TWO seemingly insignificant events could amount to the writing on the wall for our municipal administrators all over the country. It is plain, the public will no longer turn a blind eye to poor sanitation. People are now beginning to understand the implications of environmental pollution.
Recently, the inhabitants of a village in Fatehjang tehsil (Punjab) protested against the garbage dump which the district municipality had created near their homes. Some of them actually travelled to Islamabad to meet the director of the National Commission of Human Rights to lodge their complaint. They were not happy with the odour that pervaded their homes. Even more encouraging was the fact that the inhabitants of neighbouring villages refused to allow the DMO to pile garbage near their homes when he tried to shift the dumping site.
In Karachi, now a mound of solid waste, the medical profession has at last reacted to this negligence on the part of our city fathers. The Pakistan Medical Association considered it essential to raise its voice against the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s failure to routinely collect garbage. It held a seminar where we were told about the health hazards posed by medical waste generated by the hospitals and dispensaries.
The health professionals have come to realise that the preventive approach is more important than curative medicine. In this context, sanitation and hygiene emerge as key factors if the spread of disease is to be checked.
Given past negligence, cleaning up Karachi is a daunting job.
How have the authorities responded to this crisis? Privatise sanitation services. And better still bring in foreigners to collect your trash for a handsome sum of money. For this purpose, the recently established Sindh Solid Waste Management Board signed an agreement with a Chinese company for garbage collection in two (out of six) districts in Karachi for Rs1.5 billion the first year.
One doesn’t question the urgency of cleaning up Karachi, which already appears to be a daunting job, given the negligence of the past. According to press reports, 8,000 Chinese will be working on the ground and an elaborate command-and-control centre network will be set up and a fleet of vehicles and machinery imported for the clean-up operation. Will this be sustainable?
Under the existing system, which Syed E. Haque, a civil and agricultural engineer, describes as outdated, cumbersome and inefficient, nothing is working. He says there are some very dedicated and hardworking employees at the lower levels in the KMC and DMCs but they need training. He feels that our own people can manage this job with the necessary know-how at a fraction of the cost we will be paying the trained managers from abroad — even the Chinese.
I see many problems cropping up as we proceed with the project. Haque with his expertise and knowledge reinforces my scepticism. Even if we overlook the exorbitant cost factor we cannot ignore other concerns. There are four issues that may become problematic with time. One is the human dimension. Will there be large-scale retrenchments? Will the Chinese be introducing a permanent system? Will it ultimately extend to the whole city? And who will bear this extra cost?
What we need is a modern waste management system which is economically feasible and durable only if it is managed indigenously. Of course, this is not possible without training our staff and putting in place some infrastructure and acquiring equipment on the ground and acquiring some equipment. Does the agreement signed with the Chinese provide for this?
The system as it has been described in media reports may be flawed. Two snags identified by Haque should be noted. The garbage to be disposed of has been grossly underestimated. The KMC calculates it as 12,500 tons daily. This is based on the population size given in the 1998 census. Haque calculates the population growth in the city and believes the garbage produced daily is 15,000 tons and suggests that the structural facilities should be for 20,000. The plan to use plastic bags instead of containers for door-to-door collection as is done abroad will add tons and tons of extra plastic waste to the daily production.
Every country with an effective solid waste management system also has thriving recycling industries because all waste cannot be disposed of in landfills. Are there plans for such industries? Or will we be depending on overflowing landfills as before?
Above all, no city can remain clean without the cooperation of its citizens. Garbage must be sorted at the household level if it is to be recycled. Besides hazardous waste, such as industrial waste, hospital waste and sewage, has to be treated at source. It is not clear if this will be taken care of. There are existing laws requiring hospitals to set up incinerators and factories to treat their waste. But observance of the laws is lax. With no awareness campaigns to brief the people about their role in Operation Clean-up, this may turn out to be a short-lived exercise in futility.