Aug 02 - 08, 2004

The Punjab Chief Minister, according to press reports, said that a comprehensive programme will be implemented to streamline the existing sewerage system and ensuring provision of potable water to all cities of the province. He said that a pilot project under private-public partnership is being initiated to bring about a revolutionary change in sanitation system for convenience of the people. He was presiding over a high-level meeting to review sewerage and sanitation system, held at Punjab House, Islamabad on 29th June 2004. He said that substantial resources had been allocated for provision of clean potable water for the people. He mentioned that international organizations were extending all out support and cooperation to upgrade sewerage and sanitation system in all cities of the province. He directed the concerned departments to ensure water supply to the people at inexpensive and affordable rate. He added that treatment plants would be installed for improvement of sewerage and sanitation system, to provide hygienic atmosphere to the general public.

The decision of the Punjab government is a positive development. Supply situation of potable water in Punjab and many other areas of the country is not a happy one. People in some areas are receiving contaminated water. The recent incidence of a number of deaths believed to have been caused by contaminated toxic water in and around Hyderabad is very sad and is being probed. Water contamination is periodically reported in other parts of the country with possibility of health complications. The tragedy at Hyderabad has brought to attention a critical area which appears to have largely been neglected in the past. Besides, there are many other areas even in cities which remain without adequate supply of water for weeks. Concerted actions by the respective provincial governments can bring some improvement in supply of potable water or the level of contamination. However, supply of drinking water that is without contamination would become a reality only through comprehensive and coordinated approach adopted throughout the country. It is imperative that use of safe drinking water in our lives is understood and remedial measures taken on emergent basis for ensuring its adequate supply to all.

Water is source of all life. Life without safe potable water is not conceivable. 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. Our productivity would increase with good health; there would be less absenteeism and fewer illnesses that more often are attributed to contaminated water. Lack of safe drinking water is adding to the poverty of the masses. On top of that the people are obliged to pay for medical expenses and the purchase of mineral water sometime to save the patients. Due to essential nature of water, every one of us has to contribute by using it judiciously and its protection from contamination. Individuals, households, tribes, communities, firms, companies and other institutions and agencies have to join hand to ensure supply of safe drinking water in the coming years. Without collective effort we shall be fighting a losing war.

Potable water is turned into polluted water after we use it for drinking, cooking, washing, flushing of toilets and similar other uses on daily basis. These are legitimate uses and are expected to continue in future as well but with certain adjustments due to technological developments or due to force of circumstances. For drinking purposes only a small quantity is used as compared to water uses for other purposes. The remedial actions have to start from the individual and family level. Each one of us has to ascertain if raw water or once-used water could be effectively used for some of the uses mentioned earlier instead of the present practice of using potable water. The government might launch an awareness campaign over radio and television for educating the general public for conservation of potable water.

Drinking water is used in larger quantities in schools, colleges, universities, hostels, hotels, offices, mosques and similar other institutions. These institutions can devise ways and means to segregate the used water with little or no contamination from the water that gets polluted such as water used for flushing of toilets. It would not be impossible to separately gather the slightly used water and use it for flushing of the toilets. Brackish water from sea or underground could also be used for the flushing of the toilets. The volume of water used for flushing toilets could also be adjusted depending on the use of the toilet for urinating alone or other purpose. The engineering universities might be asked to find solutions for treating contaminated water to make it suitable for drinking or agriculture purposes. The federal and the provincial governments might consider allocating funds including foreign technical grants to the universities for research and to the other institutions that plan to install individual or collective water treatment plants.

Industry operations promote economic growth. However, industries also release toxic gases and effluents that pollute air and water. Industrial effluents are sometimes released into waste water channels, brackish water channels or sometimes into water canals or rivers and thus pollute the water channels or bodies. The municipalities due to lack of proper treatment plants could also be releasing sewerage water or municipal waste into water channels or bodies and thus badly contaminating large quantities of water. The industries and the local authorities might be asked to install proper treatment plants within specified period after which only properly treated water shall be allowed to be discharged in the rivers or other water bodies.

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, sewage, municipal waste, etc everywhere in the country. The rivers flow from the north to the Arabian Sea. If river water is contaminated in and around Peshawar, chances are it may maintain some of the contamination by the time it reaches Sindh. Water quality might further degrade if more pollutants such as toxic industrial effluents, municipal waste, sewage, etc are released in the rivers on the way to the Arabian Sea. Pollution level could be higher when rivers are flowing with less water.

Water contamination can be from minerals occurring naturally such as arsenic or through man-made pollutants such as untreated industrial effluent or sewage discharged into the water bodies. Pesticides used on agricultural crops or fruits could also find their way to contaminate water. Some of the saline water channels 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. Although, water utilities 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. From the above discussion it is evident that supply of safe drinking water to the people is more complex and could only be tackled jointly by the government and the people.

The incidence at Hyderabad is serious and it might be taken as a wake-up call. If proper remedial measures are not adopted there is likelihood of repetition of such happening either at Hyderabad or in other places like Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar or Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Remedial actions might be initiated based mainly on the following.

1. 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. Main areas for the study might include: (i) Quality of water in each water body as compared to the standards prescribed by WHO and adopted by Pakistan; (ii) Contamination of up-stream sources of water through discharge of untreated/treated effluents and municipal discharges; (iii) Volume of untreated/treated effluents and municipal waste directly into the water bodies; (iv) Type and adequacy of water treatment measures adopted by the water utilities for supplying water drinking purposes; and (v) Quality of the treated water being supplied to the people in cities and contamination due to leakage of sewerage lines and mixing with water supply lines.

2. 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. Scope of the project might be expanded to other areas.

3. Remedial actions might be taken to replace toxic saline water in Manchhar Lake 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. In future, saline water might not be discharged in Manchhar Lake. Flow of saline water from Punjab, Balochistan and Upper Sindh to be monitored and rationalized. Installation of desalination plants might be considered for overcoming the menace locally.

4. 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.