June 21 - 27, 2004

The Senate Chairman on 29th May urged to find out cost-effective ways for water treatment so that common man could benefit from it. He was reportedly expressing these views while speaking at the inaugural session of international scientific symposium on "Safe Household Water Prevents Diseases, Saves Lives." The symposium was organized by Water Council a consortium of international and local water care organizations at Karachi. He underlined the need to educate and activate medical professionals, teachers, journalists, volunteers of relief agencies and other segments of society to take the mission forward and make such process sustainable. The PMA Secretary General, at this occasion, said that Pakistan had the fourth highest rate of deaths of children under five-years of age in the world, caused mostly by water-borne diseases. Water-related disease diarrhoea claimed the lives of some 250,000 Pakistani children every year, he added. Stressing the effectiveness of efforts to create awareness about the safe and clean water he felt that simple and low-cost interventions at the household and community level were capable of dramatically improving the microbial quality of household stored water and reducing the associated risks of diarrhoea.

The United Nations Disaster Management Team in Pakistan met at Islamabad on 31st May and discussed the issue of water contamination and subsequent outbreak of gastroenteritis disease and skin complaints reported in Hyderabad over the past few days.

As reported in a section of the press, the meeting was presided over by the UN Resident Coordinator and was attended by officials of the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP, FAO, national and international NGOs and the Economic Affairs Division. Both UNICEF and WHO shared their analysis and assessment of the microbiological and bacterial contamination prevalent in the city's water. The team will shortly review the extent of emergency relief assistance the UN can make available in order to tackle the crisis. The UN would reportedly prepare a detailed technical review on the causes, effects and potential remedies to the problem within the next two weeks and the review will include proposals for long-term remedial measures within the water supply systems of Hyderabad and adjoining areas. Also, the UN will offer advice on how best to build the capacity of the water treatment plants and sewerage systems. The key findings of the review would be shared with the federal and provincial governments.

The deliberations at the seminar mentioned above and the efforts of different UN institutions are timely in the backdrop of sufferings of the people, of whom hundreds were hospitalized with water-borne ailments such as gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and eye infections. Many people in Hyderabad and the down-stream areas, already facing drinking water shortage, were exposed to the contaminated water released into River Indus from Manchhar Lake via Aral Wah towards middle of May 2004. According to newspaper reports, there has been loss of a number of precious lives due to diseases believed to have been caused by contaminated water. Apprehensions are that some of the toxic water may have also found its way into Keenjhar Lake that supplies water to Karachi. The government has instituted an enquiry into the matter. The tragedy at Hyderabad has brought to attention a critical area which appeared to have largely been neglected in the past. However, it is imperative that the problems are understood in proper perspective and adequate remedial measures are taken on emergent basis.

Quality of water is important for maintaining good health of human beings and animals; for growth of flora and faunae and the prospering of fishing, agriculture and industry.

Productivity of human beings is increased due to better health, less absenteeism and less frequent illnesses that more often are attributed to contaminated water. On top of that the people are obliged to pay for medical expenses and the purchase of mineral water sometime to save the patients. The rivers flow from the north to the Arabian Sea. If river water is contaminated in and around Peshawar due to any reason, chances are it may maintain some of the contamination by the time it reaches Sindh. The water quality might further degrade if more pollutants such as toxic industrial effluents, municipal waste, sewage, etc seep in on the way to the Arabian Sea.

Lack of safe drinking water is adding to the poverty of the masses. One view is that Pakistan is unlikely to progress at a fast rate unless people all over the country are provided with safe drinking water. The government is urged to examine the full spectrum of water issues and put in place integrated policies and action framework, at federal, provincial and city government level, for ensuring supply of safe drinking water to the people of all areas in the country. This could be possible if water sources are protected from contamination. Water that becomes available from rivers, springs, snow, rains and from sub-soil pumping has to be protected locally from contamination, particularly from toxic industrial effluents, sewerage, municipal waste, etc everywhere in the country.

Protection of drinking water sources from contamination is easier said than done. Water contamination can be from minerals such as arsenic present underground or through man-made pollutants such as untreated industrial effluent or sewerage discharged into the water body. Pesticides used on agricultural crops or fruits could also find their way to contaminate water. Saline water in the saline-water channels is also one major contaminant. Some of these saline water courses are possibly used to release industrial effluents or untreated sewage. If at any stage or due to any reason such water is mixed with water flowing in the rivers, it would contaminate that water as well. Water from these very rivers or water bodies is drawn by the water utilities for eventual distribution to the people for drinking purposes.

Water utilities in the cities and towns usually treat raw water before it is supplied to the people for drinking purposes. However, it is unlikely that the water utilities with existing treatment facilities could obtain safe drinkable water by treating toxic saline water such as was recently released from Manchhar Lake. Moreover, boiling of such water might also not make it safe for drinking purposes. Further, contamination could also take place in the treated water through leakage of sewage or industrial effluent into water supply lines that lay in the streets. In view of the above, supply of safe drinking water to the people in adequate quantities is more complex. It could only be tackled by the government and the people through concerted efforts.

The city people are in a better position to take precautions against supply of contaminated water as compared to the people living in rural areas. The city people can immediately protest to the government for such contamination and in the meantime, at least some of them, can protect themselves from diseases by drinking mineral/bottled water. In case someone falls ill, he can be rushed to the hospitals for treatment. The rural people as well as the animals there are dependant in most cases on raw water flowing in the river or the canals. The rural people are often provided water by the government through canals largely for agriculture purposes. Such water is used by the villagers for drinking purposes as well. Most villages sink water pumps near the banks of the canals to draw drinking water. As more people live in the rural areas, the contaminated water can play havoc with their lives as well the lives of their animals. Health facilities in the rural areas are grossly insufficient and the patients might suffer badly even if brought to the cities for treatment.

Most people living in the rural areas cannot afford to buy mineral water to protect them or their family from harmful effects of contaminated water. Moreover, mineral water sold in the market is not always safe to drink. According to newspaper reports, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) and the Ministry of Science and Technology has completed monitoring of mineral water brands and found that 12 out of 21 brands are unfit for human consumption due to bacterial or chemical contamination or both. The analysis revealed that there are significant variations in the actual and labeled values of the tested brands in respect of different water quality parameters.

The supply of contaminated water to the consumers at Hyderabad and the down stream areas, though an isolated incident, might be considered by the authorities as a wake up call. The incidence is serious and if proper remedial measures are not adopted now, there is likelihood of repetition of such happening either at Hyderabad or in other places like Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar or Rawalpindi and Islamabad. As the release of contaminated water has the potential to ruin the health and welfare of a large number of people, their animals, agriculture and industry, the matter should be put at rest only after confirmation that based on a proper study proper arrangements are in place to stop any such eventuality in future. This might require a thorough study/physical survey of the existing water courses and water bodies and the arrangements in place at present for regulating clean water supply.

The quality of water in various water bodies including dams, rivers, canals, barrages might be studied by a Committee of experts drawn from different concerned authorities and departments in each province. The government might consider seeking help and assistance from the international donor agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF, WHO in this endeavour. The federal government might coordinate the effort and help in the funding of the study as well as the grants and loans for putting up water treatment/desalination plants. Main areas for the study might include: (i) Quality of water flowing/present in each water body as compared to the standards prescribed by World Health Organization (WHO) and adopted by Pakistan; (ii) Susceptibility of up-stream sources of water for contamination through discharge of untreated/treated effluents and municipal discharges before water flows into the water body; (iii) Discharge of untreated/treated effluents and municipal waste directly into the water body; (iv) Type and adequacy of water treatment measures adopted by the Water Utilities drawing water from the water body before treating it for supplying to the people for drinking purposes; (v) Quality of the treated water being supplied to the people; and local contamination of water within cities due to leakage of sewerage lines and mixing of the water being supplied through under-ground water supply lines; (vi) Study and document the saline water channels and the water bodies in which these are emptied; (vii) Examine the possibility of turning saline water into raw water used for agriculture through cost effective measures; and (viii) Study the possibility of building water desalination plants for treating such saline water to make it fit for industrial use or use as drinking water.

The findings of the Committees' reports and the UN report on contaminated mentioned earlier should largely form the basis for the remedial measures to be adopted at different levels of the government, aimed at supplying pure potable water to the people. In addition, the following measures might also be considered to strengthen the framework for supply of safe drinking water on sustained basis.

1. UNICEF and UNDP have jointly signed a $428,000 project entitled Water, Environment and Sanitation in Sindh and Punjab, to provide access to, and utilization of, safe water supply, improved sanitation and natural resources management. The project was formally launched recently in Islamabad and UNICEF and UNDP/Small Grants Programme (SGP) plan to work jointly with the Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST) and local governments on water, environment and sanitation programme. The project will aim at community mobilization for reducing water contamination through rational use of chemicals, reduced contamination and mitigation to remove arsenic from water supply in selected schools in Punjab and Sindh Provinces. A selected number of teachers, water system operators, and social mobilisers will be trained on hygiene knowledge, operation and maintenance of water supply systems and treatment plants, sanitation and safe water supply. The joint programme will benefit at least 250,000 people from Sindh and Punjab in 2004. It is suggested that the scope of the project to be expanded to include other areas of the country.

2. Contaminated water from Manchhar Lake was reportedly released by the irrigation department into the Indus River as part of an annual procedure to increase the flow in the river during the summer. The arrangements as to the quality and quantity of water might be reviewed for avoiding situation as at Hyderabad in future.

3. The ecological damage at Manchhar Lake might be assessed and remedial actions taken to replace the toxic saline water with fresh water during the coming rainy season. Similar rehabilitation action might be taken for other water bodies in Sindh or other areas of the country.

4. The government authorities might enforce the applicable laws and regulations more diligently and take action against the water pollutants, who release saline water, industrial effluents, municipal waste, sewage or contaminated water into water bodies or into rivers and canals.

5. Water utilities all over the country, for treatment and distribution of drinking water to the people, might enter into contractual arrangements with the respective irrigation authorities for supplying raw water of minimum acceptable quality standards. The government authorities to be also obligated to maintain safe quality of water stored in the dams/barrages/lakes for release in the rivers/canals or for supply to water utilities or for agriculture purposes.

6. Saline water presently flowing in Right Bank Outfall is discharged into Manchhar Lake to be checked for level of contamination. In future, saline water might not be discharged in the Manchhar Lake. Instead, alternate arrangements might be made for discharging the saline water. Flow of saline water from Punjab, Balochistan and Upper Sindh to be monitored. Scientific measures including installation of desalination plants might be considered for overcoming the menace locally.

7. The industries and the local authorities might be asked install proper treatment plants within specified period after which only properly treated water shall be allowed to be discharged in the river or other water bodies. The government and its various specialized institutions might provide or arrange grants and concessional loans for financing and operation of the water treatment plants/effluent treatment plants in different parts of the country.

8. The quality of bottled water/mineral water sold in the market might also be carefully monitored. In case this water is also contaminated or is unfit for human beings, its consumption will provide false sense of security against health hazards to the patients already suffering from water-borne diseases due to consumption of contaminated water supplied by the utilities/government.

9. As reported in a section of the press a few weeks ago, some of the chemical engineering students from the Mehran University, working under guidance of their teachers, succeeded in obtaining usable water by treating the dirty water coming out of the students hostel. This might be looked into and a pilot plant might be developed to test the process and its applicability on commercial scale. All engineering universities in the provinces might be encouraged to carry out research work for treatment of polluted or highly contaminated water to make it safe drinking water.

10. Through print and TV programmes, awareness might be created among the people for conservation of potable water and for saving water from contamination.