Pakistan’s municipal water supply – laws and flaws
In December 2017, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court of Pakistan raising concerns regarding the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities in Sindh. The Supreme Court summoned Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and former Mayor of Karachi Mustafa Kamal to assess the situation.
The apex court also summoned the Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif to inquire about the quality of the water supply situation and the actions taken to tackle water pollution (quality degradation). The Punjab CM submitted before the court that the provincial government will soon be able to come up with a comprehensive plan for water treatment to provide safe drinking water to the people.
The Minister for Science and Technology Rana Tanveer has stated on the floor of the National Assembly that more than 80 percent of Pakistanis consume contaminated or unsafe water. Contaminations and polluters vary from place to place. Water pollution refers to deterioration of water quality and quality impairment. It pertains to the origin of water, its intended use and its impacts on public health and the environment. However, provision of, and access to, safe drinking water is one of the provincial governments’ prime responsibilities.
Industries are a major source of pollution when it comes to both surface and groundwater in Pakistan. These include chemical production (including fertiliser and pesticides), textiles, pharmaceuticals, tanneries, cement, electrical equipment, glass and ceramics, pulp and paper board, and petroleum refinery. Such industries have no mechanism in place to treat wastewater before its disposal either into municipal sewage network (affecting the health of the population) or into a nearby drain.
Whereas effects of agriculture on water quality entail quality impairment by agrochemicals, salts, and toxic leachates. The run off from agriculture has nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilisers and varying pesticides. This chemical laden run off then seeps through the surface and enters groundwater. Excessive use of agricultural fertilisers increases the productivity of the soil which it does, but on the contrary impairs the quality of water which was earlier drinkable.
Arsenic contamination of groundwater in Pakistan (Indus plain) holds five times more arsenic than the World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines, and this makes water unfit for human consumption. Over 50 to 60 million people might be at risk as they are the ones who use groundwater for human consumption. The hotspots are around cities of Lahore (Punjab) and Hyderabad (Sindh), which have a significant population.
The 1973 Constitution classifies the provision of water supply and sanitation services a provincial subject. The Local Government Ordinance (LGO) of 2001 promoted the decentralisation process and sought the abolition of the urban-rural divide and therefore prescribed the dissolution of rural water and sanitation institutions — Public Health Engineering Departments (PHEDs) — at all levels. To fill the void created by abolishing PHEDs, the ordinance created Tehsil Municipal Authorities (TMAs) to run and manage systems at both rural and urban areas. Certain sections of the ordinance are not being followed,which are relevant to TMAs and PHEDs and so a different scenario plays out on the ground.
In practice, provinces have implemented the Local Government Ordinance the way they considered fitand, in a few cases, reverted to some developments made earlier. The provinces of Punjab, KP and Sindh re-established PHEDs in 2003, 2009 and 2010, respectively. These developments created further confusion on responsibility and jurisdiction (pertaining to water and sanitation services delivery) whereas PHEDs are operating in rural areas and TMAs in urban areas.
Supreme Court petitions and notices are not a long-term and sustainable solution for the provision of safe drinking water
The TMAs face significant ability and resources issues and their responsibilities are many. To address these shortcomings, PHEDs (whose staff and resources as compared to TMAs are of better quality) were to aid and support TMAs. After the promulgation of the Local Government Act of 2012 provinces replaced urban TMAs with town municipal corporations and rural TMAs by district councils. The confusion and overlapping jurisdictions continue to hamper effective municipal water related services delivery.
Supreme Court petitions and notices are not a long-term and sustainable solution for the provision of safe drinking water. There is a need to build ability of the provincial environmental agencies and human resources who are responsible for identifying pollutants and taking consequent legal action as and when required. Water and sanitation schemes should not be street or lane specific rather they should be integrated at district and provincial levels into one consolidated plan.
Jurisdictions and responsibilities should be clearly and specifically stated for multiple water services delivery institutions like TMCs, WASA and PHEDs. Agricultural extensions must inform and educate farmers about use of fertilizers and pesticides that minimize the impairment of water bodies. Industries must be made to oblige with the requirement of having water treatment plants. If they do not comply, legal action must be taken. This will protect lives of people who suffer from the water borne diseases.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.