Where should the waste go?

December 13, 2020

Authorities, the capital’s residents, and the real estate developers are divided on the question. To have or not to have a landfill is the question haunting Islamabad right now

A person generates 0.6 kg waste on average and Islamabad has about a 2.2 million-strong population, Jamil Asghar Bhatti tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

This means the city generates roughly about 1,3oo tonnes waste daily. However, since its inception it has not developed a mechanism to treat its waste, he says. Bhatti has been associated with various environment protection projects funded by the UN and has launched many waste disposal mechanisms for Rawalpindi and Islamabad over the last three decades.

Sardar Khan Zimri, the director of sanitation at the Capital Development Authority (CDA) hopes that the landfill will be built at Sangjani. However, temperatures ran high on December 2 when Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) held a public hearing on the project. The residents of the area resisted the move. Ali Nawaz Awan, advisor to the PM on CDA, was also present on the occasion.

“Why on earth would somebody want to dump Islamabad’s waste in Taxila?” asks Zaheer Shah Zaildar, a local leader.

He says the proposed landfill site is forest land and cannot therefore be developed a landfill without permission from the Forest Department.

“There are so many ways to generate energy from waste. Why should the CDA not explore some of those?” he asks.

Mehtab Haider, a journalist based in Taxila, also raises similar objections. He says people would resist turning Sangjani into a landfill site.

“Not at any cost. We would push every lever of power including the court to get it stopped (sic),” he says.

Ahmed Rafay Aalam, a Lahore-based environmentalist, tells TNS that landfills are the least preferred way to treat trash. In Lahore, there are two landfills and they are working fine, he says.

He says that landfills can be made green and notes that a successful experiment to this effect has been attempted in Lahore.

So, if the land is in Taxila, can Pak-EPA hold a public hearing on it?

Alam says that it is apparently the domain of the Punjab-EPA.

However, Sardar Khan Zimri, the director of CDA’s Sanitation Department holds a different view.

“Technically, it is wrong to say that the site is in Taxila. According to the map, the site falls in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). We can get approval of the departments concerned at an appropriate time,” he says.

“A property developers’ mafia is resisting the construction of the landfill,” he alleges.

The confusion is a longstanding issue as Islamabad’s demarcation has never been clear. Even some of the residents cannot tell where Islamabad ends and Rawalpindi starts. Some areas fall in Islamabad police stations but are considered by the local population to be in Rawalpindi.

In its report, the Senate Standing Committee on Climate Change, led by Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, had recommended finalisation of ‘identified landfill sites’ but mentioned that Sangjani is in Rawalpindi division.

Capt Muhammad Mehmood (retired), the commissioner of Rawalpindi, tells TNS that he was not at the public hearing but has agreed to arrange for an alternate site on Mandra-Chakwal Road for a landfill for Islamabad in case the Sangjani site is not approved.

He says Rawalpindi can charge Islamabad for treatment of its waste.

“We are capable of operating this landfill. Rawalpindi Waste Management Company (RWMC) is a professional body and is operating our existing landfill satisfactorily,” he said.

He says they have also offered Islamabad to lease the landfill site to Islamabad. Islamabad can then build and run its own facility.

“The site is suitable for a landfill. It has large craters and natural gaps. If operated properly, the landfills do not disturb the people living around them,” he says.

Capt Mehmood has also mounted a move to plant 300,000 trees along the Ring Road, the biggest such project for the city by far.

However, Sardar Zimri is of the opinion that even if Rawalpindi agrees to arrange for an alternative site, its distance from Islamabad makes it unsuitable.

“Who will pay for the transportation? In Islamabad, citizens go to the Federal Ombudsman if a waste collector asks them to pay as little as Rs 100 for waste collection. We are finalising a formula to charge modest rates from citizens for waste collection and keeping the city clean. Private housing societies [on the other hand} are charging heavy fees.”

He says that waste is currently being dumped at Sector I-12 but this practice cannot go on for long. The sector is a “residential area” and “it is about time it is developed”, he adds.

“People criticise me for dumping garbage in Sector I-12. But, what can I do if a landfill site is not finalised?” he asks.

Farzana Altaf Shah, the director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) tells TNS that a public hearing regarding the project has been held. She says that property agents from a nearby housing society were very vocal in objecting to the Sangjani landfill.

“Everybody protests against the landfill. The question is: why does everybody not protest for a landfill? Why do people not protest against open dumping of waste? Have you seen anyone objecting to open dumping in Sector I-11?” she asks.

“If these people object to the construction of a landfill, can they keep their garbage in their houses? The garbage has to be treated somewhere and a landfill is meant to do that,” she says.

“We have done our job. Findings of the hearing have been sent to the CDA. The CDA has determined jurisdictions of the federal capital. An alternative site should have been part of the original plan. We will proceed further once the CDA makes a decision.”

According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) compiled by a private consultant as a pre-requisite to start the project, the landfill site will “comply with all relevant laws”.

Jamil Asghar Bhatti says the world is now moving towards utilizing waste and transforming it into energy and bio-fuel “but we are still weighing options for a landfill”.

“Of course, a landfill is way better than dumping trash in the open, which is happening [right] now. The Sangjani site has 100 acres of land and it is good [for a landfill]. A landfill is a billion rupees project. We can attract an international company,” he says.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

Where should the waste go?