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How safe is the water we drink? By Sumera S. Naqvi


Studies and clinical investigation of water samples taken from almost all over Karachi prove that nearly 100 per cent of water is contaminated. It contains e.coli –– bacterium found in the faeces –– not to mention the industrial, agrochemical, and even radiological pollution, writes Sumera S. Naqvi

The recent rainfall played havoc with the lives of the people living in Karachi and its surroundings, highlighting the issue of contaminated water and its consumption. Everyday, a multitude of people are reported to either having contracted waterborne diseases or dying of contaminated water. The affluent can afford costly alternatives to contaminated water such as bottled water or filters. However, it is the poor who have to face the price.

According to the Population Reports by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Water, ‘poor people living in areas without any sanitation or hygiene education spend six times more on medical care than people who live in areas with access to sanitation and who have a basic knowledge of household hygiene’.

This does not mean that those who have a choice are not vulnerable to waterborne diseases. “In developing countries like Pakistan, of the annual burden of diseases in the population, almost more than 70 per cent are infectious diseases,” says Dr Khurshid Hashmi, a microbiologist and the president of the Infection Control Society.

According to estimates by the World Health Organisation, nearly 60 per cent of the diseases are ‘infectious waterborne diseases such as typhoid, polio and Hepatitis A and B. Moreover, lack of regular access to water costs household income, as a family needs to assign more time to obtain water for daily usage’.

Studies and clinical investigation of water samples taken from almost all the towns of Karachi prove that nearly 100 per cent of water is contaminated. It contains e.coli –– bacterium found in the faeces –– not to mention the industrial, agrochemical, and even radiological pollution. The Indus carries such pollution almost from its source – Kashmir and then through Punjab – and tails it down to the Arabian Sea via Karachi. Though the Lyari and Malir rivers are not among the main water sources of Karachi, according to IRIN Asia, there are around a dozen illegal hydrants along the Lyari river which supply water through tankers to areas experiencing water shortage, apart from the five official hydrants allowed by the KWSB.

Sources in the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) – the organisation responsible for the distribution of water to bulk and retail consumers in Karachi –– say that water supply is sufficient to satiate the population –– 629 million gallons daily (mgd) to an estimated demand of water of 648 mgd. The upcoming K-4 project will, however, require a doubled water allocation from 1200 cusecs till the year 2025 for a population that is increasing at a rate of almost 3.5 per cent.

“We have requested the federal government for this allocation and we will get it soon,” says Iftikhar Haider, the Managing Director of KWSB. Beside the filtration plants at the main water sources, it was reported in the media last year that a total of 32 filtration plants have been installed in Karachi. But has this produced any effective results and will it resolve Karachi’s menace of water contamination and shortage?

The most disturbing feature of water contamination in Karachi is the debilitated distribution system that has only been maintained through patchwork over the years. The KWSB –– considered a mere line department or a service provider – has not spent enough on the operation and maintenance (O&M) of pipelines. They were mended only on a one-off basis at the lower level by the valve men while policies were made at the higher cadre only on paper. Many never even saw the light of day. Lack of foresight and short-term solutions brought the system down due to corruption and ineptness. “Though some changes were genuinely proposed, they gave in to the personal whims of some people,” says the serving managing director of KWSB.

Today the web of water and sewerage lines – laid down during 1967 to 1972 – running side by side all over the city are in shambles. As innumerable illegal connections have been made into the pipelines, the worn out lines are now pouring into each other, causing severe water pollution.

“These water connections have been made by inserting rubbers from rubber sandals, into the seals of the connection pipes which have worn out,” says a reliable source. Such shoddy makeshift arrangements –– manipulated to benefit the politicians in different areas over the years to keep their vote banks intact –– have incapacitated the water supply. In many areas, people resort to using suction pumps which, in case of low water pressure or no water at all, start building up air in them and suck the bulging sewage in.

According to a survey carried out by World Bank, the average number of hours of water supply to households in Karachi is roughly four hours. The intermittent supply of water results in the development of air vacuums in the pipelines which suck in the effluent from the overflowing or choked sewage lines.

There are no maps to indicate the placement of each line. “Most of the water mains are inside the nullahs and drainage channels around six to 24 inches in diametre,” says Perveen Rahman, Director, Research and Training Institute, Orangi Pilot Project. “In the absence of proper mapping mechanism, faults cannot be detected properly.”

In case of a complaint, the retired valve men are called to find the water lines in a particular area. “Once a valve man was sought for this purpose and it was found that he had died, which landed us in a fix,” says a KWSB source. Leakages account for around 40 per cent of water losses, along with severe water pollution.

Moreover, water meters are not installed in all parts of the city to gauge water usage and bill consumers accordingly; this also causes KWSB losses in finances.

Urban planners have accused the KWSB of hiring expensive foreign consultants over the years to help the organisation and provide solutions that have no sync with local realities. Their ad hoc solutions have no sustainability and thus most go unimplemented.

Residents of some areas in Karachi accuse the government of diverting their water allocation to areas out of their town jurisdiction after the Local Government Ordinance of 2001. In Lyari, there are three pumping stations at Lea market, Agra Taj and the Baghdadi stations supplying hardly 16 to 18 mgd water to an estimated 10 to 12 million people.

“The water coming in from Lea market pumping station has been diverted to Saddar while the Agra Taj station is also supplying water to Machhar Colony,” says Abdul Rahim Moosvi, President Lyari Community Development Project. “This has resulted in water shortage in households that mostly consist of eight to 10 people.” People therefore resort to illegal water connections.

Dr Hashmi gives an example of the various sources of contamination in Karachi with almost 40 to 50 per cent of the population living in informal settlements. “Along the Kaneez Fatima Road, off Abul Ispahani Road, one can see water oozing out of the potholes in the middle of the road. These points have become areas where people are seen bathing, washing clothes and even relieving themselves on the main water line. If the water pressure is high, contamination may not enter the water line but when the pressure is low, it flows into the water line, polluting water totally.”

Options like bottled water and filters are a thriving industry but they cannot provide lasting solutions to an increasing population. An increase in the consumption of these products has led to the quality of water being compromised. According to a news report, there are around 150 brands of bottled water deemed unfit for drinking.

Laboratory tests proved many of the brands were fake, as strange odour, lack of minerals and freshness were reported from them. Filter companies on the other hand, are installing sophisticated apparatus or silver technology, but they are expensive products and need meticulous cleaning. “The filters should be cleaned way before the due date,” says Dr Hashmi, “otherwise they can become disease breeding areas themselves.”

Though boiling water to 80 degrees centigrade and washing hands regularly seem to be the only short-term but lasting solutions endorsed by the medical community, it is crucial for the KWSB to take stock of the situation and construct an effective strategy to deal with water contamination and shortage.

Firstly, it should try to make all the stakeholders accountable for sustainable tasks and their outcomes. The civil society and committed leaders of the communities have an important role to play in this regard. A Civil Society Liasion Cell has been initiated by the KWSB, but “it’s still on paper”, says Perveen Rahman.

Secondly, the filtration plants need to be desilted regularly and new research should be done to find cost effective methods for local communities to purify and chlorinate water.

Thirdly, the public research institutions should be encouraged, through private-public partnerships, to investigate new methods of purifying water, for which funding should be allocated as it is in the interest of the people. As the population increases, the KWSB should work on lines of becoming the bulk supplier to zones or towns and retail consumers should be benefited by towns or tehsils for distribution and filtration.

If the goblet of life is now filled with contaminated water, shouldn’t we wake up to this lethal weapon as soon as possible? It’s at our doorstep.