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The state of water in Sindh

Updated April 01, 2019

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The writer is a lawyer and academic.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.

IN December 2016, I had filed a constitutional petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, praying for the appointment of a commission to probe whether people in Sindh received clean drinking water, and whether the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) had discharged its statutory responsibilities. The apex court appointed a commission headed by a sitting judge of the Sindh High Court, Justice Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro. During its one-year tenure, the Justice Kalhoro commission produced two comprehensive reports containing, inter alia, findings and recommendations.

It must be stated that the commission’s findings have never been disputed by the provincial government or by any other person mainly because they were drawn from a variety of sources — official records, government functionaries, forensic reports, experts’ input, public hearings, judicial proceedings, and the inspections of water and sanitation infrastructure. The conclusion that the commission reached was: “people of Sindh are not drinking clean water’. The mixing of untreated sewage with freshwater bodies — rivers, canals, lakes, ponds etc — was found to be the prime cause of contamination. In fact, there are 750 points of confluence where raw sewage meets with freshwater bodies, turning the entire 8,000-kilometre-long provincial irrigation network into a big conduit of drainage.

A grim finding of the commission on water is that virtually the entire water and sanitation infrastructure had been nonexistent or flawed.

Another grim finding of the commission is that virtually the entire water and sanitation infrastructure — water filtration plants, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites, water-testing laboratories, solid and liquid waste disposals, hospital incinerators and so on — had been for years nonexistent or flawed to the point of dysfunction. Yet no past or present government paid heed to this ‘existential’ issue, though billions of rupees were spent every year in the name of development, repair and maintenance of the water and sanitation-related facilities.

A case in point is the Karachi Water and Sewage Board. It has about 14,000 employees and an annual budget upwards of Rs6 billion. But none of the city’s seven water-filter plants produced water as per WHO standards. Likewise, all three sewage treatment plants with a cumulative capacity of treating 160MGD had been dysfunctional for many years. As a result, the sea receives 450MGD of raw industrial, municipal and hospital effluents, besides the oil slick and tar balls, causing “degradation of water quality, habitat loss, localised eutrophication, and metal accumulation in fish and shrimps”. Moreover, one-third of the water (650MGD) is lost to theft, line leakages, adulteration and so on. The quantum of loss can be measured by the fact that only one per cent of water is supplied through water tankers in the entire city.

The commission also found that underground water that is supplied to many cities in the province, including Larkana and Shikarpur, had turned brackish, and hence unfit for human consumption. Lack of sanitation, excess withdrawal of groundwater, low precipitation, encroachments on drainage outlets, and use of pesticides are some causes behind the degradation of underground water. But the provincial government has remained blissfully oblivious to the increasing loss of this important source of water.

Reverse osmosis plants are yet another source of water that is being tapped largely in the Thatta, Badin and Tharparkar districts. Indeed, RO plants present a classic case study in bad governance and corruption. Hundreds of plants were installed without following the rules; in many cases a single contractor installed, operated and maintained them; although the installation, operation and maintenance of these plants were financed by as many as five departments/agencies, involving billions of rupees, yet none of them ever bothered to monitor the quality or quantity of water produced by these plants.

It is proven by the fact that none of the 2,000-odd RO plants had a water-testing lab or water-measuring meter. No wonder, the commission concluded that the entire scheme was “nothing but a farce”, and recommended an investigation to fix the responsibility on, and award punishment to, the officers concerned.

There are about 2,100 rural water supply and drainage schemes which cater to the needs of the rural population. Most of the schemes were found to be dysfunctional mainly due to bad governance and local councils’ incapacity to operate them. Therefore, while the government spends billions of rupees annually on these schemes, the people continue to consume contaminated water, endure insanitary conditions, thus increasingly falling prey to various water-borne ailments eg hepatitis, kidney failure, typhoid, skin lesions, diarrhoea, etc.

Sadly, the commission also didn’t find the state of public hospitals enviable. Most of the district/tertiary hospitals lacked clean drinking water facilities, many suffered from bad sanitary conditions, and none had incinerators, and related arrangement, to dispose of hospital waste in accordance with Hospital Waste Management Rules, 2014. Deplorably, the dangerous waste was dumped on the open grounds to be lifted along with municipal waste, which polluted not only the hospital environment but also posed risks to the health of local communities.

Another glaring instance of delinquency on the part of public functionaries noted by the commission was the total absence of a solid waste disposal system, notwithstanding the fact that Solid Waste Management Board had been created through an act in 2014. Therefore, there are no designated landfill sites anywhere in the province, including Karachi, and everyday thousands of tons of garbage are thrown into the drain nullahs, canals or the sea, or burnt on the open grounds, aggravating environmental degradation.

However, the most lamentable fact that came to the notice of the commission was the failure of Sepa, the provincial environmental regulator, to discharge its statutory responsibilities. Some of Sepa’s multiple failures are evident from the emission of untreated industrial effluents, contamination of irrigation system, degeneration of underground water, and degradation of the coastal belt. No wonder, the commission concluded unhappily that Sepa had yet to establish ‘justification for its existence’.

It would be worth discussing in a subsequent article the tasks that the Supreme Court assigned to the water commission headed by retired justice Amir Hani Muslim, to what extent he achieved those tasks in his one-year tenure, and whether the commission should continue.

The writer is a lawyer and academic.

shahabusto@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2019