Judges put scandal of Pakistan’s toxic water under microscope

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A Pakistan man pushes a cart carrying water in jerry cans in a slum area of Karachi on October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP / Rizwan Tabassum

Where Pakistan’s elected government has failed to check the alarming contamination of drinking water and exposure of millions to pollution-related disease, it has fallen to the country’s Supreme Court to step in.

The apex court this week summoned Murad Ali Shah, the chief minister of Sindh, to express deep concern over his government’s indifference to water pollution in the province, including human refuse being found in channels supplying drinking water.

During proceedings, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nasir commented: “This is a matter of people’s lives which cannot be ignored. As the government failed to fulfill its responsibility, the judiciary has to intervene.”

Advocate Shahab Usto, who was among the petitioners, told Asia Times that 29 districts in Sindh alone were affected by contaminated water, adding that “80% of water in Karachi, 85% in Hyderabad, 88% in Larkana and 78% in Shikarpur is polluted, containing highly toxic ingredients which are injurious to public health.”

He said that half of all educational institutions in Sindh were devoid of potable water facilities, while the rest are supplied with unfiltered, untreated water. He revealed that waste from hospitals, factories, and municipal buildings in the province is commonly disposed of in water sources.

Last year, the Pakistan Senate was told that more than 80% Pakistanis had no option but to drink contaminated water. The findings were based on a study by the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) which collected water samples from 2,807 villages in 24 districts across the country and found that 82% of water was polluted with bacteria, toxic metals, turbidity, total dissolved solids, nitrates, and fluoride. In all, 84% of the water supply was found to be not fit for consumption.

“This is a matter of people’s lives which cannot be ignored. As the government failed to fulfill its responsibility, the judiciary has to intervene”

The PCRWR study revealed that microbiological contamination was one of the leading causes of cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid, while arsenic pollution in water causes various types of diabetes, hypertension, birth defects, multiple types of cancer, as well as skin, kidney, heart and vascular diseases.

The ministry told the upper house that 24 state-of- the-art water testing laboratories has been set up around the country at a cost of Rs.1.2 billion (US$11.338 million) and other measures had been taken, including the introduction of microbiological testing kits, low-cost arsenic detection kits and the distribution of chlorination and disinfection tablets.

The labs, which are supposed to identify contamination in drinking water, remain ineffectual in improving the quality of potable water, however. Staff members’ salaries are not paid regularly – which has resulted in a drain of staff with relevant qualifications, including PhDs, who have moved on to greener pastures.

In August this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the Pakistani authorities that 60 million people in the country were exposed to arsenic contamination, with Punjab and Sindh being the highest-risk areas. Arsenic levels in those provinces was at between 70 and 100 micrograms per liter, as against the WHO’s “safe level” of 10 micrograms. The WHO report noted that “higher concentrations of arsenic in drinking water have hazardous effects on the human body,” including causing cardiovascular diseases, skin cancers, skin lesions and neuro-developmental delays.

Any hopes that the WHO’s findings might motivate policymakers in Pakistan to take steps to remedy the situation have proved unfounded.  The political class has all but laughed off the WHO report, preferring to take a head-in-the-sand approach that has only resulted in further deterioration of supplies. In Punjab and Sindh in particular, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), in Punjab, and the Pakistan People’s Party, in Sindh, have been in power for decades. The PML (N) stronghold of Lahore, and the Bhutto family’s hometown, Larkana, each have water contamination levels of over 88%. The political establishment prefers to remain in deep slumber, however.

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