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                                         Citizens, Sepa and sewage


Dawn  10 Jan 2008,


“KARACHI’s sewage disposal problem is a reality which cuts across sectors, affecting the whole city’s health, environmental quality and development.”  ~ Arif Hasan

Imagine for a moment that each time you pull the lever of your toilet flush, the contents flow down and spread around the periphery of your house.

In a few months, you are likely to end up with a large, nauseating sewage pond that is home to germs and deadly disease. How many of us are aware that we are, perhaps inadvertently, guilty of such misconduct? Each time we use the flush, and the untreated sewage waste makes its way to the Indian Ocean, we become party to the crime of creating a sprawling gutter around our city.

Karachi dumps over 370 million gallons of raw untreated sewage daily into the sea, turning its coasts into cesspools of rancid water and latent pandemics. Laden with E.coli and harmful chemicals, the toxic waste is destroying coastal and marine habitats. It also causes skin ailments, gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections to the general public especially those living near the seaside, besides posing a serious threat to the livelihood of fisherfolk and to tourism.

Connecting people’s homes to clean piped water and to sewers for environment-friendly waste disposal, often referred to as “the sanitary revolution”, is seen as the most important medical milestone since 1840. Many considered it to be more significant than the invention of antibiotics, vaccinations or the discovery of the structure of DNA. However, after over 60 long years, we have neither clean water in our pipes nor a safe disposal mechanism for our sewage. How far are we from achieving the “sanitary revolution” and what are we doing to make it happen?

The three available sewage treatment plants “ STP, 1, 2 and 3” intended to treat Karachi’s 430 million gallons of sewage, have the limited capacity to treat just about 150 million gallons per day. With STP 2 no longer working and STPs 1 and 3 handling only 60 MGD, we are left with over 370 million gallons of homegrown, untreated waste that makes its way into the Indian Ocean every day. A new treatment plant, STP 4, has been under discussion and in the pipeline for many years.

However, there is a bright chance that, like thousands of our ghost schools, this project too might become yet another ghost initiative and fail to see the light of the day. The reason is simple: 365 acres of the 465 acres of land allocated for this project have already been granted to private parties and that too on a 30-year lease, leaving about 100 acres, which is not adequate for a new treatment plant.Thus, a crucial need of the city and its first step in the journey to a ‘sanitary revolution’ may have been pushed back by another 30 years. Clearly, the government’s mafia-like desire to acquire and distribute land far exceeds its concerns for the fundamental development needs of the city.

Needless to say, the Sindh government is blessed with an agency called the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and a provincial minister for environment. The agency has been established to ensure protection of the environment and to take action against those who violate prescribed environmental rules and standards.

Meanwhile, the treatment of the city sewage is the responsibility of the city government. To dump it in the ocean is unlawful and a violation of the government’s national environmental quality standards (NEQS). It is therefore mandatory that Sepa not remain silent and use its authority to put an end to the crime of 370 million gallons of daily environmental pollution.

If Sepa is perceived as exercising firm authority that means business when it comes to pollution,  it will stand a far stronger chance to control hundreds of lethal, pollutant-producing industries that do not meet the NEQS. Therefore, the time to think more seriously about the final destination of our flushed contents is, undoubtedly now.