People & Society

The problems caused by mishandled industrial waste

Updated 20 May, 2019 02:31pm

Part One

Blue blobs are floating above dark pink water in a drain in an industrial area of Karachi; teal green bubbles are circling wildly over a slow-moving liquid surface at a factory nearby; a river in the same area is dotted with what looks like snow-white candyfloss foam and a neighbouring creek has the sheen of a mirror placed in the sun.

This patchwork of colours and forms, though attractive to look at, not just smells foul but is also poisonous. A kilometre away from the rainbow, the water’s surface looks deathly still. It has all turned into blue splotches.

The locale of this spectacle is Karachi’s Korangi Industrial Area and its parts are formed by various types of untreated industrial waste. The single largest carrier of these noxious effluents here is a drain that carries them into the Malir river which, in turn, flows into the Arabian Sea. Dark pink, almost maroon, water rushes through the drain, looking menacingly polluted.

The uneven banks of the drain are peppered with mounds of dirty earth, topped by even bigger mounds of trash — mainly plastics. The possibility that this garbage may slip into the sludge flowing below looks very real. A number of young rag pickers are busy sifting through the piles of earth and waste, and filling their sacks with whatever reusable stuff they can find.

“Cleaning the drain is a responsibility of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB),” points out Dr Ashiq Ali Langah, the director for initial environmental assessment (IEE) at the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa). He has seen deterioration in not just the drain’s level of cleanliness but also in Korangi’s overall physical environment since Sepa’s headquarters shifted here from Clifton 12 years ago. “[Everything] has changed for the worse,” he says.

This is despite the fact that Karachi’s lone combined effluent treatment plant has been housed in Korangi, not quite far from the drain, since 2007. It was set up by the Pakistan Tanners Association, in collaboration with the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, the federal government, the government of Netherlands, provincial government of Sindh and the City District Government Karachi, at a total cost of 492 million rupees. (Its sponsors and operators have plans to upgrade it by 2020 at an estimated cost of 530 million rupees.)

Located near a place called Chamra Chowrangi, named so because of a number of chamra – leather – tanning factories around it, the plant was put in place because of pressure from foreign buyers, says Mohammad Sultan who works as its manager administration. The buyers forced local leather manufacturers to make their production processes compliant with international environmental standards, he says.

The plant is spread over 15 acres of land. It consists of several round and rectangular receptacles, a network of pipes, some tanks and a sludge drying area. Dark brown water in one of its huge surface tanks looks almost still from the rooftop of its administration block — until one looks closely to find it churning, slowly but constantly.

Waste water at Karachi’s only combined effluent treatment plant in Korangi Industrial Area | Zofeen T Ebrahim
Waste water at Karachi’s only combined effluent treatment plant in Korangi Industrial Area | Zofeen T Ebrahim

The plant is clearly not enough. Korangi Industrial Area has 673 big, small and medium industries, according to Sepa’s website, but the plant treats waste water of only about 400 factories — 120 of them being tanneries. Out of the rest, only 24 industrial units have their own waste water treatment plants. About 80 other tanneries and more than a hundred other industrial units release their untreated liquid waste directly into the drain.

Capacity is not the only problem at the plant.

Designed for treating effluents from tanneries, it also receives toxic waste from 280 or so other factories — including the manufacturers of soaps, detergents, garments, lubricants and textiles. They are sending their waste to the plant without paying for its treatment. “We are unable to stop the effluent of [these] factories being discharged into our reservoirs,” says Mohammad Ali, an engineer working at the plant.

The plant also does not run at its full capacity. It treats more than 20,000 cubic metres of waste water each day although it can treat more than double that amount. Its treated water is supposed to flow into the drain through a pipe which looks suspiciously dry and decrepit.

All these flaws leave a question mark on the efficacy of the plant. Dr Ghulam Murtaza, a researcher at the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, questions the very amount of effluents being treated here. “If a huge amount of waste is being treated then how come the treated effluents are not being discharged into the drain?” he asks. When he raised this point during a recent visit to the plant, its engineer remained silent.

Murtaza says he was also horrified to know from the engineer that the solid waste – turned into a cake form – is put outside the plant from where it is lifted by waste disposal companies. This could be a dangerous practice, he says. “The waste still has chromium, lead and mercury in it [which make it] extremely harmful for human health even in solid form. It needs to be handled with extreme care,” he says. “What if it gets mixed with groundwater or surface water?”

Murtaza is not impressed by the plant’s laboratory either. “This laboratory should be well-equipped and be manned by qualified people to ensure credible measurements of waste water,” he says. The analysis of water coming into the plant and that getting out should also be carried out by independent agencies periodically, he adds, in order to ascertain if the plant is treating the waste effectively.

The plant’s safety record, too, is not entirely unblemished. Four of its workers, according to daily Dawn, lost their lives “after inhaling poisonous gas leaked” from one of its valve chambers back in 2009.

Fixing these problems does not seem to be on the cards though. Indeed, even to keep the plant running is increasingly becoming a problem as the number of factories willing to pay for its operations is declining. A recovery officer at the plant says he visits a dozen or so tanneries every day to recover overdue costs but finds it increasingly difficult to make the industrialists clear their accounts. “Nobody wants to pay.”

A waste treatment appliance sucking in smoke and turning it into ash | Murtaza Ali, White Star
A waste treatment appliance sucking in smoke and turning it into ash | Murtaza Ali, White Star

There are over 10,000 big and small industries in Karachi but only 4,500 of them are registered with the provincial environment authorities, according to a Sepa survey. Most of them are located in seven industrial zones in different parts of Karachi such the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, Landhi, Korangi, Malir, Federal B Area, North Karachi, Super Highway and Port Qasim.

There are more than 65 different types of industries in the city — including tanneries, foundries, metal processors, manufacturers of plastic, rubber, glass, ceramics, tiles, cement, textiles, pharmaceuticals, soaps and detergents, fish processing units, producers of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, and the makers of edible oils and cars.

“The biggest hurdle in enforcing [environmental] laws is the absence of zoning,” says Sepa’s Langah. There could be a tannery next to a pharmaceutical industry or a textile factory next to a steel mill or a cooking oil processor next to a car-maker. “There is just no planning,” he says.

If he were empowered to bring some order in the industry sector, he says, he would immediately “cluster” factories together based on what they produce. This, according to him, will help government agencies handle different types of solid waste in accordance with different requirements for its disposal. It will also be useful in deciding which industrial area needs what kind of an effluent treatment plant, he says.

Individual factories cleaning up their act as much as they can on their own is another factor that can contribute enormously to a proper industrial waste disposal. Langah says this is exactly what the Sindh Environmental Proctection Act, 2014 requires. It makes it mandatory for each factory to set up a primary effluent treatment plant on its premises, he says. “Factories need to carry out the first round of cleaning on their own premises before letting out their waste. If they do not do so, there is always the danger of a [combined effluent treatment plant] getting choked.”

There are factories in Karachi that have in-house effluent treatment plants. A manufacturer of denim cloth, for instance, has set up treatment plants at all its four factories in Korangi Industrial Area since 2004. Its factories in Landhi and Nooriabad also have similar plants.

“It all boils down to economics,” says its general manager. “If we do not comply [with global environmental standards], we do not get buyers. Without buyers, we are out of business,” he says.

This company’s treatment plants run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They keep running even during holidays. Each plant has a standby power generator to provide a backup in case electricity fails. Each of them also has spare parts and mechanics at hand to fix technical problems as soon as they arise. The plants are monitored by a company in Germany to ensure these treat the effluent to the desired levels.

A confectionery producer also has its own treatment plant. Set up in 2017, the plant has a capacity to treat 600 cubic metres of waste water each day. “We are treating 300 cubic metres of waste water every day as of now but we will be running the plant to its full capacity after an expected expansion in our business in the future,” says a company official who oversees its health, safety and environment wing.

Other industrialists whose factories do not have internal arrangements for waste disposal like to point out that setting up treatment plants at each industrial unit is not financially feasible. Individual factory owners either do not have money or they lack enough space to set up an in-house plant, says Saleem-uz-Zaman who heads an environment committee at the Korangi Association of Trade and Industry. “A treatment plant can cost anywhere between 30 million and 40 million rupees” he says, and will require a large piece of land too.

To overcome these obstacles, the provincial government has recently asked KWSB to set up combined treatment plants in five of the seven industrial estates in Karachi. “We are all so relieved,” says Zaman. The factory owners, according to him, are willing to pool money to bear the operational cost of these plants.

At the same time, however, he does not exhibit much confidence in KWSB’s ability to build and run these proposed plants in an efficient manner. It “cannot even carry out” its core functions of providing water and drainage to the city, he says, “what to talk of adding more” to its duties.

Untreated effluent flowing into a water drain in Faisalabad | Murtaza Ali, White Star
Untreated effluent flowing into a water drain in Faisalabad | Murtaza Ali, White Star

Only a few industries ensure that the solid residues of their production processes are dried, pressed into cakes and then burned to ashes in incinerators. Others do not know where their solid waste ends up. “Earlier we would put our residues outside our factory wherefrom it would be picked up by waste disposal companies but Sepa officials have become very strict,” says a manager at a tannery in Korangi. Now the waste is kept inside factories until it is lifted by a disposal company which often does not treat it the way it should be treated.

In theory, it must end up at incinerators. Karachi has two of them — one each in Korangi and Port Qasim. They are meant for burning down waste from pharmaceuticals, chemical industries and food manufacturers. Some industrial waste is also incinerated at two other facilities – originally set up for burning hospital waste – that are run by the city government.

A number of Sepa-certified private companies also offer solid waste disposal services to industries. This, though, is set to change with the implementation of a recently approved law, Sindh Solid Waste Management Board Act, 2014, which makes these companies ineligible to do what they are doing now. The act does not absolve individual industries and industry associations of the primary responsibility to manage and remove their industrial waste, but it bars them from engaging private companies for the purpose. All waste disposal services, under the law, will be provided only by a single government entity, Sindh Solid Waste Management Board.

“We are working on a feasibility study for a scientific treatment of industrial waste,” says Almas Saleem, a deputy director at the board. “Once that study concludes, we may start disposing of industrial waste after signing service agreements with concerned industry organisations,” he says.

Sceptics remain wary. Before preparing a feasibility study, they say, authentic and verifiable data should have been collected on how much industrial waste is actually generated in Karachi, how many dumpers and staff will be needed for its disposal, and how hazardous and non-hazardous waste will be separated. Similarly, they say, there should be a proper assessment of how many incinerators the city requires to dispose of hazardous industrial waste and how the recycling industry and scavengers can be involved to retrieve reusable materials.

Others doubt if the SSWMB can handle the city’s industrial waste at all. As Langah asks: when, five years after its formation, it is still struggling to collect and dispose of non-industrial urban waste, how can it be trusted to take care of more complex types of trash such as the residues of industrial production?

In the absence of a unified citywide mechanism for the removal of industrial waste, what Karachi has is a mishmash. Hundreds of thousands of rag pickers, usually boys in their early teens, unregistered contractors and small companies rummage through the trash to find anything reusable and saleable — all these together, by default, constitute the city’s industrial waste disposal mechanism. A lot of trash that factories either do not care about or have little means to tackle still gets handled because ‘one man’s waste is another man’s treasure’.

The problem with this informal arrangement is that waste collectors are often unaware of the hazards they might be exposed to. They are also only concerned about what can be reused and sold. The rest is often thrown at open garbage dumps along roads.

Metal scrap being burnt to separate steel from other metals | Murtaza Ai, White Star
Metal scrap being burnt to separate steel from other metals | Murtaza Ai, White Star

Shehri, or Citizens for a Better Environment, was formed in 1988 as a non-profit organisation. Among its founding members were Qazi Faez Isa, who is now a judge at the Supreme Court, and Dr Kaiser Bengali, an economist who has advised both the government and international donors on social development issues.

A 2015 study by Shehri, Karachi’s Industrial Estates, revealed that the liquid, solid and gaseous emissions of the city’s industrial sector were poorly monitored and regulated. The problem, according to the authors of the study, stemmed from the fact that government officials were unable to enforce laws. They were equally unsuccessful in convincing industrialists that it made good economic sense for them to make environment-friendly changes in their production processes.

Sepa, the main government entity responsible for enforcing environmental rules and regulations, does not inspire much confidence in its capability. If the environs of its own headquarters – strewn with all kinds of trash – are anything to go by, it does not seem well suited for the task assigned to it.

Naeem Mughal, Sepa’s director general, shifts uncomfortably in his seat as he talks about his organisation’s problems. “We have our share of challenges, the biggest being capacity — both financial and human,” he says.

Another senior official, Langah, argues it is next to impossible for Sepa to monitor over 10,000 factories spread all over Karachi “with just under two dozen inspectors”. Even these inspectors do not have access to enough motorcycles and they do not get sufficient fuel allowance to move around the city, he says.

Sepa also does not have the expertise to conduct high quality tests required for monitoring air and water pollution. Shahab Usto, a Karachi-based lawyer and an environmental activist, recalls how, during a recent visit to the Sepa head office, he found expensive laboratory equipment and state-of-the-art air monitoring system lying unused.

Others say Sepa is so corrupt that it will fail to protect the city’s environment even if it has all the financial and human resources it is asking for. They allege that it either colludes with violators of environmental laws or looks the other way when they indulge in violations.

Many of those doing regular business with Sepa say – off the record, of course – that there is a nexus between Sepa, the laboratories that conduct environmental tests and a handful of firms that provide consultancies to businesses on environmental problems. This is a “highly organised racket” with no one willing to talk about it, says one of these insiders. “A person wanting to set up an industry has to get a no-objection certificate from Sepa which asks that person to get the initial environmental examination and the environmental impact assessment of his project done from Sepa’s ‘favourite’ consulting firms,” he claims. “If you do not get the assessments done by those firms, you will struggle to obtain clearance and risk delays in your project,” he alleges.

Another insider says Sepa helps polluting industries avoid penalties. If and when an industrial unit runs the risk of losing its permission to operate for violating environmental laws, it goes to a lab that works in collusion with Sepa and gets its emission data fudged, he claims. This way it continues to operate, spewing pollutants into the environment, he says.

Even when industrialists are not in cahoots with Sepa, they are generally wary of any government interference in their businesses. “When a government official pays us a visit, the first thought that comes to our minds is that he will needlessly find some fault in the way we work,” says the security chief at a denim manufacturer. “This fault then gets rectified only by greasing that official’s palm,” he says.

Langah retorts that “bribery is never one-sided”. Industrialists who violate laws “try underhand means” to make us “look the other way”.

He says, on paper, Sepa has sweeping powers to inspect factories as and when it likes but, in reality, those powers are never exercised. “It is within our mandate to pay them surprise visits ... but we dare not,” he says. “We have to cajole them and take their permission.”

If and when Sepa takes industrialists to task, Langah says, “they accuse us of either harassment or bribery”. As he puts it: “There is no way to win from powerful and influential industrialists.”

Waqar Phulpoto, an additional director at Sepa, argues the real reason for his organisation’s failure to implement environmental laws is that it is a “toothless” entity. It does not have its own enforcement wing, he says. This wing, according to him, should have the same job description and powers as the enforcement wings of other civic bodies such as the Sindh Building Control Authority and the excise, taxation, and narcotics control department. It should have powers to raid factories, register cases and arrest polluters, he says. “We need it for an effective implementation of environmental laws.”

His organisation has had a glimpse of such power after a high-powered water commission, set up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2016 on a petition filed by lawyer Usto, put its entire judicial weight behind Sepa. Working under a recently retired Supreme Court judge, Amir Hani Muslim, the commission conducted regular hearings and made frequent raids at sites alleged to be hindering or harming water supplies to Karachi in particular and Sindh in general. It also helped Sepa when in 2018 it wanted to carry out a survey of factories in Site. “Where we met with resistance, the [apex] court would appoint magistrates and depute police to help us get into the factories,” Phulpoto says.

Waste water outside a tannery in Karachi | Zofeen T Ebrahim
Waste water outside a tannery in Karachi | Zofeen T Ebrahim

Even then 77 factories did not allow Sepa teams to enter their premises, he says. This made the Supreme Court order the owners of those factories to appear before it and tender a written apology. “Still 15 or so of them refused to appear.” So, says Phulpoto, cases were lodged against them.

The lesson that Sepa has learnt from this exercise is that courts are the best place to make the breakers of law pay — especially when some judges themselves are proactively working to protect the environment. The only problem with such judicial initiatives is that they always have an expiry date. As soon as an environmentally aware judge leaves the court, the steps taken by him also come to an end. The water commission, for instance, did not get an extension after its original tenure expired in January this year. This was mainly because Justice Saqib Nisar, who had set it up, retired as Chief Justice of Pakistan in the same month.

Predictably, Usto is now worried about the future of the commission’s accomplishments. He says the “huge amount of work” initiated by the commission will now come to naught. “Many industries may have already returned to their old ways.”

He is particularly concerned over the reinstatement of Sepa’s director general Naeem Mughal who was earlier removed by the Supreme Court. Usto plans to challenge his reinstatement if corruption and inefficiency continue to mar Sepa’s working under Mughal.

The other major problem with taking the courtroom route is that it stretches Sepa’s already meagre human resources even thinner. The organisation’s senior officials find themselves occupied more with court appearances than with monitoring and checking pollution on the ground.

Also, since Sepa does not have a dedicated legal cell and does not have money to hire lawyers from outside, it seldom succeeds in winning a court battle. As Phulpoto puts it: “We often get stumped by the top-notch lawyers hired by big industrialists.”

Treated and untreated waste water discharged into a storm drain in Korangi  | Zofeen T Ebrahim
Treated and untreated waste water discharged into a storm drain in Korangi | Zofeen T Ebrahim

Part Two

Since smog became its own season during the dry rain-starved winter months in Punjab, the provincial government has introduced an anti-smog policy. Approved in October 2017, it states: “A wide range of small to medium-scale industries, including brick kilns and steel re-rolling mills make a much larger contribution [to smog] as compared to the size of their economic activity due to the use of “waste” fuels such as old tires, paper, wood, and textile waste.”

The environmental impact of these industries is visible even to the naked eye in Punjab’s two largest metropolises — Lahore and Faisalabad. The two cities house the highest number of factories after Karachi and are, unsurprisingly, counted among 10 places in the world with worst air quality.

Brick kilns seem like an obvious culprit for this state of affairs. They are everywhere on Lahore’s outskirts — even in areas that once used to be outside the city but are now parts of its bustling residential neighbourhoods. The black dense smoke that emits from their chimneys is a familiar sight in this part of the country.

Last winter, the Punjab government placed brick kilns at the top of the polluters against whom it decided to take action. It divided the province into three zones – green, yellow and red – depending on their air quality and, for two months, starting from November 3, ordered the closure of all brick kilns in the red zone that includes Lahore and has the worst air quality. (Kiln owners moved the Lahore High Court against the closure and had it restricted to less than a month.)

Some of them, though, used the closure as an opportunity to improve their production processes. A kiln near Thokar Niaz Baig, a village on the southern edge of Lahore, shows how this has been done.

Located off a busy road that leads to Lahore-Islamabad motorway, the kiln is surrounded by localities that house educational institutions, markets and a few thousand residences. Its untreated smoke can potentially threaten many lives.

On a recent spring afternoon, its owner Muhammad Islam is wearing a dark blue shalwar kameez with a matching waistcoat and a pair of sturdy black shoes which have a thick rubber sole — fit for a walk on a smouldering surface. As he moves around above the kiln’s furnace, heat seems to emanate from underneath his feet, travelling imperceptibly but quickly upwards.

A greyish smoke is coming out of the bluish chimney jutting straight out into the sky from the furnace. The smoke looks almost like dark grey clouds. Another kiln right next to it, also owned by Islam, has a blackened chimney that is releasing thick black smoke.

“I was the first one to use a new technique for baking bricks in Pakistan,” he says, all smiles, as he stretches his arm towards unbaked bricks laid out in front of him.

Here is how the new technique differs from the old one: at an ordinary kiln, unbaked bricks are lined in neat rows in the furnace; hot air that passes through them leaves the furnace unhindered to escape through the chimney. The environment-friendly technique requires bricks to be lined in a way that they create obstacles in the way of hot air, trapping most pollutants inside the furnace rather than allowing them to escape into the atmosphere. Coal inserted into the furnace is also crushed to a powdered form so that its carbon content burns down to the maximum. The most important constituent of the new technique is a blower that makes hot air rotate through the furnace.

Kiln owners are required to use the new technique by a new Punjab government policy formulated as per the recommendations of a commission set up on December 19, 2017, by the Lahore High Court. The commission’s mandate was “to formulate a smog policy for Punjab [in order] to protect and safeguard the life and health of the people of [the province]”. It later identified many contributors to smog, chief among them being brick kilns, various industries, emissions from motor vehicles and the burning of urban and agricultural waste.

One of the commission’s main recommendations wanted the provincial government to ensure that 200 kilns “be upgraded to [a] more efficient” technique.

Though the commission also suggested the provincial government provide credit facility to kiln owners, build their capacity and transfer technology to them, most of the upgrading has happened without provincial administration’s involvement. The absence of official support is a major reason why the scale of change in brick kilns remains small so far. Without government money coming to their aid, most kiln owners find the costs of the new technique to be prohibitive.

A kiln equipped with the new technique costs 3.3-3.5 million rupees in total. The blower alone costs around 600,000 rupees. The technology required for putting together the blower, according to Islam, does not exist in Pakistan. Kiln owners, therefore, are experimenting with different shapes and structures to see which one works the best and lasts the longest. More often than not, their experiments also fail.

While capital costs of building kilns with the new technique are high, these kilns need much less money for their running costs than that required by traditional kilns, says Islam. The new technique is fuel efficient because it helps coal burn longer and keeps almost all the hot air within the furnace. It, thus, saves a lot of money to be spend on coal.

Naveed Saqib, who runs a company that provides environmental solutions to various industries, has been in the business for the past 19 years. It is only now that local businessmen are approaching him to engage his services, he says. Earlier, according to him, all his customers were multinational companies.

One of the biggest challenges he faces is making industrialists see value in pollution prevention. If this does not make economic sense to them, they will never invest in costly mechanisms to reduce toxic industrial emissions. “The strongest resistance comes from Lahore,” says Saqib who is a resident of Faisalabad but has customers throughout the country.

Industrials in Lahore seem to believe the government will soon back off from its current focus on the implementation of environmental rules and regulations, he says. So, they do not take the problem seriously.

Their views may change if superior courts maintain their policy of treating environmental problems as urgently as they have been doing in recent past.

One of the most important judicial initiative in this regard was a suo moto notice taken in early 2018 by the Supreme Court over persistent smog in and around Lahore. Some months later, the apex court forced the provincial government to take urgent and strong action against those sectors of the economy whose emissions, according to the findings of Punjab’s own smog commission, are contributing the most to smog.

The resultant action convinced the owners of many steel smelters in Lahore that they can no longer shun the responsibility for their highly-polluting production processes. They now appear willing to change their dirty old ways, says Saqib.

The main pollutant in steel production is not unburnt carbon – as is the case with traditional brick kilns – but other particulate matter. The smoke that comes out from a steel furnace burning at 1,700 degrees centigrade is actually dust of various oxides – such as nickel – that may cause chronic bronchitis, sinus blockade, breathing difficulties and even lung cancer.

The mechanism to capture these oxides before they get dispersed in the atmosphere is more complex than the one used in environment-friendly brick kilns. It is also way more costly. Only large steel factories have the money to put it in place. The smaller ones cannot afford it.

Saqib has set up one such mechanism at a Faisalabad-based steel mill. He has built a roofless room right on top of the mill’s furnace. A blower fixed in the centre of this room sucks in all the smoke from the furnace, making it rise up in an S-shaped pattern and sending it to another machine where pollutants are captured and turned into very fine ash.

This ash is not entirely useless. It can be exported to China for 60-70 rupees per kilogramme. This opportunity, Saqib says, could become an incentive for steel factories to add smoke filtration plants to their furnaces.

An in-house treatment plant at a factory in Karachi | Zofeen T Ebrahim
An in-house treatment plant at a factory in Karachi | Zofeen T Ebrahim

Many large factories in industrial estates of Lahore and Faisalabad have found a cheap but extremely dirty alternative to costly and often unreliable electricity supply. After the sunset, they light up their boilers by burning old rubber tyres, among other things. Clouds of black smoke rising from steel furnaces that use tyres as fuel can be seen all along the newly constructed Ring Road in Lahore every night.

In Faisalabad’s industrial areas such pollution is even more obvious. A neighbourhood called Ghulam Muhammadabad houses thousands of small weaving and knitting looms, and is probably one of the most unkempt parts of the city. Piles of biomass can be seen lying outside what look like industrial units.

Streets in Ghulam Muhammadabad look almost empty during the day. As night falls, thousands of small industrial units start running, often using old cloth rags mixed with wood to fire up their machinery. They purchase the rags from the importers of used western clothes for as low as seven rupees per kilogramme. Together, these units send thick plumes of poisonous smoke into the atmosphere.

The fear of raids by environment protection agencies has restricted the use of rags only to night-time. “Ever since the government has become strict, the factories do not really buy much cloth from us anymore,” says a local vendor of used garments who operates from a small shop right next to a big textile mill.

Liquid industrial waste is an equally major problem in Faisalabad.

A large number of textile factories are littered along an open sewage drain passing through the heart of the city. For years, these have been releasing their effluents into the local sewerage system thus poisoning groundwater. “Sulphates and nitrates discharged by textile mills [into underground water] are extremely harmful for human health,” says Ali Hasnain Sayed, an engineer and development practitioner based in Faisalabad.

According to him, only those factories in Faisalabad are treating their liquid waste that are linked to international trade. The rest, especially small factories, see no economic benefit in setting up waste treatment plants. They think of these plants only in terms of additional costs to be incurred, Sayed says.

He was also a part of a team which conducted a situation analysis of water supply in Lahore in 2014. The report that resulted from that analysis found higher than internationally permissible levels of arsenic in Lahore’s groundwater. The analysts found out that “high-polluting” industries contributing to the arsenic poisoning of groundwater included textile processing units, carpet weaving factories, tanneries, food processing units and makers of dairy products.

Their report also noted that around 100 industrial units in Lahore were discharging their untreated effluents directly into Hadiara drain, a rainwater channel that flows from India into Pakistan and ends up in the Ravi river after travelling along the southern edge of the city. The drain irrigates a large number of plant nurseries and vegetable farms whose products then land at Lahore’s major wholesale and retail markets.

Part three

Malik Amin Aslam has served a four-year term – starting from 2012 – as a vice-president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and has also worked as a junior minister for environment in 2004-2007 during the government of former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. He is now working as an advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan on climate change.

Aslam endorses the argument that air pollution has “a direct nexus” with climate change. Citing a source apportionment study done for Lahore by the commission on smog, he points out that vehicular emissions followed by exhausts from steel mills are the two largest sources of air pollution in the city.

The climatic effects of this pollution, Aslam says, “are augmented by the fast vanishing green cover” in Lahore which, according to him, has lost 70 per cent of its tree cover in the last decade. “Our recent love affair with coal” is equally to be blamed, according to him. He calls a coal-fired power plant in Sahiwal, set up by the previous government, “a double disaster which not only spews carbon emissions but also does so… in our country’s prime agricultural heartland”. That is why, he says, the government has halted the construction of further coal-fired power plants.

Aslam also says the government is devising “a climate mitigation plan based on regulating and controlling [polluting] emissions”. This plan, he says, will ensure “compliance” with the National Environmental Quality Standards for Ambient Air — or air quality for starters. Measures such as the introduction of more fuel-efficient car engines and increase in the contribution of renewable sources of power to the national energy mix are also being planned and implemented, he says.

Another important government move is a “greening initiative” that aims at planting 10 billion trees across Pakistan over the next five years. This will help us in “sequestering emissions” that are polluting our environment and thus contributing to climate change.

Additional reporting by Mehmal Sarfraz

This article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.