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Afghan Slums at Taxila: Terrible Environmental Conditions

Whenever we hear name of Taxila, a vital archaeological location comes to our mind. Taxila contains the remains of the Gandharan city. There was a time when this city was the heart of one of the oldest civilization of world i.e. Gandhara. Taxila is situated at the western region of the Islamabad Capital Territory- Rawalpindi and on the border of the Punjab and Khyber Pukhtoonkhua (KPK) about 30 kilometers west-north-west of Islamabad, just off the Grand Trunk Road. Strategically situated on a branch of the Silk Road, which linked China to the West, the city prospered both economically and culturally. Buddhist tombstones were raised throughout the Taxila Valley which was transformed into a religious heartland and a destination for pilgrims from as far as Central Asia and China.

At present the situation is fairly different, there is better technological progression among the residents partly due to employment opportunities in defense related important factories like “Heavy Industries Taxila” (HIT) and “Heavy Mechanical Complex” (HMC) and also partly due to higher education rates due to number of schools, colleges, vocational centers and universities like University Of Engineering And Technology (UET) and Hitech university. I live in Taxila cantonment for more than 13 years and being an environmentalist I always had an intense interest in discovering about the ground realities of this area which is highly explored for archaeological purposes but environmental degradation of this area can be found very inadequate in this area in literature. So I feel privileged for being connected with IUCN where I am provided with opportunity of doing so. I basically carried out a survey based on water availability in Taxila slums. I had read about slums in classroom and books but visiting them and observing all situations was partly interesting and partly I had different fears in mind. I was totally speechless that how much segregation is present in our society towards a renewable natural resource i.e. water, at one side we waste water without thinking of its worth and at another side we have communities that lack clean water for drinking even.

The area I felt greater interest to investigate was the Afghan slum, since they are distinct from us in many aspects like culture, language, dress code etc but only one thing binding us and them is religion Islam. The history of Afghan migrants coming to Pakistan dates back to 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan and to date we can see Afghanis present almost in all cities of Pakistan. They are under the protection and care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and provided legal status by the Government of Pakistan to remain in the country indefinitely. There are1.6 million registered Afghans according to UNHCR while 2.7 registered and illegal Afghans according to some Pakistani officials. Source of entry for these refuges is the Durand Line (2,640 kilometers) which is a long porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is said to be one of the “Dangerous borders” in world and we can see that despite the policy change for preventing Afghan migrants entering Pakistan, we could not really impede new refugees. I myself belong to tribal area, Kurram Agency (FATA) and in that region there are actually 2 main connections between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Kharlachee pass and Borki pass. It’s up to convenience of refugees, they enter via both passes.

Now I would like to shed some light on the area that I investigated, this area is approximately 15 km away from Taxila Museum near Taxila Bypass. While entering this area I wasn’t expecting 100 homes to be residing in such bad environmental conditions where we don’t find any water source, dry land, excessive dust arising out of the stone crushing taking place at Margalla hills in close vicinity to that area. As I entered the area first thing that grabbed my attention was a cement lined stream of water coming from Khanpur dam. Many kids and few youngsters were swimming in the stream. I had strange fears whether these conservative people would approve my entering their homes or not but shortly after 5 minutes many females gathered around me and they helped me in finding their problems. All of them spoke Pashto and belonged to different cities of Afghanistan like Logar, Nagarhar, Jalalabad.
As I mentioned earlier, the single source of water in that area was watercourse coming from Khanpur Dam, it makes one thing very obvious that water was present in large amount but water quality was deplorable. This water was used for household purposes like drinking and cooking as well as for sanitation purposes. Residents of slum told me that they have themselves seen baby diapers which make water foul-tasting and unpalatable to them but they belong to very low socio- economic stratum, they had no money to install filtration plants. I really felt blessed for being Pakistani where we enjoy so many rights when I asked them that why don’t they ask government to install a tube well for them, they said government does not accommodate them because they had “Afghan citizen cards”. Most of the residents said they came to Pakistan some 25years back but still they did not get Pakistani nationality. This issue gives rise to many conflicts, because what I have assumed about refugees in my area, Kurram Agency FATA, they don’t have any intension to return to Afghanistan even if conditions get favorable.
So ultimately this one water stream in which people were taking bath if used for drinking and cooking purposes, one can visualize how much awful consequences are associated with its utilization. Inhabitants of that area had many health related problems like diarrhea, stomach aches, fever etc. It was clear from faces of the children, they were all frail and pale, and their skin had pigmentation. During these days of Ramzan, females reported that they fetch drinking water immediately after Iftar as at that time there were no kids or men taking bath in stream so the water was better and bit clear. I also met 2 females who were patients of TB (tuberculosis), such patients using unclean water is clear indicator of worst health conditions prevailing in that slum. These people built mud houses and their bathrooms were in bad conditions. So these were all the factors contributing to the deterioration of health of that area.
In end the I would like to point out two major precursors of bad health conditions that are firstly the water source, which was completely contaminated and secondly dust due to stone crushing, giving rise to digestive ailments and respiratory problems respectively. As a grown up person, I highly discourage is the family size of the houses in that slums, it reached to 34 while I was interviewing one female in that slum. But of course it’s a difficult task convincing an uneducated community to reduce family sizes for having better and healthier lives because in this case they drag religion and things get complicated to explain. This experience boosted my confidence and gave me a thoroughly new insight in problems which I read many times in books, I pray to Almighty Allah to bless us all and those Afghan refugees, no matter they are not Pakistanis but they are human beings and they have a genuine right to healthy life as Nelson Mandela said:
“To deny people of their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”