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ISLAMABAD: Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD’S TUSSLE FOR WATER

Is water scarcity in Islamabad a myth created by a corrupt management?
Updated Dec 08, 2019 10:37pm

While Islamabad may appear to be the pinnacle of urban development to outsiders, in reality, residents of the capital are struggling for access to safe water and sanitation. Some believe this ‘water crisis’ is artificial, and the result of corruption, mismanagement and a struggle for power between concerned government departments

During winter, the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad’s (MCI) water complaint office located in Sector G-10/4 receives about 60 to 70 calls daily. Things are much busier during the summers. The phone is usually ringing off the hook and the number of complaints in a day jumps to 350 or more. All the callers have just one complaint to file: their homes have run out of water. So they place orders for water tankers.

Imran Arshad, the office’s supervisor, says their staff works in shifts to ensure timely water supply. But staff efficiency depends solely on the availability of water tankers. In winter, they have enough tankers to meet the demand but, during the summers, meeting the rising demand becomes difficult.

Outside in the office parking area, around 20 tankers sit rusted and damaged. Their condition indicates that they have been left there unused for years. MCI — which currently holds control of the water management wing in Islamabad — has a total of 38 tankers, most of which are out of order and badly in need of repairs. Arshad says things got worse earlier this year when thousands of protestors took to the capital’s streets during the ‘Azadi March.’ Five water tankers were allotted for supplying water to the marches, leaving only nine for the rest of the city.

The complaint office supervisor estimates approximately six million rupees are required to make these tankers operational as most of their engines need to be overhauled and their tyres need to be replaced. The department had dispatched a letter of request to the government for funds some six months back, but no response has been received yet.

Mayor Islamabad Sheikh Ansar Aziz estimates that Islamabad needs an estimated 250 million gallons of water per day (MGD). “We are capable of supplying 120 million gallons per day,” he tells Eos. Accepting that MCI has no short-term or long-term planning to meet growing water needs, he says, “Policies and their implementation need funds and we are already in a financial crisis due to a delay in the issuance of funds.”

Behind this 'crisis' is not some outside source, some allege, but a group of officers in the water management wing.

MCI Bulk Water Management Director Altaf Khan says MCI currently receives 34MGD of water with a 50 percent cut from Simly Dam, with 9.5MGD being supplied from Khanpur Dam and the rest from functional tube wells. Cutting half the water supply from Simly Dam is a precautionary measure taken to conserve water in the reservoir for future needs, he says.

According to Ashraf, seven million gallons of drinking water is stored in Simly Dam and after mixing it with tube well water, it is supplied to different sectors of Islamabad.

The mayor says that the Ghazi Barotha Dam project has the potential to meet Islamabad’s water requirements but this has been in the works for years. The initial estimated cost of the dam was 37 billion rupees but its revised project cost (PC-1) in 1995 rose to 77 billion rupees. A fresh estimate is yet to be calculated. According to sources, the estimated cost of the project has now crossed the figure of 150 billion rupees.

But critics believe that the real problem is not a shortage of water. Azam Khan Niazi, a senior journalist, claims water scarcity in Islamabad is a myth created by a corrupt management. He alleges the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and the police are behind creating an artificial water crisis.

DIRTY BUSINESS

In Pakistan only 36 percent people consume safe drinking water | Photo by White Star
In Pakistan only 36 percent people consume safe drinking water | Photo by White Star

Multiple sources believe a ‘mafia’ is responsible for an artificial water crisis in the region. Behind this crisis is not some outside source, they allege, but a group of officers in the water management wing. Instead of facilitating residents, these water management officials adopt delaying tactics in supplying water so that the residents are ‘forced’ to order private water tankers. The price of a private water tanker can vary from 2,000 rupees to 2,500 rupees in the summer and 1,000 rupees to 1,500 rupees in the winter. Many of these government officials have their own private water supply businesses, Niazi claims.

Abdul Mateen, a resident of I-8/2, seems to agree that the ‘crisis’ is manufactured. “Water supply is not a big issue if one has links with officials in the water supply wing,” he says. “We have to stand for hours in queue at the office to register a complaint for water early in the morning, and then we still wait the whole day to get water,” he adds. When they protest, the management often points to the shortage of water tankers.

Over in Sector G-6, residents are often irked at the water management officials, particularly in summer or when they require water on an immediate basis. “We bring drinking water from filtration plants and use tube-well water for domestic affairs,” says Saleem Ahmed, a resident of the sector. The motor of the tube-well installed in the area is often out of order. There is also a huge difference in official and private tanker rates.

But even though the water authority’s fixed rates are reasonable for many residents in Islamabad, getting water supply on that rate is difficult. If one succeeds to get water after a long wait, he will have to give ‘refreshment’ money to the supply staff to keep them happy for next time, CDA spokesperson Syed Safder Ali tells Eos. The water management department has fixed the rate of a water tanker at 150 rupees, but the amount can rise up to 300 to 500 rupees along with ‘refreshment fund’, says another resident. He adds that some officials charge 500 rupees to 700 rupees per tanker, ignoring official rates.

An official at the water complaint office requesting not to be named says that officers earn hundreds of thousands on a daily basis. Many officers, he says, have constructed underground water tanks and they store water in them and when water demand increases they supply that water with their choice rates. The official adds that many have been caught red-handed several times but no action was taken against them.

WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT ANWAY?

People wait for their turn at a water filtration plant in F-6 | Mohammad Asim/White Star
People wait for their turn at a water filtration plant in F-6 | Mohammad Asim/White Star

When asked about Islamabad’s water management, officials from CDA and MCI shift blame on to one another. The Water Management Wing was previously under the direct control of CDA but it was devolved to MCI after the formation of local government in Islamabad. Instead of working together and taking measures to improve water management, CDA and MCI have been at loggerheads to take control of the department.

The hierarchy of authority is difficult to figure out in this turbid system. An official of the water management department, on the condition of anonymity, says that uncertainty regarding control over the water wing has prevailed for the past few months. “The department [Water Supply Wing] has become a rolling stone between CDA and MCI,” says the official. “One day, they come to know that the CDA chairman has control over the wing and in the next few days, they are told that the wing’s control has been handed over to the MCI management.” The official adds that this uncertainty has prevailed since the PTI government assumed charge of the country.

There is a significant difference between the level of access to piped water in urban areas and rural areas. In urban areas, water coverage is 48 percent, while in rural areas it is an abysmal 13 percent.

Spokesperson of CDA Syed Safder Ali tells Eos that water supply comes under the domain of MCI and if it needs funds it should take up this matter with the interior ministry. He had previously claimed in a news report published in The Nation that MCI has a “huge amount collected under different heads” and “stashed in bank accounts.” “Why they are not using these funds to meet the expenditures?” he had asked.

Mayor Aziz accepts that the department is confronted with a corrupt system as well as outdated sewerage and water supply. “MCI is also working to improve the system,” he says, however, “the strong union system in CDA is the main hurdle barring them to take action against corrupt officers.” According to him, when MCI took charge of the Water Management Wing some two-and-a-half years ago, only 55 filtration plants were operational, out of a total of 192 filtration plants. Today, 160 filtration plants are operational, he claims.

ISLAMABAD’S DRINKING WATER

A woman and her daughter balance utensils as they walk home after collecting water in G-7 in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim/White Star
A woman and her daughter balance utensils as they walk home after collecting water in G-7 in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim/White Star

The residents of sectors G-7, G-8, G-9, G-10, I-8, I-9 and I-10 have been living with severe water scarcity for some time. MCI complaint office supervisor Arshad says thousands of residents of these sectors depend on tankers for drinking water. Tariq Nawaz Janjua, a resident of Sector G-7/4, says water from the supply line and water obtained from boring underground is of poor quality, unhygienic and hence unsuitable for drinking purposes. This is not just the lament of inhabitants of the main sectors of the city, but also those dwelling in the surrounding areas of Islamabad.

“Like air pollution, we have water pollution. The catchment area of water for Simly and Rawal dams [the source of supply water] is thickly populated,” he adds. “Islamabad was designed under a master plan in 1959 and, at that time, it had a very small population,” he says adding that an updated plan should be made based on the present-day dynamics of the city.

Sajid Anwar, a resident of G-10 Markaz, rues water quality as well as water availability in Sector G-10. Previously he lived in G-8/1 where the water shortage was worse. Like many residents of the capital city, Anwar uses bottled water for drinking. “I don’t know the channel through which they supply water,” he says. He also gets drinking water from a nearby filtration plant, which is often out of order. Moreover, the residents themselves bear its repair costs to ensure drinking water availability.

People in the rest of the country might think that the residents of the capital must be getting higher quality drinking water than them, but a recent survey proves otherwise. According to laboratory tests conducted by Pakistan Council of Research on Water Resources (PCRWR), most of the water samples collected from the Parliament House and Parliament Lodges areas in 2018 and parts of Islamabad in 2015 were found to be contaminated with bacteria. As per a notification issued by PCRWR on October 3, 2019, out of eight water samples collected from the Parliament House, five were unsafe, and three out of four water samples collected from Parliament Lodges were found unsafe for drinking purposes.

The report shows that the water obtained from coolers installed on the ground floor and the first floor, the overhead tank, the main filter plant in the parking area and the Assistant Director’s office CDA water dispenser was unsafe for drinking. As was the water being supplied to F-Block, G-Block and H-Block.

FAULT LINES

People fill cans with water from a makeshift hydrant | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
People fill cans with water from a makeshift hydrant | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

“Water contamination [starts] when pollutants from surrounding areas [enter] our water reservoirs and [we] don’t have a strategy to prevent the polluted item’s entry,” says Dr Aslam Tahir, former chairman PCRWR.

He stresses tree plantation and other measures, such as the development of water treatment plants at the banks of water reservoirs like Simly Dam and Rawal Dam, would prevent entry of pollution into water reservoirs. He says tree plantation is an important measure to prevent soil erosion into the dams’ water and also prevents land sliding — which reduce the water storage capacity of water reservoirs. He adds that most of the supply lines pass through waste drainage systems and these supply lines are a source of bacteria and affect drinking water.

“We can survive the potential impact of climate change by educating people to not waste water,” says Dr Tahir. “We don’t have enough resources to construct new water storages as compared to the growing population in the city.”

Dr Tahir says Islamabad has a wastewater treatment plant located in Sector I-9 with the capacity to purify about 13 million gallons of wastewater per day. “But unfortunately we are unable to make use of its full capacity. The wastewater purification plant is purifying four million gallons of wastewater a day. Earlier, over eight million gallons of wastewater were being purified daily from the surrounding areas’ drainage, but since the construction of the Metro Bus tracks, the direction of wastewater has changed.” Islamabad produces over 100 million gallons of wastewater daily, but most of this water is not treated.

Islamabad’s mayor says the low quality of drinking water is also related to broken water supply lines and the misuse use of water in the capital. He claims that these broken pipes not only diminish water quantity (wasting about 50 percent of the water) but contaminate drinking water with pollution from sewerage lines due to problems within the distribution system. The supply of contaminated water causes water-borne diseases such as malaria and cholera.

But these broken pipes are the source of livelihood for some. There are several illegal car service stations operational in different parts of Islamabad, including half a dozen in G-8 Markaz and Sector G-8/3 opposite Pims Hospital. Workers at these service stations fetch water from broken pipelines and use it to wash vehicles. Some claim the relevant officials are not only aware about the illegal business but also take monthly bribes from the workers there. A young serviceman says CDA officials themselves come to his station to get their vehicles serviced. He, however, denies paying any monthly fee to the officials. When asked if the practice is illegal, he deflects. “What else should we do? There are no job opportunities for us.”

Mayor Aziz says there is a need to amend water-related law, adding that they have started imposing a 500 rupee fine to people using drinking water for car washing at homes. Yet, poor implementation has boosted illegal business in parts of the city and allows the misuse of drinking water.

“We can survive the potential impact of climate change by educating people to not waste water,” says Dr Tahir. “We don’t have enough resources to construct new water storages as compared to the growing population in the city.”

He further suggests installation of water meters in every house to prevent misuse of water. This solution has been implemented in the capital before, reminds journalist Niazi. When the capital city was newly developed, a water meter was installed at every house to monitor water consumption, much like electricity and gas meters do. Niazi recalls CDA teams made regular visits of each sector to note meter readings in order to assess the water requirement of every sector.

A TIMELY CONVERSATION

People gather around a water tanker to fill their buckets with water in Rawalpindi | Mohammad Asim/White Star
People gather around a water tanker to fill their buckets with water in Rawalpindi | Mohammad Asim/White Star

“Erratic weather patterns and climate change have emerged as the biggest challenges that are affecting almost all the sectors of economy, particularly water resources and health,” says Nadeem Ahmed, a climate change and water-related issues expert.

In Pakistan only 36 percent people consume safe drinking water. Although, the drinking water and sanitation situation is better in Islamabad as compared to other major cities such as Karachi and Lahore, he suggests long-term measures and construction of water reservoirs are the need of the hour. The government should focus its efforts on finding sustainable solutions, he believes. “Installation of filtration plants is not a sustainable solution,” he says. “The best solution is access to drinking water through pipelines, motor pumps and closed wells.”

Bad water management is, of course, far from an Islamabad-only problem. There is a significant difference between the level of access to piped water in urban areas and rural areas. In urban areas, water coverage is 48 percent, while in rural areas it is an abysmal 13 percent. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-19, only 10 percent of the poorest groups have access to piped water supply, compared to 39 percent of the rich and 35 percent of the richest groups.

These statistics are worrying for Pakistan, which is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — that makes it obligatory for the country to provide clean water and improved sanitation systems. The country evolved its water policy in April 2018. Earlier in the year, the government had reinforced its commitment to creating an enabling environment for water and sanitation by launching the Clean Green Pakistan Movement (CGPM). The movement seeks institutional strengthening for effective service delivery and behavioural change for sustainability and continuity for the accessibility and availability of safe water and sanitation to the people of this country.

But we have a long road ahead of us. According to the SDG target, Pakistan should provide safe drinking water to 95 percent of its population and increase access to safe sanitation to 72 percent by the year 2030. That is in another 10 years. We stand no chance against this herculean task if our departments keep playing the blame game and water management in the country continues to fall prey to corruption.


Header: A woman carries a water-filled jerrycan to her home in the outskirts of Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star


The writer is an Islamabad-based investigative journalist and PhD aspirant. She tweets @shizrehman

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 8th, 2019