How sewage waste makes its way into our kitchens

Updated 19 Dec, 2016 12:56pm
View from Masood Raza's balcony overlooking vegetables fields behind Shah Faisal Colony Block 5 | Photographs by Saman Ghani Khan
View from Masood Raza's balcony overlooking vegetables fields behind Shah Faisal Colony Block 5 | Photographs by Saman Ghani Khan

There are few places right in the middle of Karachi where one can look outside the window and see green pastures dotted with trees for hundreds of acres. Shah Faisal Colony, Block 5, is one of such exceptional localities lined along the Malir river basin.

“How many people do you know who wake up to this every morning?” says Masood Raza, a 33-year-old television journalist, whose house stands at the edge of the residential area where urban bungalows abruptly end and cultivated fields begin.

Lying adjacent to Mehran Naval Base, just south of Jinnah International Airport, this neighbourhood flanks the Malir River for about 20 kilometres before it meets the ocean. Raza’s family moved here 50 years ago. He remembers playing football in the open fields behind his house and taking dips in the river water that used to inundate the basin during the flooding season.

The change in the scenery has been dramatic since then. Open fields are now lush green vegetable farms as far as one can see. But the olfactory transformation of the areas has been nothing less than traumatic. As Raza walks through sludge where once fresh river water flowed, the rancid and familiar odour of sewage dominates the air. An elaborate waste water irrigation system runs along vast stretches of vegetable beds and animal fodder fields where once a gleaming river existed. “Twenty years ago pools of sweet drinking water would collect here, annually. It was so clear you could see to the bottom,” Raza says.

Vegetables grown with untreated waste water are toxic and have been proven, several times over, to be unfit for human consumption.

Nourished by the city’s sewage and industrial waste from nearby Korangi and Landhi areas, vegetables that emerge from this reeking sludge are surprisingly green and deceptively healthy-looking. To the unsuspecting eye, the produce of the area, which include spinach, tori (ridge gourd), green chilli, and karela (bitter gourd), appear perfectly normal — even attractive.

There is something unappetising about associating food with human waste. It is also a serious public health hazard. Vegetables grown with untreated waste water are toxic and have been proven, several times over, to be unfit for human consumption. Not only is the sale of these vegetables unethical but it is also illegal. Section 273 of the Pakistan Penal Code clearly states that it is a punishable offence to sell any food or drink item which is “noxious”, or unfit for people to consume. The Pure Food Ordinance 1960 also holds a seller responsible for supplying foods, including raw vegetables, which are poisonous.

The only pools of water that exist in this part of the Malir basin today have a sickly green and blackish colour that even the birds and insects stay clear of.

Two large pipes jut out from the ground and white foam collects at the opening, as a seemingly endless supply of waste flows out from the pipes, causing the rocks around them to take on a peculiar red colour. “Have you ever seen a rock of this colour?” asks Raza.

These pipes are part of an innovative irrigation system. Sewage lines that transport the city’s untreated waste to the Malir River have been blocked and pumps have been installed to divert the waste water flowing through those pipelines – considered fertile, cheap and available – to a rectangular system of canals that criss-cross the fields. Somebody has gone through a lot of trouble to set all this up.

With assured year-round supply in a city where water is scarce, waste water irrigation has the added benefit of higher cropping intensities, with twice as much yield compared to fields irrigated with normal water. With insufficient food regulation, poor monitoring and law enforcement and, in many cases, murky land ownership, it is easy to understand why someone would try to exploit the situation at the cost of public health.

Whose land is it anyway?

Two young men on a motorcycle appear out of nowhere in the middle of the green chilli pasture and park at a short distance from where Raza is standing. They are not farmers. “Don’t worry; everyone knows who I am around here. They are probably just keeping watch,” says Raza.

He then approaches an old man by the name of Chaudhary who is taking refuge under a tree from the scorching summer sun. Chaudhary has been tending to this land before Raza was even born. “These are poor farmers [Chaudhary and others working on the fields nearby] who get a small percentage of sales. This land is actually owned by the government and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Shouldn’t the landowner be held responsible [for the poisonous produce grown in the farms]?”

Water pump providing toxic wastewater to fields neat Shah Faisal Colony
Water pump providing toxic wastewater to fields neat Shah Faisal Colony

“Growing vegetables using waste water from Malir River is illegal,” says Zubair Channa, the deputy commissioner of Korangi Town. He also shares a report with the Herald on the cultivated land behind Shah Faisal Colony. According to the document, at least 105 acres owned by the Revenue Department have been rented out to one Safdar Shah, who is a deputy superintendent of police in Sukkur. He has then rented it out to smaller contractors who farm the land. Channa is clear that a third party cannot rent out government land, unless they are encroaching.

Visiting the area, one finds out that the acreage where illegal cultivation is taking place is much larger than just 105 acres that find mention in Channa’s report. A few hundred acres of land are owned by the PAF and are leased out to Shah for “agricultural purposes”, a PAF official requesting anonymity, tells the Herald.

Shah, surprisingly, denies having anything to do with “a single yard” of the land near Shah Faisal Colony, Block 5.

Jamil Ahmed Balouch, additional director Land Acquisition Cell of Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s Karachi Development Authority Wing, has an entirely different take on who actually owns the land. “The air force may claim it owns some of the land [near Shah Faisal Colony] but this land belongs to the Sindh Government’s Revenue Department and the air force has no right to rent it out,” he says. According to Balouch, who has also served as deputy director of land in Korangi, the PAF may be claiming ownership of the land because it was once allowed to use it as a firing range (around the time of Partition).

An old story

Waste water irrigation to grow vegetables in the city is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. It has been practiced in many cities since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, according to a 2004 nationwide assessment of waste water by the International Water Association.

The farms running along Shah Faisal Colony form only a small percentage of the total cultivated area in Karachi where waste water is being used. A 2013 study by the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) that measured the toxicity of vegetables grown in the Malir river basin identified 10,000 acres of cultivated land where this practice is taking place. Dr Mubarak Ahmed, director general at the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), estimates that close to 10 per cent of Karachi’s residents are exposed to these vegetables, especially those living near where they are cultivated.

Waste water irrigation to grow vegetables in the city is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan.

In 2012, Sindh Minister for Environment Sheikh Muhammad Afzal calculated that about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the city’s vegetables were grown with waste water. His figures include produce grown using waste water from the Lyari River, which is now reduced to a sewage drain. A well-known haven for vegetable farms that draw water from the polluted Lyari river closer to the city’s south-western coastline is the area aptly known as Gutter Baghicha (Gutter Garden). Like Shah Faisal Colony, this land is also surrounded by controversy. Officially it comes under the Karachi Municipal Corporation but the people growing vegetables here have all encroached upon it.

A waste water treatment plant near Gutter Baghicha, one of three in the city, is supposed to remove harmful pathogens from the waste water before it is dumped into the drain. There are, however, conflicting reports about whether this plant is functional. Official figures from the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) show that, even if it were functional, it runs at less than half its optimum capacity. With more than 2000 factories located in the neighbouring SITE area, the treatment plant is of little use in reducing toxins in waste water.

Not fit for human consumption

“The only way to be safe from harmful food is to grow vegetables in your backyard and keep a cow for milk,” Raza says.

Vegetables absorb heavy metals from polluted soil and water, thus contaminating the food chain at all levels. While water in the Malir River is relatively safe further upstream from Shah Faisal Colony, once it flows down towards Quaidabad and further south, a large portion of the city’s untreated sewage and industrial waste mixes with its water to form a dangerous cocktail that not only contains harmful pathogens from human waste, but toxic elements as well.

Suparco’s study found that some vegetables grown in 20 farms along the Malir riverbanks near Mehran Town, Quaidabad, Shah Faisal Colony, Malir, Qayyumabad, F-Colony – to name a few areas – contained concentrations of heavy metals well above the permissible levels set by World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Certain heavy metals such as lead, the study points out, can be toxic or poisonous even in small concentrations. In excess, elements like cadmium, copper, chromium and iron can lead to a host of health problems such as kidney failure, weakened bones, cancer, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, fatigue, loss of weight and high blood pressure. High levels of lead and zinc have been documented to disrupt the nervous system and even cause brain damage.

Even if the industrial waste is excluded from the waste water, untreated sewage will still be unfit for irrigation purposes. Sahar Aman, a microbiologist at PARC, says certain invasive bacteria present in sewage can be absorbed by the crop — although the health risk such bacteria may cause are much smaller compared to heavy metal contamination.

“These toxins (heavy metals) affect various bodily functions but they do not affect everyone in the same way, so it is hard to quantify their impact,” says Dr Abbas Bhatti, a senior scientist at PARC, who led a PARC team which studied crops found along the banks of the Malir River. Their findings, which preceded Suparco’s research, found similar toxicity trends.

Suparco’s report compares the toxicity levels of vegetable crops grown near the Malir River with those randomly selected from the city’s vegetable market which gets more than 90 per cent of the vegetables cultivated with safe water. The results show a stark contrast between the two.

Sabzi Mandi
Sabzi Mandi

This is not to say that Suparco did not find any toxic samples from the vegetable market. Indeed, the Herald’s enquiries at the market, reveal that vegetables being supplied from here are not completely safe. Several vendors say they get their produce from Malir, depending on the season, not specifying which area in Malir. One prominent seller, known as the king of leafy vegetables, is reluctant to reveal the irrigation methods of some of his suppliers at first, but later, he says that vegetables from Gutter Baghicha, such as spinach, sometimes make their way to the market.

“Farmers have no choice but to use sewage or mixed water due to limited water supply,” he says.

The market, however, is a tricky place to get credible information from sellers about their produce. In a place where hundreds of vendors sell the same product under one roof, competition is intense and for an outsider to decipher if a person is being honest is challenging, to say the least.

Public awareness

Raza is not only concerned as a citizen and consumer but also as a journalist working for one of the country’s biggest television news channels, Geo News. He feels it is his job to highlight the issue. “It is completely unethical,” he says.

His news coverage of toxic vegetables, in February 2012, raised red flags for many consumers as well as public representatives. Roshan Ali Sheikh, the then commissioner of Karachi, was jolted into taking action. He gave orders to bulldoze hundreds of acres of crops along the banks of the Malir River, publicly vowing to continue doing so until the practice was eliminated from the city. One month after Raza’s report was aired, several legislators tried to pass a resolution in the Sindh Assembly against the use of toxic water, as it was clearly a public health hazard.

In a place where hundreds of vendors sell the same product under one roof, competition is intense and for an outsider to decipher if a person is being honest is challenging.

Dr Abid Husnain, chairman of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Karachi, is among many other people who have tried to raise public awareness on the issue. He believes toxic vegetables will continue to make their way to our homes in the absence of concerned agencies, especially the government, taking responsibility and implementing the laws in place to protect the public.

The blame game

With conflicting reports on who owns the fertile, yet environmentally compromised land, behind Shah Faisal Colony, efforts to remove toxic vegetable farms become less straightforward.

“It is our responsibility to stop the illegal cultivation of toxic vegetables,” says Channa, as he acknowledges that monitoring and keeping record of these practices is a major problem.

“I could take a bulldozer now and get rid of these crops, but there will be so many agencies, who may or may not have a stake in the land, that will stand in my way,” he explains.

Flowing sewage
Flowing sewage

While it may be the city administration’s job to stop the cultivation of poisonous vegetables, other agencies can also play a role by streamlining their own functions. The KWSB, at least on paper, has the authority to remove installations of illegal pumps from its sewage pipes. Zahid Husain, the KWSB’s superintending engineer for Shah Faisal Town, recalls several futile attempts made by the board’s personnel with the support of the city’s administration to remove illegal cultivation of crops using waste water. “Whenever we remove an illegal water pump, it comes back shortly afterwards. We have nobody to hold responsible in these situations, as there is no contact person on site,” he says.

According to the KWSB’s website, only two of its three waste water treatment plants are working and they are processing around 11 per cent of the city’s sewage at Gutter Baghicha and Mauripur. More than 400 million gallons of waste water are being dumped untreated into the rivers – and, ultimately, into the ocean – everyday.

Standing on the balcony of the fourth floor of his home, Raza can see farmers preparing for the new crop on the fields where the authorities had once taken ‘action’. He regrets that the practice of using toxic water to irrigate vegetables is unlikely to stop.

“There is a lot of money at stake,” he says.

This article was originally published in the Herald's August 2014 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.