Pakistan’s biggest threat: contaminated water

Pakistan faces a crisis — a crisis that is behind an estimated 30–40% of all deaths, including 50,000 children, every year. But the killer is not some shadowy terrorist group or a mysterious virus strain, it is simply water. Every year thousands of Pakistanis fall victim to diseases like diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis, with the major cause behind all those deaths being the consumption of bacterially contaminated water. The economic consequences of this are dire; the World Bank estimates that water pollution costs Pakistan around $6 billion, or roughly 4% of its GDP annually.

The scope of this threat is truly overwhelming. By one estimate from the Ministry for Science and Technology, 84% of the population does not have access to clean drinking water, 14% of whom drink water that is seriously contaminated with arsenic. Another report found that 77% of rural and 70% of urban dwellers are drinking water that could seriously jeopardise their health. Aside from a small minority of the population that can afford quality tested bottled water, this is a problem affecting virtually all of Pakistan.

Yet, for a problem of such gravity, what is most striking is that it is in fact entirely avoidable. Western countries have minimal rates of diseases such typhoid and cholera and even our immediate neighbor China only has (proportionally) 3% of the deaths that Pakistan suffers through water-related illnesses. The answer is not rocket science, but rather requires planning from a government that is committed to tackling the problem.

Enter the Pakistan and provincial governments. On paper, they seem to be taking a lot of steps in the right direction. In 2015 for example, at an estimated cost of $33 million, the Government of Sindh launched 750 Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants in various regions as part of a three-phase project to purify drinking water by desalinating underground saline water. Last year it also unveiled the “Sindh Drinking Water Policy 2017” which laid out its plans to provide safe drinking water across the province. Similarly, the Punjab Government launched its Saaf Paani Initiative in 2014 which aimed to provide clean water to 600 villages in the province at an estimated cost of PKR 210 billion. So far so good.

Reality however is a stark letdown, as laid bare by a report from the Director General Audit Sindh. It found that around PKR 22 billion have been wasted in the installation of 2000 RO plants around Sindh and Karachi in the last few years. Upon inspection, 1621 RO plants, including all 19 plants in Karachi, 125 plants in Tharparkar and 118 plants in Umerkot, Badin and Thatta were found to be non-functional while several other RO plants were found to be producing water unfit for human consumption. The government official in charge of the tender process, former Minister of Sindh (Local Government Department) and close ally of Asif Ali Zardari, Owais Muzaffar aka Tappi, was found to have awarded the contract to a single company without an open tender process. Unsuspiciously, the company in question — Pak Oasis Company — is allegedly owned by Mr. Tappi himself.

The Saaf Paani Initiative in Punjab too has suffered a similar fate. In 2016, three officers were removed from the project after an inquiry into a PKR 80 billion increase in the cost of the project. The initiative remains under a NAB (National Accountability Bureau) investigation to this date for alleged irregularities, and just days ago the Punjab Chief Secretary informed the Supreme Court that despite spending more than PKR 4 billion and the passage of four years, the Saaf Paani initiative has yet to actually provide a single drop of clean water to the citizens of Punjab.

The clean water crisis is unsexy. It does not evoke a theatre of horror like cases of terrorism, nor does it enrage the population like issues of geopolitical importance. But it poses perhaps the single greatest imminent threat to Pakistan. Sadly yet predictably, our government has been found woefully negligent in its response.

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