Consumption of brackish groundwater drilled from the city’s depleting aquifers is causing sickness
arina Abbas, 35, is waiting for her turn to get her five-year-old son Ali Raza and three-year-old daughter Zainab examined by a doctor in the outpatient department of Ghulam Mohammadabad General Hospital.
A resident of a slum located a few metres away from the Paharang Drain near Qadirabad in the northwestern part of the city, she had to rush her children to the medical facility because they had been complaining of diarrhea and stomach aches.
“At first, I tried to treat them with home remedies,” she says, “but when they became weaker from sickness, I had to bring them to the hospital.”
Zarina’s husband, who hails from a village in Samundari where he worked as a farmhand, now works as a daily wage worker in a power loom factory in Qadirabad. They moved to the industrial city three years ago.
“He found employment when we moved here but the water is not sitting right with us. Every other month, one of my family members falls ill,” Zarina says, adding that the government does not supply potable water where she resides, leaving the residents to meet their needs by extracting groundwater. “The water is neither fit for cooking nor drinking which is why my husband fetches water from a filtration plant installed by a welfare organisation,” says Zarina. “When the plant shuts down, which is often, we face a lot of inconvenience.”
The slum dwellers are not the only people facing this problem; citizens in middle-class and upscale areas of the city are also using brackish water drilled from the ground to meet their needs. As the water table drops, they’re compelled to dig deeper.
In Sarfraz Colony, a middle-class neighbourhood of the city located at a distance of about five hundred metres from the Rakh Branch Canal, the water table has dropped to 300 feet.
Muhammad Jameel, a resident of the area, says he had to drill about 50 feet deeper only a few months ago. “The water from the earlier bore had started carrying sand. Its colour had turned yellowish and it had a faint smell,” says Jameel. “The quality of groundwater in this area has been declining, even though there is a canal nearby,” he laments.
Jameel says the dyeing factories located on Maqbool Road between the canal and the housing colonies are to blame for this. “These factories are pumping contaminated water underground,” says Jameel.
As per information obtained from the Environment Protection Department under the Right to Information Act, water treatment plants have been installed at 120 factories in the city in the past four years. Cases have been lodged against 145 industrial units with the Punjab Environmental Tribunal for discharging untreated effluent in waterways. Out of those, three units have been fined Rs 135,000. The remaining cases are yet to be heard.
Muhammad Nawaz Khan, the EPD deputy director in charge of Faisalabad, says that at least 25 percent of the factories dotting the residential parts of the city discharge untreated chemical waste in the waterways.
Muhammad Asghar, the All Pakistan Textile Processing Mills Association vice chairman, denies that. According to him, the Water and Sanitation Agency is to blame. “Most of the big industrial units have installed water treatment plants to comply with the conditions laid out by the Environment Department,” says Asghar. “But the treated water is re-polluted when it mixes with the flow from ill-maintained sewers,” he claims. “Over 150 industrial units in the city have installed waste water treatment plants. Those have the capacity to treat more than one million gallons of water per day,” he adds. The amount of industrial wastewater discharged per day is estimated at 517 million gallons. Source?
According to a report published by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources on water quality in 2021, 59 percent of groundwater in Faisalabad was unsuitable for human consumption on account of total dissolved solids; 23 percent on account of high iron and chloride levels; 18 percent due to nitrates; 14 percent due to hardness and bacterial contamination; and 9 percent due to unsafe fluoride content.
According to the national standards for drinking water chlorides should not exceed 250 mg, fluoride 1.5 mg, iron 0.3 mg, nitrate 10 mg and total solids 1,000 mg per liter.
WASA-Faisalabad, established in 1978 to provide potable water to the citizens, supplies 110 million gallons of water a day to its registered consumers.
Out of this, 56 million gallons of water comes from the Chenab River, 20 million gallons from Jhang Branch Canal, 18 million gallons from Rakh Branch Canal, 13.5 million gallons from Jhal Khanuana Water Works, 1 million gallons from Millat Town Water Works and 1.5 million gallons from Gulfshan Colony Water Works.
The consumers served by the WASA include 113,000 households, 2,348 commercial and 92 industrial consumers. 443 industrial consumers have been given aquifer connections to use groundwater.
Managing Director Amir Aziz says the total service area of WASA Faisalabad is 225 square kilometres. He says the potable water coverage is about 70 percent.
According to the master plan prepared by the Faisalabad Development Authority (in 2021, there is a need to supply more than 161 million gallons of water per day in City tehsil. This is 51 million gallons per day more than the current capacity of the WASA.
Most of the citizens using WASA water are not satisfied with its quality and duration of supply. According to Fozia Khalid, a resident of People’s Colony, her house has had a WASA water connection since for four decades but she has never used the water for drinking or cooking. “The water supplied by WASA for four or six hours a day is of slightly better quality than the underground water. However, it cannot be considered fit for human consumption,” says Fozia. She says that sometimes the water is muddy and reeks of sewerage.
“Most people in the city buy drinking water. The rich use bottled water. The middle class and low-income households rely on filtration plants or canal pumps,” says Fozia. “There is no system in place to check the quality of water. This is why the city hospitals are packed with patients suffering from water-borne ailments,” she says.
Data obtained from the District Health Authority shows that, in 2022, 540,655 patients visited government hospitals and medical centres with diseases caused by contaminated water. 271,866 patients were treated in the first six months of current year.
In 2022, medicines worth more than Rs 292 million were used for the treatment of diseases caused by the use of contaminated water. The amount spent in this regard this year is estimated to be around Rs 29.47 million.
Dr Iram Rashid, a medical officer at General Hospital Ghulam Mohammadabad, says that consuming contaminated water can result in diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, earache and respiratory or throat infections, especially in children.
Referring to a UNICEF report, she says that about 53,000 children die every year in Pakistan due to diseases caused by the use of contaminated water. The doctor says that Pakistan is ranked 80th out of 122 countries in terms of drinking water quality.
Over the last five years, the WASA has been unable to start two major water supply projects and an industrial wastewater treatment project.
In April 2017, the Punjab government had approved the launch of French Project Phase II in collaboration with France to provide water to all of the city’s population. The cost of the project was estimated at Rs 14.63 billion. A treatment plant was to be constructed on the Lower Gogera Branch to provide 30 million gallons of water per day to the northeastern region of the city.
However, after the change of government, the implementation of this project was stopped. Now the project cost has inflated to more than Rs 20 billion.
According to the WASA spokesperson, 90 acres of land was acquired for the implementation of the French Project Phase II. “We’re hoping that work on this project will begin soon,” says a WASA spokesman.
In 2019, the WASA had prepared a plan to set up a wastewater treatment plant in the eastern part of the city at a cost of Rs 19 billion rupees. It was to be completed in 2021.
With the completion of this project, 44 million gallons of wastewater discharged by the industrial units in the Khurarianwala area was to be treated and supplied for irrigation. The project has not been started so far.
Project Director Adnan Nisar says that a consultant has been selected and it is hoped that the work will start in January 2024. He says it will be completed in two phases. The first phase will be completed with financial support from Denmark at a cost of Rs 19 billion. For the second phase, Rs 19 billion will be provided by the Asian Development Bank.
The writer has been associated with journalism for the past decade. He tweets @ naeemahmad876