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Our water woes

A comprehensive national water policy and more dams are imperative for water security

Our water woes

A hunched man, carrying an empty pail of water, is waiting wistfully for the water tanker to arrive. His son is getting late for college but there is no water to prepare breakfast or even drink. In Thar, a worn out girl empties the last pail of water from the well. A mother welcomes her daughter home, after a long tiring day at work, saying “subah say paani nahi araha, aaj khana bahir say lay aao”.

This is the everyday condition of an average man in Pakistan. Water has become one of the most sought after commodity.

Water is essential to all life on earth and its pollution is having a devastating effect on our lives. Today, water pollution is the leading worldwide cause of deaths and diseases. The fact that it consumes the lives of 14,000 people daily proves that this concern deserves immediate attention. In Pakistan, water pollution is one of the major threats to human life. Drinking water quality is poorly managed and monitored which results in the spread of water-borne diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery and Guinea worm disease. Due to all of this, it is no shocker that Pakistan ranks at number 80 among 122 nations regarding drinking water quality.

Decisions on the type and degree of treatment and control of wastes, and the disposal and use of adequately treated wastewater, must be based on all the technical factors of each drainage basin, in order to prevent any further contamination.

Many drinking water sources, both surface and groundwater, are contaminated with coliforms, toxic metals and pesticides throughout the country. Various drinking water quality parameters set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are frequently violated. Human activities like improper disposal of municipal and industrial effluents and indiscriminate applications of agrochemicals in agriculture are the main factors contributing to the deterioration of water quality. Microbial and chemical pollutants are the main factors responsible exclusively or in combination for various public health problems. Where is our national water policy? Why don’t our governments build more dams? Why is India violating the Indus Water Treaty? There are so many questions to be asked but yet we receive no answer.

Pakistan barely contains any proper water filtration plants. Harmful chemicals are not removed from our water. Factors leading to poor water quality include a wide range of chemicals, pathogens and physical changes such as increased temperature and discolouration. Many of the substances such as calcium, sodium, manganese and iron are naturally occurring and usually do not pose a threat to water quality as they are below a certain level but the problem arises when the concentration of such substances exceeds the normal value due to human activities. This is a key factor in deciding which substance is a component of water and which is a contaminant.

High concentrations of such substances are damaging human health as well as aquatic flora and fauna which results in the disruption of an ecosystem. The Indus river blind dolphin thrives in very few water bodies and due to water pollution its population has decreased to such an extent that if extensive breeding programmes are not commenced shortly this treasure will be lost forever. Our ministries barely pay attention to this crucial issue. We only have two large dams which have no capacity considering the fact of Pakistan’s overpopulated lands and silt. Our government has still not set up silt traps which prevent silt from entering the dams. Our forests are being cut down in an already water deficient country. Our rivers have been polluted to the limit that the species that live within are going extinct.

The water condition of the country has gotten so worse that there is instability among different provinces as well. The Kalabagh dam plan has not been under any further discussions recently as the provinces do not let it progress in fear of the other province’s dominance on the water control. This can only be solved when there are benefits for all four provinces and not only for the esteemed ones.

When the Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960 it gave India control over three rivers: Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. Pakistan was to have the water of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. Soon after this treaty, India had built dams on two of the three rivers given to Pakistan even though it had dams on the rivers given to it as well. Pakistan except taking this issue to the United Nations remained silent. We proved ourselves to be weak and to this day India controls our waters.

Left with the little water we have, Pakistan also faces eutrophication, which is due to the inflow of chemical fertilisers consisting of phosphates and nitrates. These compounds encourage the growth of algae on the water surface causing the formation of an algae bloom which blocks sunlight causing the death of aquatic plants. The bigger problem arises when bacteria acts on the plants during the process of decomposition leading to a lack of oxygen in the water. Both aquatic plants and animals require oxygen but as it is not available, they start to die resulting in the pollution of water. Oxygen-depleting substances may be natural materials such as plant matter (e.g. leaves and grass) as well as man-made chemicals. Other natural and anthropogenic substances may cause turbidity (cloudiness) which blocks light and disrupts plant growth, and eventually causes their death.

The usage of fertilizers and pesticides should be carefully checked as it will reduce the run-off of chemicals into nearby water sources. The government should enforce strict laws requiring factories to properly treat their waste before dumping and under no circumstances should the waste be dumped in water. Proper water filtration plants should be introduced and efforts should be made to reclaim the already polluted water.

Decisions on the type and degree of treatment and control of wastes, and the disposal and use of adequately treated wastewater, must be based on all the technical factors of each drainage basin, in order to prevent any further contamination. There have been a lot of oil spillages near Karachi. These spillages caused many respiratory problems for people, local fisherman were put out of business and there was a threat of the crude oil spreading so far that it reached neighbouring countries. If ships are constructed properly and adequate preventive measures are taken these accidents could be reduced to zero.

Malik Muhammad Hamza Khan

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