by author

"Burning the garbage makes it easier for them to sift through," explains Sohail Ahmed, director of solid waste at the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB). "These people are completely oblivious to the noxious fumes they are inhaling," he adds.

But calling it a landfill site is also incorrect. In fact, Ahmed agrees it can more accurately pass for a dumping ground. "There is a science to developing a landfill site. For instance, for dumping municipal trash, it is first lined with clay and covered with half an inch thick plastic. The fresh garbage is continuously layered with soil and the idea is not to break down waste, just store it," he explains.

But there have been countries that have generated electricity from burning this waste. The SSWMB also wants to do it.

"I've been hearing about it all my life, and at various points in time, MoUs have been signed by both international and local companies but none has succeeded," says Ahmed who has been working in solid waste management now for 27 years and knows not just the science and the engineering involved but also the inner working of the government department.

Politics, polio and the rot

Last week, a visibly angry Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar ordered the relevant authorities to ensure the garbage in Karachi was removed in a week.

"I want a neat and clean Karachi within a week," he said. He wanted to know who was responsible for the removal of solid waste.

Earlier in the year, the provincial task force on polio eradication had informed Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah that insufficient lifting of garbage lifting was one of the reasons why polio was still prevalent in the city.

Four years back, in 2014, on the pretext of repeated administrative lapses, Karachi's solid waste management was extricated from the hands of the local government's Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (the mayor and the municipality) and taken over by the provincial government after a bill, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board Act-2013 for setting up the waste management board was adopted by the Sindh Assembly.

SSWMB's garbage lifting vehicles at District South's office yard. — Photo by author
SSWMB's garbage lifting vehicles at District South's office yard. — Photo by author

"All over the world garbage lifting is the responsibility of the city government," explains Karachi's mayor, Wasim Akhtar, speaking to The Third Pole.

"There is politics involved in running Karachi," he explained referring to the political rift between the Pakistan People's Party, heading the provincial government and his party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, heading the local government.

"Ten years ago, garbage was regularly hauled and things were not so bad," he said. That was when it was the responsibility of the local government, and therefore, the MQM. Then the provincial government took control over all the revenue generating [including municipal matters they had no clue how to manage] departments," he said.

Unhappy with the provincial government's high handedness he is unsure about the SSWMB's performance as it has the responsibility to not only keep Karachi clean but the entire province.

"Instead of strengthening the system, a parallel system has been created which may lead to confusion and chaos," Akhtar observed saying the board needs to be dissolved as it was set up unconstitutionally (and for which he has filed a petition in the Sindh High Court).

While the turf war between the local and the provincial governments continues, last year, the SSWMB contracted out garbage collection, taking it to the landfill sites, as well as sweeping streets, to a Chinese company for two (East, South), and last month to another Chinese company two more (Malir and West) out of a total of six districts of Karachi, for a period of seven years. Garbage collection and disposal of districts Central and Korangi is being carried out by the their respective municipalities (which are also under the provincial government).

The Chinese company has set up their own workshop where their vehicles are repaired says Maqsood Soomro, assisant director SSWMB responsible for keeping District South clean. — Photo by author
The Chinese company has set up their own workshop where their vehicles are repaired says Maqsood Soomro, assisant director SSWMB responsible for keeping District South clean. — Photo by author

The spewing, belching face of Karachi

Of the nearly 13,000 tonnes of garbage thrown out onto the city daily by a population of 13 million residents, nearly 70% reaches the two landfills; the rest remains strewn around the city in drains and some even finds its way quietly into the Arabian Sea. "I'd say roughly five per cent now goes into the sea, as dumping into the water has been controlled to a large extent," says Ahmed.

Earlier, the provincial chief secretary had told the chief justice that only "4.5 tonnes was left to rot" on the city's streets daily.

"Anywhere between 400 to 500 trucks empty around 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of trash in 24 hours," said Abdul Salam, weighbridge operator, his eyes glued to the computer screen entering the data as truckers stop outside his office window to get themselves weighed. It's a busy day as the trucks trundle along towards the landfill after getting the green signal.

Another 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes gets to the second 500-acre landfill site called the Gond Pass, near Hub river. The remaining 3,000-4000 tonnes of waste is generated in areas which fall under the administrative jurisdiction of other landowning agencies such as the six cantonment boards (army), industrial sites, the port, the railways, and the aviation authorities. In addition, nearly half of Karachi's population lives in informal settlements.

Cows and buffaloes rummage through garbage looking for food at Jam Chakro. — Photo by author
Cows and buffaloes rummage through garbage looking for food at Jam Chakro. — Photo by author

Another problem is that with a total of 19 federal, provincial, and local land-owning agencies, corporate sector interests, formal and informal developers, international capital, and military cantonments that control tracts of the city, no one entity has the municipal authority over the entire city.

So far, in the last one year, nearly two million tonnes of garbage has been transported to the landfill sites. Yet the city looks far from clean.

From the ubiquitous plastic bags hanging for dear life on just about anything, to candy and snack wrappers (ice cream cups, chips, cookies); to debris, building and road construction material (including cement, steel, pipes, concrete blocks remain on roadsides for months on end), it is a garbage strewn city for an onlooker. The felled tree trunks and branches, and at times even bathroom sinks, potties and bathtubs, it seems roadsides remains the most popular exhibit place to put out discarded items.

"Their performance has been quite dismal," points out Karachi's Mayor Akhtar, adding: "If I had the power, the equipment and the resources, I promise we can clean up the ten year's backlog in Karachi in just four months; we already have the manpower and the experience!"

"No city in the world can become garbage free unless the citizens cooperate," says SSWMB's Ahmed. "For the past one year, we have continuously been lifting garbage from the city, the backlog as well as that thrown daily. It's been a never-ending exercise," he adds wearily.

Even the SSWMB site office, half a kilometre before entering the Jam Chakro landfill site, he said, was surrounded by mounds of garbage. "If you had visited the place a year back you'd have seen the heaps higher than this boundary wall," he said pointing to the ten feet high wall enclosing a yard strewn with old forklifters, dumper trucks etc and an office block.

Both sides of the road winding inside Jam Chakro is heaped with garbage — Photo by author
Both sides of the road winding inside Jam Chakro is heaped with garbage — Photo by author

"The contractors employed to dump the garbage inside the landfill never bothered to go all the way there," he said.

But unlike the mayor, several residents spoken to say the city looks cleaner.

"The city is definitely cleaner," says Dr Shehnaz Ibrahim, a resident, but rues the lack of "civic sense" among people.

Even environmentalist Tofiq Pasha finds: "Garbage is being lifted and roads repaired," he says adding: "The citizens need to realise they are the contributors and therefore need to be responsible and need to reduce their trash at the source."

"For the past two years now, I've watched the SeaView (road along the Clifton beach) being cleaned early in the morning every day," said Asma Lotia, a school administrator who takes the route every day to her workplace.

"I have seen them in winter and slogging away in the heat too, and the very next day there would be the same mess again; it would be worse after the weekend. They have provided bins but hardly anyone uses them," she said adding: "There is need for a huge awareness campaign, something like a polio drive... or offenders should be slapped with heavy fines."

According to Maqsood Soomro, assistant director, SWM, who looks after District South: "Every night our teams comb the areas, empty out the bins placed along shops, the roads are swept, but come mid morning when the shop keepers open their shops and clean them, they put away the trash either on the pavement or next to the bins, never inside them," giving the example of Jama Cloth Market, an old marketplace, in the city centre, but said, most commercial areas, he says face the same problem.

The way the SSWMB works is that it is responsible for collecting garbage from homes, commercial buildings, roads, restaurants, hospitals, schools etc, bring it to a garbage transfer station (there has to be a GTS at within a 10km radius from each locality), from where it is then sent to its last resting place — the landfill site. In addition, it has to sweep roads, even wash some of the main arteries (for which they have vehicles fitted with jet spays) despite there being severe shortage of water in the city.

There are ten GTS sites that have been identified around Karachi, but so far, the SSWMB has been able to acquire five at Qasba (in Orangi), Baldia, Sharafi Goth (Korangi), EBM Causeway (District East) and Dhobi Ghat (District South).

Insiders say these are more like temporary collection points and not GTS which are usually designed on scientific lines with sorting machines and never so close to main roads and neighbourhoods.

In addition, many of the sites earmarked for setting up the GTS are either under litigation, encroached upon by land grabbers or in possession of some government authority or a civic body.

"Part of the GTS at Dhobi Ghat is in someone's illegal possession, and he has taken the SSWMB to court," admits Soomro.

Recycle, reduce

The Dhobi Ghat GTS is more like an empty plot of land strewn with garbage, along a heavy traffic road. Some scruffy Afghani boys run after trucks laden with garbage as soon they enter the station and start emptying out the rear even before the driver can offload it.

"We can rummage through garbage here in much peace, than at bins around the city where we are continuously harassed by the police," says 11-year old Saeed Noor who left school two years back and joined his older brother in rag-picking.

Saeed Noor, 11, has seven siblings and collects plastic and cardboard. — Photo by author
Saeed Noor, 11, has seven siblings and collects plastic and cardboard. — Photo by author

"I work here from 6am to 4pm and collect plastic and cardboard which we sell," he adds. By the end of the day he has earned anywhere between Rs 300 to Rs 400 every day.

Kala Khan, an older Afghan, pointing to young Afghan waste-pickers says there is no other work for them. "We do not have the Pakistani ID card, and unless we have that, our kids will not be able to get admissions in schools, and as adults no employment," he says.

Kala Khan, an Afghan, belongs to Quetta, and says many Afghans are forced to work as scavangers as they cannot any other work. — Photo by author
Kala Khan, an Afghan, belongs to Quetta, and says many Afghans are forced to work as scavangers as they cannot any other work. — Photo by author

But due to these scavengers, a lot of the garbage that enters the landfill has already been sorted in the city. Bang in the middle within the Jam Chakro landfill, on a flattened tract of land, stands a yellow behemoth; the place is a material recovery station.

"This contraption was bought to separate the plastic, paper, glass after it went through it, but there was not much to separate; most of it is separated in the city, before it reaches the landfill," explains Ahmed.

Say no to hauling debris, hazardous hospital and industrial waste

There are limits to what the SSWMB will collect.

"It is not our responsibility to pick up debris, trees, branches, construction material or hazardous waste from the hospitals, or even the industrial waste," said Ahmed. "For debris, it is the responsibility of the residents, to have it picked up and sent it to the landfill site. It only costs around Rs 350 to 500/tonne.

"But they won't even do that," said Soomro. "Instead they either throw it inside or leave it outside our bins which is only for garbage."

He has his eyes on educating and informing the younger generation. "I think they are our last hope; we intend going to schools to inculcate civic sense in them and teach them the virtues of segregation and recycling waste before it is collected by us."

The 2017 national census has put Pakistan’s population at 207.8 million. In nearly two decades (the last census was conducted in 1998) the population has grown by 57 per cent. At the same time it is urbanising at an annual rate of three per cent, the fastest in South Asia. It is estimated that by 2025 nearly half the country's population will live in urban areas. Karachi's will grow from 13 to 19 million in seven years. And as it urbanises, it produces more and more rubbish.