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The village of Garhi Afghana in Taxila is an old settlement plagued with the problem that affects most villages in Pakistan — the lack of proper sanitation. The open nullahs that are used to drain the sewage and wastewater from each household often overflow, especially when it rains. The dirty water ends up on the roads and streets of the congested village and stagnant pools are a common sight. These provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes and give off a foul odour. For a lucky section of Garhi Afghana, however, a small-scale project funded by the UNDP’s Grass Roots Initiative Programme has cleaned up the streets by installing proper pipes for sanitation. These pipes lead to an innovative system to recycle the wastewater just outside the village.

Through this project, wastewater from a part of the village is driven into a system of constructed wetlands where the wastewater is reclaimed to quality parameters and then re-used for irrigation purposes in the nearby agricultural fields. The Fazilia Trust Pakistan, a charitable organisation that runs a school in the village, is responsible for introducing this new technology with the help of the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) who designed it.

Last year, sanitation lines were laid from the school’s latrines and around 200 households in the neighbourhood to a bioremediation treatment facility constructed nearby on the Fazilia Trust’s property. The streets in the area were also paved by the project. Earlier, the sewage mixed with rainwater would collect in the road in front of the school’s main gates. The stagnant pool of water would last for days. There was a high incidence of Hepatitis A and other water borne diseases and there were many deaths in the village.

“There is now a big difference between this part of the village and the rest. This part is so clean and we are so happy to be rid of the stagnant pools and horrible smell,” says Riaz Bibi, who lives in a house near the school that has benefited from the project. “We are very pleased with the results and have become even more conscious of keeping our streets clean. Now all the other people in the village want to be part of this system”. According to Maimoona, a local schoolteacher: “There has been a big change in the village. There is so much awareness now about the importance of keeping the roads and streets clean. All the neighbours want the project to be implemented in their areas as well”.

Unfortunately, the project was completed two months ago and there is no more funding to add more households to the system. The Fazilia Trust is now planning to apply for more funding elsewhere so that they can expand the project. “We do have the capacity to clean more wastewater,” explains Muhammad Akram Shah, the Chairperson of the Fazilia Trust whose brainchild it was to introduce bioremediation to his village. Currently the system is treating only 50,000 gallons whereas it can treat up to 100,000 gallons.

Located on around six kanals of land near the school, the bioremediation treatment system that was designed by Yusuf Riaz of the NARC, is one of the pioneering projects of its kind in Pakistan. “I had read about it but when I visited the NARC and saw it in the field myself I really liked it. The idea of reusing wastewater for irrigation was very appealing”, explains Muhammad Shah. Most of the UNDP funding was used to lay pipes, construct the water channels and build three septic tanks.

Through the pipes, the wastewater eventually ends up in the septic tanks and from there is channelled into the bioremediation wetlands where it is cleaned and detoxified through various plants like typha, papyrus, bulrush and water hyacinth. The water then goes into a filtering pool containing coal, salt and calcium. From there it is pumped into the fields nearby. When you enter the bioremediation wetlands you can see the murky water coming in from a big pipe and you can even smell the stench.

But once the water is cleaned through the system the smell disappears and at the other end a water channel delivers almost clear water into a stream that runs behind the facility. “We have plans to clean this entire stream and promote it as a beautiful place where families can come for recreation,” says Major Mumtaz, who works for the Fazilia Trust. There are many trees located around the stream and it most definitely can be turned into a picturesque setting if the rest of the stream is cleaned up.

For now, there is an organic garden near the bioremediation pools where the Trust has planted guava and lemon trees and an herbal patch where one can see lemon grass, mustard, garlic and coriander growing. The idea is to grow other seasonal vegetables as well from the clean water that comes out of the system and to showcase the benefits of using organic fertiliser. There is a compost pit nearby where fertiliser is made naturally. Many of the schoolchildren are brought on field visits so they can participate in the plantation and study the various plants and vegetables.

“We even held around three workshops in the school to explain to the villagers the importance of cleanliness and hygiene” explains Muhammad Shah. “We told them of the importance of washing hands and boiling the water for drinking”. The bioremediation system has taught the villagers about the healthy benefits of a clean environment. As Muhammad Shah puts it, “We now have a model with us and we can replicate it elsewhere”. It might not be cheap to install this system but think of all the hospital bills that could be saved if each village in the country invested in this technology, not to mention all the water that is saved by the recycling.