SHAMSUL GHANI (shams_ghani@hotmail.com)
Sep 22 - 28, 2008

Pakistan, by virtue of being the most urbanized country of South Asia, faces huge environmental challenges. These challenges have been posed partly by the fast increasing population with urban concentration and partly by the perpetual neglect of health and education sectors. The neglect of health sector has directly contributed to the air and water pollutions, whereas the education deficit has been instrumental in creating lack of awareness about the specter of environmental degradation and its effect on our lives. According to a World Bank report, the damage caused by water pollution alone accounts for 30 per cent of the cumulative damage caused by many faceted environmental degradation.

In the introduction to their paper Water Pollution and Society, David Krantz and Brad Kifferstein state:

"Comprising over 70% of the Earth's surface, water is undoubtedly the most precious natural resource that exists on our planet. Without the seemingly invaluable compound comprised of hydrogen and oxygen, life on Earth would be non-existent; it is essential for every thing on our planet to grow and prosper. Although we as humans recognize this fact, we disregard it by polluting our rivers, lakes and oceans. Subsequently, we are slowly but surely harming our planet to the point where organisms are dying at an alarming rate. In addition to innocent organisms dying off, our drinking water has become greatly affected as is our ability to use water for recreational purposes."

The damage to any water body resulting in water pollution can be caused either by a point source or a non point source. The damage caused to Karachi sea by the oil-spill events can be termed point source pollution. On the other hand, addition of water polluting agents from an external source creates non point source pollution. Dumping of solid waste and draining of industrial chemical and radioactive wastes into water body are examples of such pollution. While point source pollution may lack in frequency, the non point source pollution is very frequent and multi directional; and therefore difficult to control. The non point source polluting agents may come from a chemical factory, pesticide and fertilizer using farm fields, hospitals and laboratories and untreated sewage disposal sources. These pollutants not only destroy the aquatic life present in the water body but also transform the drinking water into a pathogen-carrying health hazard. Pathogens are organisms like bacteria, viruses and protozoa that cause typhoid, hepatitis and dysentery terminal diseases, in many cases.

Ninety seven percent of the earth water is in oceanic form. Most of the remaining three per cent is in polar ice caps, glaciers and hard-to-reach underground and atmospheric forms. The scarcity of potable water is alarming, and more so in the wake of water pollution challenge. Groundwater, which is found in natural rock formations called aquifer, makes up about 20 per cent of the world's fresh water supply. According to Wikipedia, an aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, silt or clay) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using water well. The province of Punjab relies heavily on groundwater source. With the passage of time, the groundwater gets contaminated when surface water chemicals get seeped into soil to establish contact with the under-flowing groundwater.

According to a WHO report referred to in a WWF water facts sheet, Lahore's groundwater is contaminated up to 700 feet. The contamination extent in 1992 was 500 feet and in 1989 300 feet. The said WWF facts sheet places the agriculture use of water at 69 percent, industrial use at 23 per cent and domestic use at 8 per cent. The predominant agricultural use of water has given rise to such hazards as salinity and water logging which take their toll on country's meager economic resources. In Thar district of Sindh, the human, flora and fauna lives are under climatic and water pollution threats. The scarcity of rains the natural outcome of continued deforestation of Sindh makes residents of Thar heavily dependent on brackish, highly saline and fluoride-rich groundwater. The deforestation process has made monsoon behavior highly unpredictable depriving the locals of the natural bounty of rainwater. The harsh climate and arid soil combine together to thwart any agricultural activities. Drinkable water exists at deeper levels and its extraction entails financial cost. De-fluoridation of easily extractable groundwater is also expensive. Water with excessive fluorine content causes serious dental and bone diseases. The severe climate and water pollution have put a big question mark on the existence of Thar residents. The politically promised investment in Thar has not come. It is the responsibility of the new rulers to generously invest in Thar. The climatic improvement will accrue once the water problem is solved. Projects to extract deep-seated fresh groundwater should be launched immediately. After all, Thar has been kind to us by offering its huge coal treasures. How we plan to respond? Just by profitably consuming these resources and presenting the residents with the gift of air pollution from coal-power-generation!

Besides nature-related and agro-based activities, industrial waste and faulty sewerage management also greatly contribute to water pollution, Absence of proper legislation and control provide grounds to the selfish elements of industrial community to get rid of the highly noxious effluents by draining them into the nearest water body. The faulty sewerage management is, perhaps, the greatest hazard to human life. According to WWF, two million wet tons of human excreta is produced annually in urban areas, fifty percent of which gets transported to water bodies meant to provide fresh water to human beings. The criminal failure of concerned bodies to ensure contamination-free supply of water results in killer diseases like gastroenteritis, typhoid and hepatitis that take heavy toll on human life every year.

The World Bank report rightly puts emphasis on defining roles of government institutions for water quality protection. It recommends regulation of drinking water quality through a tiered approach, with local governments conducting routine monitoring, provincial authorities carrying out regular oversight and federal agencies providing quality assurance. This is time about we realize the importance of integrated approach to deal with the impending threat of yet greater human and economic sufferance in the hands of water pollution.