Money Matters

Down the drain

April 17, 2017
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

ENVIRONMENT

The water is not only used for cultivation purposes, but also due to seepage into the ground is consumed by the local populace. The vendors in the villages along the Indo-Pak border near Wagah in Lahore proudly display the vegetables they are selling. These are far bigger in size than those normally available in the city. Major plus points they cite are that these vegetables have been grown without the use of fertilisers and even pesticides in many cases.

However, the fact is that these vegetables were irrigated with the water of Hudiara Drain that flows nearby. As it contained municipal waste and industrial effluent carrying traces of metal, there was no

need of fertiliser and the vegetables became oversized due to excessive uptake of these metals. The sellers of vegetables are hardly aware that they are selling toxic goods to the people who will contract different diseases as a result.

This is just one of the hazards linked to the highly polluted Hudiara Drain that originates from Batala (District Gurdaspur – East Punjab, India) and after being joined by many tributaries in Amritsar and

covering 40 kilometers enters Pakistan near Laloo village. It once used to be a natural storm water nullah but now carries sewage water mixed with untreated industrial waste. It gets its share of the pollutants while flowing on the Indian side as well as after entering Pakistan.

It is estimated that around 600 factories on the Pakistani side dispose off their untreated waste into it before it falls into River Ravi after travelling 55 kilometres inside Pakistan. As per the details shared by the Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab, the drain's annual average discharge at its confluence with the River Ravi is about 500 cusecs.

Though the state of affairs is the same for decades, the government of Punjab has failed to come up with a solution. Besides, there has been hardly any success on involving India to get their part of the drain cleaned of pollutants.

Anyhow, the latest is that the Punjab government has approved a “Study to Recommend the Most Feasible Option for Treatment of Hudiara Drain Wastewaters”. The declared purpose of this study is “to arrive at a feasible proposal for treatment of Hudiara Drain waters with the full knowledge of the technical and institutional options available and estimation of the costs and benefits (both private and social) of the treatment.

The drain water is polluted and as such not suitable for irrigation. This water is found to have high levels of heavy metals such as iron, zinc, chromium, etc that cause contamination of the subsoil water.

Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmentalist based in Lahore, laments that after so many years, all the government has done is to sanction a study that would take years to complete. This was the time when it should have taken practical steps and implemented solutions, he adds.

Rafay believes it is the responsibility of the polluters to pay for the damage control measures and the factories, either small or large, shall install water filtration plants from their own sources. Rafay says these entities are doing business and earning well, but are reluctant to invest on setting up these plants. If they cannot set up individual plants they can go for a combined one, he adds.

He says it is unfortunate that the provincial environmental quality standards have not been drafted even after the passage of many years since the passage of 18the amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.

He says the EPD can help check the pollution of the drain by acting against the polluters and sending cases against them to the environmental tribunal.

Though some measures were taken in the past, there was not much follow-up and projects were abandoned half way. For example, an order was issued by Pervez Elahi, the former chief minister of Punjab, to close down the 100 water pumps installed in Hudiara Drain. The purpose was to discourage the farmers who were extracting the drain’s water for irrigation purposes and risking the lives of people, animals and birds consuming the agricultural produce. Under another initiative, the Punjab Irrigation Department started lining the drain to put an end to water seepage into the ground but most of it is still without lining.

A study was conducted in 2009 to investigate the heavy metal contents in Hudiara Drain water and their uptake by vegetables irrigated by the drain water in the adjoining area of this drain. The team carrying out the study observed that the highest level of metal content was observed in spinach and the lowest in eggplant. The risk was the highest for those who would consume these vegetables in raw form. It was also discovered that the villagers were using water from wells dug close to the drain, which are exposed to the pollution through seepage.

The study states: “With growing water scarcity for agriculture and increasing waste water volume in drains, farmers around these drains find it convenient to irrigate the fields with easily accessible and free of cost drain water. Untreated water, when used for irrigation, seeps into the soil and facilitates the entry of a number of pathogens and heavy metals into the food chain.”

It was also found that zinc concentration in sponge gourd (ghia Tori) was 10 times higher than safe levels. Eggplant and spinach contained iron in higher concentration than the stated guidelines. Manganese content was double than the safe level in sponge gourd, but its concentration in other vegetables was within the safe limits. Nickel content in all the crops except eggplant was higher than the safe levels. Cadmium concentration in all the plants except for skinny cucumber (tar) exceeded the safe limit. Cadmium is an element taken up by the food crops especially by vegetables quite easily.

Naseem ur Rehman, director, EPD, shares it with Money Matter that the scope of the proposed study has been increased and the TORs revised. This is the reason why the feasibility study has not started year.

Earlier, he says, the plan was to set up a water treatment plant only at the point where the drain joins River Ravi. But later on there was a discussion that there shall be some solution to the problems caused along the 55- kilometre course of the drain, starting from the Indo-Park border to River Ravi near Mohlanwal in Lahore.

He says the revised TORs will expect the consultant to suggest on how to take care of the environmental hazards caused at different points along its course. The study, he says, will suggest whether there shallbe one water treatment plant at the final point or there is a need to have several plants along its course. The study-cum-feasibly, he says, will cost around Rs35 million and is likely to be completed by 2018.

On irrigation of crops with drain water, he agrees it is too harmful for the people who consume the vegetables produced this way but the EPD cannot do much to discourage it. This subject falls in the domain of Punjab agriculture department, he says, adding there shall be a complete ban on this practice.

Naseem says out of the hundreds of factories whose effluent falls in Hudiara Drain, hardly 50 to 60 have their own water filtration plants. And the reason for this, he says, is that these factories are into exports and it is binding on them to ensure environmental compliance if they want to stay in the business. The leading foreign buyers give orders to the companies that comply with environmental standards and have ISO 14000 certification, he adds.

Naseem endorses Rafay’s point and says the factories can have their independent treatment plants or there can be combined ones. For example, he says, there are 350 factories in Quaid e Azam industrial

State, Kot Lakhoat and a combined treatment plan is highly recommended there. On how to engage India in this regard, he says, it is the mandate of the Ministry of Climate Change to raise transboundary issues and it has done this on occasions.

Advocate Sardar Asif Ali Sial, who is the head of the Access to Climate Justice Committee (ACJC) of the Lahore High Court (LHC), rejects the excuses given by the EPD and says it is a public interest matter and any delay in implementing solutions will be criminal.He shares the ACJS has decided in principle to take the matter to the court as people have been made to drink contaminated underground water and consume vegetables that have alarmingly high content of industrial metals or toxic matters in them. As there is no lining, the water of Hudiara Drain seeps into the ground along with the pollutants it carries and mingles with the underground water, he concludes.

The writer is a staff member