Asha has three children, aged 10, 12, and 15. Until recently, they were constantly ill. “They had bad stomach and fever all the time,” she says. “I had to take them to the hospital with dysentery. I thought my youngest child was going to die.”
Similar to millions of other Pakistanis, Asha and her family did not have access to clean drinking water. Given the large number of diseases that thrive in contaminated water – ranging from gastroenteritis, to hepatitis, to kidney disease – this is a serious problem for the nation’s health. Asha’s fears for her youngest child were well founded: every day, 630 children in Pakistan die as a result of drinking contaminated water.
When I spoke to her, Asha was at a newly installed water filtration plant in her village, Peer Mehfooz, filling up a tanker for the day. Since it was installed six months ago, she says that the health of her family has improved significantly. Along with the other women crowded around the taps, she visits twice a day to collect water.
The plant is one of 500 being built around the province of Sindh. It serves around 300 families, or somewhere in the region of 1,500 to 2,000 people, the idea being that no one has to walk too far to get there. The plants look like something from another world: small but elaborate pieces of machinery, erected in the middle of arid surroundings and cramped housing. The small scale means that they can be built and operational very quickly and relatively cheaply. The actual building takes just 24 hours, although the process of assessment and boring for water requires several weeks of preparation before that.
The plants being built under this project use ultra-filtration (UF) technology, which unlike older methods of water purification eliminates viruses and bacteria. The recent scare over “brain-eating amoeba” alerted Karachi’s population to the dangerous things that can be carried in water. UF can eliminate such infections, and has the added benefit of not using carcinogenic chemicals such as chlorine. Other plants built under the same project use reverse osmosis (RO), a process which removes salt from water, making it drinkable. The latter is particularly useful in the desert areas of the interior of Sindh, where there is a shortage of non-salty water.
Irshad Hussain is the chief operating officer of Pak Oasis, the company which is building these water filtration points under a government contract. Over a meeting in his Karachi office, he explains the problems. “First of all, people don’t have water. Secondly, the water that is available is highly contaminated. Say I’m a poor man, working in the fields. If my son gets sick, I have to take him to the doctor. He needs hospital treatment for cholera or hepatitis; I have to borrow money. After 10 days, my child survives. But I am in debt due to the medical fees and my lost earnings. Therefore, if you provide a clean source of water, you are protecting them financially, as well as in terms of health.”
Sindh has a particular problem with water. While the devastation caused by the floods may indicate a surplus, in fact there is not enough. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has a steady flow of freshwater from the mountains, the Punjab has several rivers running through it, but Sindh has limited sources. River water is seriously contaminated by the time it reaches this southern province from its source in the mountains in the north.
It is estimated that 1.2 million people die as a result of contaminated water every year in Pakistan. And one needs only talk to people to realise the scale of the problem. In the fishing village of Memon Goth, I asked how many had suffered stomach problems. Every single one of the group of 25 men raised their hands. Just like the mothers in Peer Mehfooz, they have noticed a difference in their health since the water plant was built.
Mohammed Akram, a resident of Memon Goth, describes how they used to scoop up water from the street to drink, even if it was discoloured and fetid. “Someone had come to visit the village and asked, ‘how can you drink that?’. We developed immunity after years of drinking this contaminated water but any newcomers would become very sick.”
While the building of these water plants is an immeasurable improvement for the residents of these villages, implementing the project is not without its problems. Asha tells me that she washes her clothes and bathes in the filtered drinking water. This is not deliberate wastefulness – she simply has no other supply. This highlights a wider issue: there is not just a problem with the supply of clean water in much of Sindh, but of any water at all.
In Musharraf Colony, Lyari, a group of children tell me that before the new water sanitation plant was built, their parents had to buy water tankers to share between them. These could cost in the region of two to three thousand rupees each per month. Given the low incomes of families in these areas – frequently not more than ten thousand rupees – purchasing water is a significant drain on resources that can account for nearly a third of monthly income. Since everyone needs water, this chronic shortage allows water mafias to flourish across Karachi. If free, clean water was available across the province, it could make a difference not only to family income but to this criminal aspect.
Elsewhere, lack of education means that clean water is either being wasted or not used. “Because of lack of education, they really don’t understand the importance of this water,” says Zakir Husain, the caretaker of the UF plant in the village of Ibrahim Hydri. He says that children sometimes play in the water, and at the other extreme, some families don’t use the water from the filtration plant at all, preferring to stick with the contaminated supply they are used to. “There are big problems with dysentery and hepatitis. We are trying to educate the people to drink this water.”
This is not a problem across the board. In some areas where water filtration plants have been built, hospital admissions have dropped by 70 per cent, reflecting the prevalence of waterborne diseases. In the village of Memon Goth, the caretaker of the plant, Ghulam Haider, says that people are well aware of the importance of clean water. Next to the plant, a sign instructs people to “be careful”, a warning for children who don’t understand that this is a precious resource. There are other issues with education too, such as teaching people of the dangers of allowing water to stagnate. “There is a problem in villages with people storing water,” says Hussain. “Particularly in hot temperatures, this is risky for disease.”
Another resource in short supply in Pakistan is electricity. UF technology, which purifies water, is not overly energy intensive, and can be run on solar power. Some plants in Sindh – a province not short of sunlight – use solar technology. RO, however, requires a lot of energy, so it needs electricity to run. The wall next to the plant in Memon Goth is daubed with two timings – 8am til 10am, and 6pm til 8pm. It runs only for these two hourly sessions to accommodate load-shedding. In other plants, too, water cannot be provided for 24 hours a day due to electricity shortages, so operators work out when they can function around load-shedding times. Others, such as a large plant in Lyari that pumps water directly to people’s houses, use costly diesel generators to cover the shortfall. Long-term, this is not a sustainable solution.
However, the new technology itself is not prohibitively expensive, and provides valuable employment opportunities for Pakistan’s army of engineers. Project manager Brigadier Masood explains the importance of training and involving local people. “Initially, we had a problem with people removing the taps and things like that. We said: it’s your plant; you’ve got to take care of it. If you don’t, you won’t get water. Locals are paid to operate and guard the plants. They take responsibility.”
Despite the well-documented ethno-political tensions around Karachi’s resources, Hussain insists that this is not a problem when it comes to providing drinking water. “Everybody needs water. It is not political, it is a human right. I think everyone understands that.”
The author is a freelance journalist.