Potable waterborne diseases in Pakistan have assumed endemic proportions without raising alarm bells. Children in infancy and mothers in childcare are most susceptible to these silent and unseen killers. Cattle that feed on fodder fed by contaminated water pass them to the food chain. Unhygienic water accounts for a wide range of stomach diseases, blood disorders and liver ailments that ultimately become cancerous. Waterborne micro-organisms and toxic heavy metals also cause deformity of bones, skin lesions and mental disorders. Health issues from Central Punjab to lower Sindh reflect tell-tale signs of pollution and neglect that plagues generations. People are forced to consume poison due to lack of choice and public awareness while murderers run scot free.

Rivers Ravi and Sutlej in Pakistan account for numerous untreated sewage drains entering Pakistan from India at Hudiara Lahore, Sulaimanki and Harunabad with loads of chemicals, dead carcasses, heavy metals and pathological organisms. Pakistan has never taken up the issue; rather we promote the use of this water for agriculture.  Contaminants like arsenic, lead and carcinogens have entered the food chain. Cattle feeding on fodder eat parasites that raise arsenic and nitrite levels in meat and milk. Nitrite consumption causes Blue Baby Syndrome and accounts for high mortality rates in children, liver ailments and blood cancer. Arsenic results in skin lesions, bone deformities, blindness and cancer.

In cities, the problem is aggravated by ageing and neglected water pipelines passing through sewage drains, leakages, corrosion, vacuums, unauthorized connections and contamination of sub surface water with fertilisers, pathogens and faecal material due to poor construction of septic tanks. Water through distribution systems collects contamination as it passes to users.

Water treatment plants at municipal levels are either non-existent or deficient in process engineering. Multimedia and carbon filters become hotbeds of bacterial and viral activity. Ultra violet tubes used for disinfection are substandard. Backwash and sterilisation processes crucial for the hygiene of these plants are not followed. Research indicates that most water filtration plants in municipalities and cantonments are inefficient, lacking fail safe redundancy. By the time the water reaches users, it collects contaminations like bacteria, micro-organisms and lead. Surveys by Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) indicate that water quality of these plants is worse than the raw water they process.

In addition, rather than rivers and canals, the major reliance for potable water is on sub surface water. Unchecked sinking of tube wells and the absence of recharging regulations has resulted in  the permeation of arsenic and salting of the aquifers. Presence of harmful elements/compounds like arsenic and fluoride in the entire central and southern Punjab including cities like Lahore, Kasur, Khanewal, Multan, Bahwalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Sukker, Nawab Shah and Thar have never been addressed. There are villages in Sindh where entire populations are resigned to acute bone deformities and blindness due to unprecedented levels of arsenic. Nitrates and nitrites along with E-coli in KPK, Rawalpindi/Islamabad and many other areas of Pakistan account for health hazards leading to kidney failure. Spread of kidney centres in the vicinity of Nullah Leh, Korang and Soan Rivers in Rawalpindi reflect the unchecked use of water pumped from close to these sewage drains and associated nitrification and denitrification. Contrary to popular belief, most spring waters traveling through fissures in rocks are high in bacterial activity. Rain water is seldom harvested.

Disposal of untreated sewage and industrial waste into rivers and lakes is also affecting the flora and fauna of the area. Karachi is the biggest consumer of river water from Indus and Hub. Usually shortage of funds and supplies do not permit chlorination. Use of onsite chlorine generators through saline water is non-existent.  

PCRWR has mapped the entire potable water profiles of Pakistan at great expense. However, their findings and research gets lost in the bureaucratic ladder at the mercy of non-technical government servants and ministers. The first initiative to resolve these issues was taken by the ministry of environment in 2001 under the Clean Drinking Water Project that was later expanded to Clean Drinking Water for All. The project met its end when the entire management was taken away from the Environmental Protection Agency and handed to the ministry of industries led by a young and zealot minister known for assuming controls but never accomplishing the assigned missions. Some of the best water treatment companies of the world were rejected on non-scientific grounds. By 2007, the project was lost to procedural inaction and non-technical execution. None of the companies short listed for the tasks had the capabilities to execute arsenic, fluoride and nitrite removal technologies. In 2008, the project was taken away from the ministry of industries and handed over to the ministry of special initiatives resulting in more flaws and delays. Plants installed under these schemes lie abandoned or in poor maintenance. Pakistan’s health indices continue to plummet amongst the lowest in the world and still, there is no accountability.

GEH Wasserchemie of Germany recently organised an international workshop on the removal of arsenic from drinking water. This company was formed by university researchers cognisant of the health issues of South Asia related to arsenic in drinking water. The company is the sole inventor and world leader of adsorption arsenic removal technologies that are economical and environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, USA with moderate arsenic concerns is their biggest market followed by European Union and South Korea. Pakistan, amongst the world’s highest arsenic contamination levels accounts for a negligible market. During the seminar, it was embarrassing to note that the Government of Pakistan instead of addressing arsenic issues had raised the permissible safe levels from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to 50 ppb (allowed as an exception by World Health Organisation for under developed and poor countries). Even more, it is tantamount to murder in a country that annually loses Rs 4.38 trillion to corruption, that aspires to be a member of the nuclear suppliers group and runs accordion buses (metro) that ply on narrow streets with abandon.

The case of mismanagement of the clean drinking water project will never be taken up by the opposition in the parliament. It is time that the Supreme Court of Pakistan takes suo moto notice of this mismanagement and secures the future of generations in Pakistan.

n    The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.