It is around afternoon and the road passing through the sandy landscape is totally deserted. There are very few motorised vehicles that can be seen plying this road on any particular day but hardly any of these stops here. Quite often they whizz past the locals travelling on foot on the roadside along with beasts of burden carrying water filled containers on their backs. The noise of these approaching vehicles does disturb these animals and makes them run haywire but their masters are quite capable of regaining control over them and saving them from harm.
There are others riding donkey carts capable of carrying much larger number of water containers to be delivered to different households in their villages. The containers mostly used for this purpose are the navy blue ones originally used to pack and market chemicals. On a close observation, one can see the names of the different chemicals written on them. Many of these containers have the traces of toxic material originally packed in them but the people collect drinking water in it and consume it without any fear.
These are the common sights on the road and the areas right next to it but in the areas at a distance largely women are seen walking on sand with pitchers placed on their heads. They are clad in traditional dresses and covered from head to toe, especially in the areas where they fear confronting strangers or men not related to them. The journey becomes cumbersome for them when strong winds blow and brings sand along.
These people are different but one thing is common here. All of them are either going to fetch drinking water or returning to their places after doing that. This activity is the most important in their lives and the family members supposed to carry it out are contributing the most to the well being of their households.
For those getting curious about the whole thing, the area in question is located in Tharparkar district of Sindh province. The district has a population of above 1.6 million with Hindus and Muslims in almost equal concentration. This part of the country remained in news for long for the deaths and misery caused by drought spread over several years. Apart from the loss of a large number of human lives, mainly those of infants, huge stocks of cattle and other milch animals expired in those times pushing the Sindh government to take some corrective measures. These measures included provision of facilities to extract groundwater and reduce dependence on rainwater.
The dreadful memories of those testing times are still fresh in the minds of these people, but today they feel quite secure even if there is little rain or no rain. Their lives underwent a revolutionary change when the Sindh government decided to install around 750 Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination plants in Tharparkar district that comprises close to 5,000 registered and unregistered villages.
This technology is used to draw brackish water from ground and remove salt and other impurities to make it fit for drinking. So far, around 610 RO plants have been installed and the remaining are in the pipeline but what is worrying the locals the most is that a number of these are becoming non functional fast. Getting used to accessing these sources of drinking water in close vicinity of their houses, they are literally terrified by the very thought of losing it and facing a drought like situation.
The people described in the start are those who go out to collect water from the nearby RO plants that run on solar power. The water obtained this way is clear of impurities and the value of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is within the required parameters set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Those who drink untreated water from wells have yellow teeth, joint pains, abdominal diseases, etc.
Unfortunately, this closure of several RO plants has come at a point when the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) is highly vigilant with respect to the provision of drinking water across Sindh. A judicial commission set up for this purpose, headed by Justice (retd) Ameer Hani Muslim, is also pushing the concerned quarters to achieve the object and is not ready to listen to any excuse.
While some quarters think these RO plants might have developed technical faults, the story is a bit different. Sources in the Sindh Coal Authority (SCA) and the Special Initiatives Department (SID), government of Sindh share that this is due to the non-payment of the operational and maintenance costs to Pak Oasis - the company that has installed these plants. The company has been performing this function since instalment of the plants and claims to have run into difficulties as Sindh government has not been able to make payments for the last eight months or so.
Plans to give this responsibility to some other company through bidding or handing over of RO plants to district government so that it can run these itself were also mulled but could not be materialised. First, hardly any company was interested in these tenders and second, the district government declared that it lacked capacity to operate these plants due to the technicalities and relevant skills involved.
Right now the situation is that the Sindh government is not clearing the dues of Pak Oasis which is apparently affecting the working. And instead of going for more RO plants in the district to increase coverage, the existing ones are being gradually shut down. The apex court and the water commission on the other hand are not listening to any excuses and want availability of clean water for every citizen of Sindh without any unnecessary delay.
Reportedly, Pak Oasis has repeatedly expressed its inability to run the RO plant in Mithi, the headquarter of Tharparkar, but continued to do that on assurances about clearance of its outstanding dues. Claimed to be the biggest RO plant in Asia it has the capacity to supply two million gallons of water daily whereas the other smaller ones are providing 15,000 gallons of water per day to small clusters of villages.
Irshad Hussain, chief executive officer (CEO), Pak Oasis tells The News that there is no second opinion that the company is in the red zone and facing severe financial crisis, but despite this, it is not pulling out abruptly. He says they are highly concerned about the people who are benefitting from these plants and believe depriving them of water can be a highly unwanted act. But the problem, he says, is that they are finding it hard to further bear these costs from their own pocket and see a crisis like situation ahead.
The company is yet to be paid above Rs800 million due for the last 8 months, almost Rs100 million in terms of salaries of staff, Rs40 for diesel and parts’ cost and so on. Besides, the company says the agreement to provide water at a cost of 12 paisas per gallon and 16 paisas per gallon, if diesel cost is included, at Mithi plant also needs to be revised. The cost of running smaller plants is around Rs30,000 each that includes the salary of the operator, who is mostly from that village. This cost would have been much higher if these had not been running on solar power, says Irshad terming it to be a highly prudent decision.
Haroon Akram Gill, a certified climate reality leader, environmentalist and water sector expert, believes availability of water at a place is important but what is more important is that it shall be fit for human consumption. Therefore, he says, the government must focus on this aspect and not let people rely on brackish water pulled out from wells in Tharparkar.
He says as villages are scattered in Tharparkar and not in close proximity to each other, the number of RO plants needs to be increased here. Ideally, he says, there must be an RO plant for every three or four villages at one of these as the nucleus and the whole district covered with respect to availability of safe drinking water.
He adds it is a fact that health, longevity and immunity of livestock has increased in Tharparkar due to the availability of water free of impurities. This has also led to reverse migration as people who had left for Karachi, Hyderabad, etc, for work are finding it feasible to return and rear livestock for commercial purposes, he adds.
Haroon believes the cost of running RO plants across Tharparkar need not be a burden on the government because it is extracting coal, high quality granite, China clay etc from here in huge quantities for commercial purposes. "The people of Tharparkar must also get something in return; if not a share in sale proceeds of these commodities, at least water to survive," he concludes.
The writer is a staff member