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The real Watergate

Published May 01, 2012 04:49pm

In the time it takes for a person to finish drinking a glass of water, three innocent children die somewhere in the world. According to Unesco, 5,000 lives are lost each day due to preventable water and sanitation-related diseases. Supplying clean water could vacate 40 per cent of hospital beds in developing nations such as Pakistan.

Providing clean drinking water to the world’s sixth most populous city is the responsibility of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). Given the 15-million population of Karachi, which grows at six per cent every year, it’s an arduous task.

Since the media is not allowed into the premises of the KWSB water plant, I carried out an undercover survey to determine the quality of water supplied to the ever-expanding metropolis. Located at the COD Hills in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of Karachi, this plant supplies 120 million-gallons-a-day (mgd).

The chlorine dilemma

Two water treatment plants, imported from France and Germany, were included in the survey. These plants work on the principle of the pre and post chlorination, coagulation and precipitation of settled matter in sedimentation basin. The last stage involves further purification in rapid sand filter beds.

While this lengthy process is meant to provide clean water, tests conducted at independent laboratories showed starkly contrasting results, which revealed that no chlorine whatsoever was infused into the raw water. This being despite the fact, that the KWSB buy chlorine on a monthly basis. The board also openly claims to monitor the presence of chlorine in the water.

However, the absence of chlorine that I discovered was further strengthened by an official of KWSB who said that he had been working with the organisation for over 10 years and had never seen appropriate amounts of chlorine infused in the water.

Also suggesting the illegal selling of chlorine, a highly reputed official who runs a private business in the chemical industry, on condition of anonymity said, “A few years ago, I needed a chlorine cylinder, which I very easily bought from the KWSB at a reasonable amount.”

According to Farhat Naveed, a retired microbiologist of KWSB, who still serves at the organisation, chlorination tests are carried out “approximately three to four times a day.”

“We are working in collaboration with the Karachi University, Pakistan Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (PCSIR) and Agha Khan Laboratories and there are no chances of error at all,” she told Dawn.com, rejecting all claims of the absence of chlorine.

During this survey, I visited the laboratory at the COD water plant and discovered that the staff was not present on their seats or working rather they were indulging idly in chit chat. Some of the workers’ children, off from school were playing around on the premises.

Following-up on the microbiologist’s claims, I spoke to officials at PCSIR. Dr Askari, the institute’s director for planning and development confirmed that it conducts regular tests on water samples. Curiously, however, no representatives of the PCSIR are involved in the process of collecting samples from the plant.

A female medical officer was reached to comment on the consequences of this absence of chlorine in the water. She quoted, “Among the many cases of diseases that come in, at least 40-45 per cent are those of water borne diseases. Sadly, the situation is getting worse by the day, and due to a lack of awareness programs, people continue to fall prey to these diseases.”

Now it’s clean, now it’s not

In the subsequent process of clarifying, each sedimentary tank that was inspected was either not functioning or found to be in an unserviceable condition. When officials were inquired, they argued that the water coming from the Indus River is free of turbidity, hence, “diminishing the need of sedimentation in the tank.”

A non-functional sedimentation tank. –Photo by author

With regard to this claim, a senior professor, currently working in collaboration with KWSB said, “The water is not only highly turbid but also contains high amounts of heavy metals which are hazardous for health and KWSB is fully aware of it.”

During the survey I found that only a few sub-plants were functional, especially in the last stage of the filtration process. The granular beds of the filtration plant (which separate the clean water from the impurities) were in dilapidated condition. Shockingly, there was a hole on the side of the bed, the water was forced to gush through it without being cleaned.

This ‘treated water’ is then distributed to Karachi.

The water is passed through only from one side where no sand bed is present. –Photo by author

To verify the results of the observation, samples of raw water from the filtration plants and storage tanks were collected and checked at an independent laboratory.

The results depicted the true picture: While chlorine (which destroys disease-causing organisms in water) was infused at the initial stage, it was absent at the last stage, making the water harmful for health and leaving the consumers vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Microbiological tests endorsed these findings.

‘A neglected body’

Interestingly, KWSB claims that it carries out tests based on random water sampling for bacteriological analysis’ at the COD Hills plant, as well as counter checking the samples through tests.

When probed about the standard of the water being cleaned and then distributed by the KWSB, officials denied being at fault. “The water is clean and pure until it leaves our premises (COD plant). It becomes unclean during distribution through the water lines, which are not looked after.”

However, according to the board’s website, it adopts remedial measures by expositing the line to locate the cause of any reported contamination in water.

Officials at the KWSB were quick to blame the government for a lack of interest in its grievances. According to one official, only 16 per cent of the city’s population pay their water bills.

“We cannot improve our technology and efficiency under such circumstances,” an official complained, claiming that if the board were provided the same resources as some of the other bodies, like the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC), it could improve the condition of the water plants and lines. Load-shedding, a problem plaguing the entire country is also one of the reasons for the board’s inefficiency, according to one of its chief engineer.

PCSIR’s Deputy Managing Director Ali Muhammad Palijo, when contacted, favoured KWSB’s stance.

“The water (received from Indus River) contains a small amount of turbidity, but the KWSB still infuses chlorine to ensure purity in the water provided to Karachi’s inhabitants,” he said.

Reiterating the board’s protest on lack of funding, he said: “The KWSB board doesn’t have enough funds, which affects the overall results. Eventually, at some stage, raw water does mingle into the treated water.”

Similarly, while officials at the board were reluctant to take the blame for the quality of water being distributed, they did admit that it wasn’t meeting health standards.

I was rather amused to learn from officials at the site that when high-ranking government officials visit the plant’s premises, they are served branded bottles of mineral water.

Officials offered me a visit to their ‘LED’ plant, assuring me that was in a much better condition, to which I inquired: “What is the fault of the people receiving water from the COD plant?” Befitting my expectations, they just smiled and said they don’t have any choice.

A PHD professor who is also conducting a research on the water quality of KWSB stated that he was only offered a visit to the LED plant, the COD water plant was not mentioned.

Problem faced by the journalist

Initially, I was helped by a person directly involved with KWSB, I promised to not disclose his identity through out the investigation, and I stand by my promise.

But somehow my source was disclosed by KWSB officials, after which he started pressurising me stop the survey, and subsequently the article. When I declined to do so, I started receiving threats from him.

I discovered from my source that the KWSB personnel, who had officially given me their statements, were threatening my source of severe consequences in the case that this article was published.

My source additionally said that after I met with the KWSB’s officials, chlorine was now being properly infused to delude the public and counter my claim.

KWSB officials are accusing me of manipulating the results, however, I’d be more convinced of their attempts were they not approaching my friends and calling me continuously to stop the article.

I also discovered that a political party’s interest is vested in the organisation which is hindering the efficiency of the organisation and increasing corruption in it.

During this ordeal, I was perhaps most disappointed when my own friend (also a lecturer in a reputed university) called me and requested that I stop writing on this. He simply said: “Do you really think the status quo will change by what you’re doing? Nothing will change!”

I have only stated the above so, that the readers of this article realise the odds against the media in trying to render services to the public. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. And it is your awareness that will improve the chances of the KWSB working efficiently. It is your awareness that will challenge the status quo.


The writer is an Assistant Multimedia Producer at Dawn.com