Muddy waters

Published 05 Dec, 2017 06:04pm
Children carry empty containers on their way to collect drinking water | Shutterstock
Children carry empty containers on their way to collect drinking water | Shutterstock

Water sparkles at a luxury golf club and water resort just off Multan Road. The environment inside its premises is rarefied — meticulously manicured lawns, well-maintained golf greens and artificial sandpits are lined by diligently designed tree plantations. Water sport facilities are interspersed over a large area. The clear blue sky above the resort and the crystal clear water raining down from what its management calls a “splash zone” belie its surroundings. It is located amid one of the most heavily industrialised – and also highly polluted – tracts of land near Lahore. Factories and plants of all types emit poisonous smoke and spew dangerous waste right around the bucolic atmosphere of the resort. Groundwater in the area is poisonous, the land is singed with chemicals and the air noxious with hazardous fumes.

Located about 36 kilometres south of Lahore’s Thokar Niaz Beg flyover, this area was agricultural country before industry arrived here in the 1990s. Rice, vegetable, wheat, sugarcane and many other crops grew here in abundance. Soon after industrial units started draining their waste water into these fertile lands, they started losing their virility and vigour. The worse was yet to come.

Lahore-based Urdu daily Khabrain reported in 1998 that a large number of children studying in Kulalanwala village in this area were developing bone deformities. Most people were initially incredulous due to the sensational way the newspaper had covered the story but everyone was shocked when similar stories appeared in other and better reputed newspapers.

Basharat Ali, a young man in his late twenties, lives in Kot Asadullah, a village adjoining Kulalanwala. He was one of the hundreds of children whose cases were reported in the 1990s. All of them had developed limp legs, rotten teeth and skewed arms. Even after growing up, their ailments did not go away. Ali lurches both forward and sideways as he walks. “Whether old or young, we all have pain in our joints,” he says. “We experience difficulties in getting up and sitting down. A lot of people have problems with their teeth,” he adds.

Immediately after the discovery of widespread bone and joint diseases in the area, many government teams, non-government agencies and journalists descended on Kulalanwala and Kot Asadullah. Some started taking soil and water samples for testing, others began collecting personal narratives of misery and suffering, and a third group set up camps to provide whatever medical services they could offer through their makeshift facilities. The Punjab government – headed by incumbent Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif back then too – transported scores of children to various government hospitals in Lahore for corrective surgeries and other treatments. Ali considers himself lucky for being one of those children.

Water and soil tests later revealed that levels of arsenic, fluoride and various other metals and minerals, which are injurious to human health, were much higher than is medically permissible in the drinking water available to residents of Kulalanwala, Kot Asadullah and other villages in the area. The revelation prompted the provincial administration to promise that water filtration plants will be set up in the two villages without any delay.

Instead, the issue soon shifted to the inside pages of newspapers. The provincial government’s attention was also diverted towards the myriad other problems it was facing, including threats to its own existence, which came to an end in October 1999 when Pervez Musharraf’s military regime took over. Approximately twenty years have passed since the problem of poisonous water first surfaced in the twin villages and they still do not have a functional water filtration plant. “The situation has not really improved,” says Ali.

This is an excerpt from the Herald's December 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.