Beautiful mountains, lush green fields, natural springs and streams of Chakwal district have attracted people to this place for ages. It borders the districts of Rawalpindi and Attock in the north, district Jhelum in the east, district Khushab in the south and district Mianwali in the west. Majority of the locals take pride in joining the army. The interest in government service is also high. Several landlords have sold their lands and now doing jobs in the government and private sectors as well.
This area also has religious significance for Hindus who come here mostly from India to purify themselves at Katas Raj Temple. The legend is that the pond of Katas Raj was formed when Shiv shed his tears at this place after the death of his wife. Since then, water was found here and Hindu devotees take bath in it regularly. The water of this pond would also be distributed through supply lines in the areas around Katas Raj, but lately the pond has dried up.
And the reason cited for this scarcity of water is that cement factories set up in the area called Kahoon Valley, in close vicinity of Katas Raj, have been extracting water in huge quantity. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken notice of this and sought replies from the concerned departments for their alleged negligence. There are also complaints that drinking water has also become scarce and farmers are finding it hard to water their crops. The management of cement factories are also being criticised for failing to fulfill the promise of bringing water from the nearby Jhelum River and relying little on ground water.
Raja Waseem, Head of Protection Committee of Kahoon Valley, is worried due to the over extraction of water by these cement factories. “Water has almost dried up here. In the past, it could be extracted from a depth of 20 feet to 50 feet for domestic purposes but now it is found at the depth of 350 feet. The scarcity of water has affected vegetation.”
Waseem says the farmers used to water/irrigate their crops after fifteen days but now they have to irrigate their crops after one week, because there is little water under the surface. “Wheat, arugula (taramira), grains, mustard and wild olives would grow in the areas of Choa Saidan Shah and Kallar Kahar. This vegetation is in danger now.”
Waseem alleges the mushroom growth of cement factories has also polluted underground water. “Additionally, the government has no plan to relocate the locals somewhere else. The area is semi-arid and people are highly dependent on rain. The situation worsens if it does not rain for a long time.”
Khalid Mahmood, a shopkeeper in Choa Saidan Shah, recalls the stories he had heard from his father who told him that Choa Saidan Shah would produce the best roses in subcontinent. “People from all over the subcontinent would come here to buy roses. Then there were loquat gardens spread over vast areas. Trees of loquat have died due to over-extraction of water by cement factories.”
He too alleges that “on one hand these cement factories consume water in huge quantities and on the other they throw untreated waste water in the open that pollutes the land and also seep into the ground”.
The scribe, who was part of a fact-finding trip to the area facilitated by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Pakistan and WWF Pakistan, tried to contact the management of different cement factories to hear their side of the story. Irfan Sheikh, Director Bestway Cement Factory, is the only person who agreed to respond. He terms the allegations false and says the factory uses limited quantity of water in the plant.
“Cement is prepared during a dry process. During the production process, water is used to cool bearings, compressor jackets, conditioning tower, mills etc. The factory has closed circuit cooling water system. Water is recycled and used again and again after passing through a cooling tower,” according to Sheikh.
He complains some elements have unleashed a propaganda against the cement factories in the area. “The factory has installed a sewerage treatment plant too. The treated water has been stored in concrete tanks constructed inside the factory area. The water of these tanks is being used for agricultural purposes within the limits of factory.” continues Irfan Sheikh. “Locals have been given jobs in factories according to their skills. Those who failed to get these jobs are venting out their anger through this propaganda.”
These claims are, however, contested by an official from the Environment Protection Department (EPD), Punjab, who reveals on condition of anonymity that one of the cement factories has installed 30 tubewells. This, he declares, is a clear violation of the terms and conditions under which these were allowed to function. “Same is the case with other factories that are allowed to install three tubewells at the maximum. These factories are extracting excessive quantity of water. Notices have been issued to them and these factories have been fined as well.”
Naseem ur Rehman, Director EPD, shares the water use data of certain factories with TNS which is by no means small. According to this data, DG Khan Cement Company extracts water at the rate of 148 cubic meters per hour. The factory has installed 6 tubewells with 580-600 feet depth. Bestway Cement Factory Kallar Kahar extracts 88 cubic meters water per hour while it has one bore with 450 feet depth. Bestway Cement Choa Saidan Shah extracts 148 cubic meters water per hour with 9 tube wells having 350-450 feet depth. Gharibwall Cement Factory extracts 120 cubic meters water per hour with 2 tubewells near River Jhelum with 350-400 feet depth.
Rehman believes development should not be stopped and it should go side by side with protection of basic rights of people.
However, Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environment lawyer and activist, says there is no enemy of development. “If it snatches the right to life, it must be banned.”
He says that “in the Musharraf’s era five cement plants were installed in Chakwal and the worst is that now their capacity has been enhanced. Now these factories will extract more water.” He says the issue has assumed international significance as the pond at Katas Raj has dried up. “Identity is also one of the fundamental rights. Hindus will never visit the temple if their identity is snatched by drying up the water of ponds.”
Alam lauds the Chief Justice of Supreme Court for taking notice of this issue and condemns the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) for failing to play its due role. “The claim of cement factories using too little water is wrong. Huge volumes of water are required to form slurry by mixing clay with limestone etc. So there is no doubt these factories with huge production capacities extract water in abundance on a daily basis.”
Siddiqul Farooq, Chairman ETPB, agrees water level has gone down and natural water ponds have dried up because of scarcity of rains and the high numbers of water bores in every other house and the cement factories in the area. As the chairman of the ETPB, he welcomes the action taken by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and shares plans of constructing a swimming pool at Katas Raj. “We will manage water for this pool from the surrounding areas through different means and will not let it dry. Hindu pilgrims will come here and take their purifying bath without any worry.”
He disagrees with Rafay Alam and says the factories cannot be banned or shut down “because the country is dependent on cement industry”. Besides, he says, “the livelihood of too many people is attached with cements factories”.
Meanwhile, the locals demand that the cement factories should be asked to undo the damage they have done to the environment and a complete ban imposed on setting up of new cement factories in the area. What they suggest is that water should be brought from the nearby River Jhelum through pipes by these factories and used to recharge ground water as well as produce cement, This, in their opinion, is not impossible as big companies can cover such costs from their corporate social responsibility budgets.