Karachi, a city of around 20 million people, is facing a crisis of governance that is reflected in the poor state of service delivery, and unplanned and unsustainable urbanization – Arif Hasan, Arif Pervaiz and Mansoor Raza, Drivers of climate change vulnerability at different scales in Karachi, published by International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), January 2017.
Once the most beautiful, famous and historical city of Pakistan is also one of the most polluted cities in the world-The 10 most polluted cities of the world.
According to provisional census data presented to the Council of Common Interest (CCI) by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the two biggest cities of Pakistan, Karachi and Lahore, have grown monstrously since 1998 (when last official census was carried out). PBS has shown Karachi’s population in 2017 at 14,910,352 (in 1998 it was 9,339,023). Lahore’s population is more than doubled from 5,143,495 in 1998 to 11,126,285 in 2017. Out of total population of the country in 2017 (207,774,520), 12.53 percent (26,036,637) are living in just two cities, which are the worst city planning models by all standards. In this article, we are not commenting on the doubts cast by the political parties and some other quarters about authenticity of census figures, we are only concentrating what ails our two largest urban centres.
A study [Arsenic in drinking water threatens up to 60 million in Pakistan], published in Science Advances on August 24, 2017, warns that up to 60 million Pakistanis are exposed to contaminated water having amongst other hazardous materials very high unsafe levels of arsenic. It has been described as the largest mass poisoning in history. It causes skin lesions, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neuro-developmental delays. This shocking revelation exposes the tall claims made by successive governments of doing a lot for Karachi and Lahore. For example, Khadim-e-Aala of Punjab has been continuously claiming with pride that wonders have been during his long rules in Punjab. His biggest failure, among many others, is to provide even clean drinking waters to dwellers in urban and rural areas.
The results of study by Joel Podgorski, an environmental scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf, based on measuring arsenic levels in groundwater samples collected from about 1200 wells throughout Pakistan at depths of 3 to 70 meters. Nearly two-thirds exceeded the WHO-recommended threshold, and extremely high concentrations-above 200 micrograms per liter-were found along the Indus River valley.
“The higher concentrations tended to occur in areas with higher soil pH and near sand and clay younger than 10,000 years. Older sediments have been exposed to so much water over geological time that most of their arsenic has already washed out to sea. Under specific chemical conditions, the arsenic in younger sediments can dissolve in water and contaminate it,” Podgorski says.
Next, the team created the region’s first risk map for arsenic, which shows the probability of dangerous concentrations in every part of the country. By estimating the number of people relying on groundwater for drinking, the team reports that 50 million to 60 million people might use water that contains more than 50 micrograms per liter of arsenic, five times the WHO guideline.
Richard Johnston, a public health engineer at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, who was not involved in the research, hopes the predictive method can be applied to other areas of the world with similar geologies to Pakistan. Other experts hope that the study will motivate Pakistani authorities to test wells in high-risk areas and warn communities. “People should be aware that water in their well has high arsenic,” says Charles Harvey, a hydrogeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. If people are aware of the risks, they could use water from deeper aquifers that are in contact with older sediments, or invest in treating groundwater to remove arsenic.
Peter Ravenscroft, a hydrogeologist and independent consultant based in Cambridge, the UK, says this work will help draw the attention of policymakers and aid agencies to the arsenic threat in Pakistan. “Maps like this have a big impact,” he says.
At home as well, majority of water samples collected from surface and underground sources in 13 districts of Sindh, including all six Karachi districts, by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) in 2017 were found to be unfit for human consumption. According to experts at the PCRWR, these results were more or less similar to those published in a report titled ‘Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey’ in 2016. Out of 1,661 samples collected from subsoil sources of these districts, 970 (58%) were found unsafe. The major contaminants were turbidity, bacterial contamination, TDS, hardness, calcium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulphate, fluoride, nitrate, iron, etc.
The state of pollution in Lahore described in a newspaper report claims that “inaction against polluters and ineffective public awareness campaigns turned the provincial capital into one of the most polluted cities across the country during the year 2016”. It claims that “now the citizens can’t find clean and pure air to breathe in anywhere in the city, once known for its gardens and fresh air”.
In Karachi and Lahore, in addition to the problem of polluted air, citizens are also facing increased levels of noise and water pollution. Untreated industrial and municipal waste water continues to affect the underground water aquifer but as usual the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) remained silent and no concrete action has been initiated against the polluters except taking eyewash measures.
Due to receding state role in planning and providing low-cost housing to workers, the people in Karachi and Lahore have been left to private and informal sectors to use land for business and investment, causing an imbalance between low and high density residential areas. It is also clear that the utilities do not keep pace with the development as storm drains become sewers and transport crisis is worsening day by day. The administrative set-up over the year has witnessed the municipalities losing management strength and or/ crippled by corruption. The housing shortage and katchi abadis (slums) are perpetual problems assuming alarming proportions.
There are low-density posh residential areas, eg, Clifton, Defence and PECHS in Karachi and Bahria, Gulberg, Cantt and DHAs in Lahore where the affluent live and then there are the densely populated areas where the low-income group resides. According to Dr Farrukh Saleem [Policy capture, The News, August 27, 2017] “less than one percent of Pakistanis live in DHA, KDA, Gulberg, CDA and Bahria Town”. The government is not developing colonies but plots. This plot development caters to the rich, not the poor who do not have the resources to purchase plots. Therefore, while Karachi and Lahore are densely populated cities, there are also thousand of plots lying vacant. On one side there is a huge need for housing for workers and on the other there is the private sector not interested in housing for the poor. The poor live in sub-human conditions in slums that are breeding areas for criminals, terrorists vagabonds, etc. Arif Hasan, architect, town planner and social activist, brilliantly summed up that: there are no oases in Karachi this day due to hunger for land of the rich and need of land of the poor. The same scenario prevails in Lahore and other urban centres.
There is a consensus amongst all experts that unplanned expansion of urban areas, absence of public transport and mass transit services, tremendous increase in the number of privately owned vehicles, presence of industrial clusters in densely populated localities have resulted in high concentrations of pollutants such as carbon-dioxide, nitrous-oxides and sulphuroxide, which are seriously affecting the health of general public.
In addition to the issues of pollution and poor facilities, there are chronic problems of absence of civic behaviour, discipline and rule of law-making Karachi and Lahore even worse than urban nightmares. Roads in Karachi and Lahore present horrifying pictures. The moment one embarks upon the soil of any country, he can comprehend the character of that nation from the traffic on the roads. A disciplined nation on roads speaks volumes about the quality of governance, law enforcement and quality of human fabric. Bad traffic is an immediate source of irritation for any traveler to any place and during his stay, he may wonder about the credibility of the government’s strength in enforcing simple traffic regulations.
What we witnesses in Karachi and Lahore is a traffic nightmare where any or all of the following could be occurring anytime:
— Lanes are not maintained
— Intermittent overtaking by one and all
— Fast traffic in slow lanes and vice-versa
— Improper blowing of horn
— Failure to yield right-of-way
— Driving with blocked vision or tinted window
— Driving wrong way on one-way street
— Making turns without indicating
— Licence plates improperly displayed or not displayed
— Violation of traffic signals
— Pedestrians crossing from anywhere at any time
— Following too closely
— Buses/vans stopping whimsically, picking and dropping passengers anywhere other than their designated stops
— Making U turns and driving around round-about without taking care of maintaining lane
— Throwing garbage and spitting right in the middle of the roads in order to keep their own vehicles clean
— Free movement of cattle across busy roads at any time of the day
— Movement of tractor trolleys and other heavy traffic vehicle during peak hours
— Smoke emitting and non-road-worthy vehicles plying freely
— Overloaded pick-ups and carriage of goods like glass, iron and even ladders on motor bikes
— Carriage of perilous over-sized iron girders on horse/donkey carts and mini trucks
— Instances of physical settlement of driving disputes in case of accidents
— Driving under the influence of drugs
Such experience can scare the wits out of any sane person for whom these scenes from a real life horror movie could lead to thinking about the very existence of the writ of the government besides depicting an outrageous character of the nation. We always talk about absence of rule of law, good governance, better infrastructure, corruption-free society and what not but have never really given a serious thought to implement even basic principles of traffic.
There is a Chinese quotation that if everyone fulfilled his duty, no one would ask for his rights. Thus if we resolve to follow our road traffic rules in letter and spirit, the whole nation along with its leaders (who are at present the target of extreme criticism) would start showing that level of maturity which is essential for bringing about substantial change in the entire fabric of society.
Many attempts have been made to enforce traffic law but these remain largely unsuccessful.
Though it may not be possible for the government to provide an infantry of police wardens for every area of the country, yet a few measures could prove to be of long lasting benefit. Amongst these are:
— Strict criteria in issuing driving licences and immediate confiscation of the vehicles driven by unlicensed persons.
— Include traffic and civic laws in the curriculum of all schools right from the primary level.
— Introduce media campaign on a war footing to educate the public about these rules.
— Fill the cities with banners, streamers and hoardings emphasizing importance of observation of these rules.
— Use the electronic media to widely circulate fatal accidents showing their causes and how they could have been prevented.
— Use of electronic gadgets (CCTV cameras etc) to capture violators and punish them with fear and favour.
By observing rules and regulations on the roads, a sense of discipline would also become embedded within its soul inspiring every member of the society to instinctively queue up where required, to be more courteous towards others, to volunteer support to a needy, to denounce acts detrimental to the peace and serenity of society, to prevent national, historic landmarks and buildings from being disfigured by naughty elements, to respect persons with physical and mental challenges and in short, to nurture a feeling of pride of being part of a highly regarded nation.
We need to make our cities livable, clean, attractive, modern, and environmentally friendly, but all this can only be done if we first establish rule of law at roads. The urban nightmare scenario for Karachi, Lahore and other places is intrinsically related with the quality of human beings that live there.
(The writers, lawyers and partners in Huzaima, Ikram & Ijaz, are Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of management Sciences)