A FIELD of cauliflower and spinach near a drain in Arbab Town of Spinny Road area.—Photo by writer
A FIELD of cauliflower and spinach near a drain in Arbab Town of Spinny Road area.—Photo by writer

RECENTLY, Professor Dr Zahoor Ahmad Bazai, who teaches botany at the University of Balochistan, went to Frankfurt where he delivered a lecture on his thesis — The Effect of Polluted Water on Vegetables — that he completed in 2006. As he spoke to his audience in the city university hall, a puzzled German professor got on to the stage to interrupt: “You’re still alive despite being in a city where vegetables are grown entirely in contaminated water?”

In reply, Prof Bazai quipped that we, the people of Quetta, have become immune — “we’ll probably die if we don’t consume this produce grown with contaminated water from the city’s drains”.

I go to meet Prof Bazai at a time when university work is slow. Winter vacations have been announced, and there is hardly any student attendance although the faculty is there. The clean-shaven professor’s right hand is fractured, and his handshake is very careful. “It’s an open secret that we eat vegetables grown with contaminated water, all across Quetta,” he says. “This is partly because of socio-economic conditions, and the money the owners of these fields earn.”

This city used to be known as ‘little London’, being as it is in a beautiful valley with the mountains blanketed with snow in the winter and green otherwise because of plentiful rain. Rain-water from the peaks on the east would course through Quetta. This clean water, older city residents recall, supported the fields of vegetables and salad.

But that was then. Now, the city population has increased manifold, having come up to about three million. In addition to locals, there has been an influx of refugees and others coming from the Balochistan interior in search of jobs and economic opportunity. With a deteriorating infrastructure over the decades, say botanists, the waste of industries, hospitals and indeed the city itself has come to be channelled into the rainwater drains. This is the water farmers use to cultivate their fields.

One such person is Baz Mohammad, who has a field measuring half an acre in Arbab town on Spinny Road. Here, he grows cauliflower and spinach. Wearing a red mirrored Sindhi cap, he insists that he does not use for irrigation purposes water from the drain, which he acknowledges is contaminated. He has his own tube-well, he says, that is situated nearby.

But a few yards away from his field, a mound of garbage has been dumped near the drain — and one cannot see any water channels other than this drain. What one can see, however, are two pick-up trucks loaded with cauliflower that are to be transported to the market.

“The practice of growing produce with contaminated water has been going on in Quetta since the 1980s,” says Prof Bazai. “It is a profitable business, so of course people have given in. No ‘clean’ vegetables are grown in Quetta, with the farmers paying the Water and Sanitation Authority, the irrigation department, and the city municipal corporation for using in their fields water from the drains.”

In the past, there have been instances where the government has taken note of the practice, with some fields being destroyed. Even this, though, has not proved enough of deterrence for farmers that are dependent on water from contaminated drains.

Killi Barat, situated in the northern part of the city, houses middle and lower working-class families. Shams sells vegetables here. According to him, some people ask for ‘clean’ produce, and are even willing to pay extra money for it. But he says he carried produce grown in the city suburbs, and sells them on the promise that they are ‘clean’. “People buy it,” he says. “From where to bring uncontaminated vegetables for them?”

According to Quetta-based botanists, there are two reasons as to why now the city’s produce is being grown with contaminated water. Firstly, water from the drains is cheaper than fresh water. Secondly, produce grows faster in contaminated water, and there is no need for fertilisers.

One of the water treatment plants in the Spinny Road area is lying in disuse. Scientific research, according to Prof Bazai, is necessary. “But we get this produce without the water on which they are grown having been treated,” he points out.

“There are lots of toxic elements in the vegetables, along with bacteria and viruses.” The solution, he says, lies in water treatment plants. “If that is impossible,” he reiterates, “the consumption of this produce should be banned for people. This is fit only for animals. The farmers need to be given alternatives, but the government has so far failed to provide any. That is why the practice continues.”

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2019