Only two days after the Chief Minister Sindh, sitting inside a cozy drawing room near Manchar Lake, rhetorically claimed that supply of safe drinking water to the people of Sindh is being ensured, a flabbergasted head of the judicial commission on drinking water wondered how people of Sindh are alive after drinking sewage every day.
The Supreme Court constituted one-member judicial commission in December 2016 to investigate the causes of poor sanitary conditions and the shortage of potable water in Sindh. While hearing a petition at its Karachi registry, a two-judge bench mandated the commission to find faults within the system leading to the lack of a safe drinking water supply, and sewerage and solid waste management services, and to recommend remedies.
The SC constituted this commission while hearing a constitutional petition filed by Advocate Shahab Usto seeking directives to the authorities to provide safe drinking water and a clean environment to the people. Advocate Usto belongs to once known as Paris of Sindh, Shikarpur town. He also writes in Sindhi and English newspapers. He filed this public interest petition on this much neglected aspect of governance as a gesture of his responsibility and service to the people of Sindh.
Advocate Usto, in his petition, submitted that the Sindh government had established the North Sindh Urban Services Corporation (NSUSC) in 2009-10 for delivering clean water supply, and sewerage and solid waste management services in eight districts of upper Sindh including Sukkur, New Sukkur, Rohri, Khairpur, Larkana, Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Ghotki but the same has not benefited the public at large in these districts.
He submitted that the organisation was established by obtaining a loan of 500 million dollars from the Asian Development Bank. The provincial government failed to provide safe drinking water to the public. Instead, subsoil water, which the locals of these districts had to consume, is contaminated and not fit for human consumption.
The Supreme Court observed that the issue raised was directly concerned with the provision of fundamental rights of the people living not only in the eight mentioned districts but also in lower Sindh. The apex court directed the chief justice of the Sindh High Court to nominate a sitting judge to head the commission. The commission has been tasked to complete its proceedings and submit its findings within six weeks. Subsequently, the commission, headed by Justice Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro, issued notices to the various provincial authorities and also visited several cities and towns of Sindh to witness an awful state of the water supply and sanitation system in the province.
Without any strenuous mental effort, a lay person knows two things that the right to life is inalienable and water is life. Nexus between the two is glaringly obvious and does not require much of a cerebral exercise. Pitiably, this universally recognised supreme human right is flagrantly trampled in numerous ways and with complete impunity in our country.
Denial to safe drinking water is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of asphyxiation of millions of compatriots on a daily basis. Slow poisoning of people through supplying contaminated water is ubiquitous and indiscriminate in Pakistan, not even sparing those who procure exorbitant bottled water. A slouchy regulation has allowed substandard bottled water brands to flourish and swindle citizens unimpeded. Even in the capital city of Islamabad, public taps of drinking water installed by the Capital Development Authority are found gushing polluted water. The water quality control cell of the civic agency in its report submitted to the city Mayor in August 2016 conceded that 53 per cent of the samples of water collected from various parts of the city were found unfit for human consumption.
Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR) has also been frequently releasing reports of substandard bottled water brands doing roaring business unfettered. An official of PCRWR, while speaking at a seminar in October 2015, admitted that 80 per cent of the drinking water samples across the country were found microbiologically contaminated.
Successive governments obsessed with erecting monuments of roads, flyovers, buildings and modern transportation have flippantly ignored safe drinking water as a worthwhile political priority. A service that is globally considered a fundamental right has been converted into a luxury for millions of impoverished citizens of the country.
Sindh is perhaps the most excruciatingly governed province these days, where a meritless society is thriving on cronyism leading to a complete collapse of public service structure. The commission received shocking information in Sukkur when the NSUSC senior officials informed it that out of the 29 water treatment plants installed in the city, 26 were lying out of order. The officials also admitted that the hazardous water being discharged from hospitals, high-rises, households and factories was not treated before its ultimate disposal into the river. They further admitted that the civic agency could not efficiently fulfil its responsibilities over the last seven years.
During its visit, the commission witnessed that barring few exceptions in Karachi, no filter treatment or chlorination plant is working in Sindh and people are consuming water heavily contaminated with industrial, municipal and hospital waste. Most of the river inlets, canals and distributaries are being used as sewage conduits rendering water injurious for the downstream consumers.
This is, however, not a surprising information for people of Sindh who have become immune to such pervasive callous treatment by successive governments. PCRWR conducted a technical assessment of water supply schemes in Sindh in 2010. The research report made startling revelations unmasking the poor condition of water supply schemes in Sindh.
The assessment team examined water supply schemes in 22 districts of the province. The results revealed that out of a total of 1247 water supply schemes, 718 (i.e. 58 per cent) were non-functional and every fourth non-functional scheme was permanently closed. Some of the key reason attributable to the non-functioning of the water supply schemes included paucity of funds, mechanical and electrical faults, missing/damaged links between the source and mainline of water, incomplete/inadequate pipe fittings causing leaks etc.
The rickety water supply network was also found ageing. Some 25 per cent of the schemes were 20 to 25 years old. Another 28 per cent schemes were 15 –20 years old.
Analysis of water samples revealed that 95 per cent of the total collected samples were unsafe for drinking purpose mainly because of microbiological contamination. Shockingly no water treatment was being practiced in 408 (i.e. 77 per cent) functional schemes and raw water was being supplied to communities. The analysis of water samples collected from the houses of consumers of the functional water supply schemes reveals that 98 per cent of the total collected samples were unsafe for drinking purposes.
The alarming quality of drinking water is a silent havoc in the country. According to a civil society organisation, Water Aid-Pakistan, some 16 million people are using drinking water from unsafe sources and around 39,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water.
According to a report, about seven million cases of Hepatitis B and C were registered in Pakistan during 2004. Sindh province is the most affected by this chronic disease while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces rank second and third respectively (Jang, July, 2004).
In Karachi, more than 10,000 people die every year because of renal infection caused by contaminated water (Dawn, April, 2004). UNICEF (2004) has reported that in Pakistan 20 to 40 per cent of the beds in hospitals are occupied by patients suffering from water related diseases. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis and guinea worm infection are about 80 per cent of all diseases and cause 33 per cent of deaths (Tahir et al, 1994).
Not only that the Sindh government has failed to supply potable water to consumers, it has also turned blind eyes to a widespread criminal act of releasing highly contaminated effluent into freshwater bodies. A chronic example is Phuleli canal in Hyderabad. According to a study conducted by Dr. Muhammad Saleh Soomro and Muhammad Ismail Kumbhar, around 0.53 million cubic meters of sewage per day is being discharge into the canal. The effluent is a mix of industrial effluents, municipal wastes, cattle farm wastes, slaughterhouses wastes and hospital wastes.
Disaster unleashed at Manchar Lake is a classic study of how freshwater lakes are devastated by callous policies of decision makers. Once a source of livelihood for several hundred thousand people, the lake has been degenerated into a toxic water bowl by the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) project of WAPDA.
The judicial commission’s fiat is expected soon. It is, however, difficult to speculate if the Supreme Court would be able to enforce some credible mechanisms to ensure supply of safe drinking water to millions of residents of Sindh.