Shahab Usto’s undying petition to drink clean water

Supreme Court to keep up hearings till Sindh govt completely tackles crisis

Shahab Usto’s undying petition to drink clean water
Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, and perhaps the ones who come after him, will wish they never heard the name Shahab Usto. Advocate Usto has the honour of becoming a permanent thorn in the side of the Sindh government. The petition he filed in 2016 to fix the water and sewage crisis will be heard and heard... and heard until the Supreme Court is satisfied the problem is fixed. Few other court cases in Sindh can claim such longevity, far-reaching impact and to have perhaps hurt so much.

The case

Advocate Usto went to court in November 2016. The Supreme Court heard his case in Karachi by December 27 and formed an inquiry commission. The commission’s job was to investigate whether the people of Sindh get safe drinking water and if the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency is working properly.

Sindh High Court’s Justice Iqbal Muhammad Kalhoro was asked to the head the one-man investigation. He visited several cities, including Karachi, and inspected all their water bodies and most of their filter and sewage treatment plants.

By March 6, 2017, Justice Kalhoro told the court what he had found. Based on his report, the Supreme Court passed order after order after order from March 6 to 16 based on what he recommended. Justice Kalhoro now has to keep an eye on the the government to see that it does what it is told.

“The petition will remain alive until the water and sanitation issues are completely resolved,” Mr Usto told TFT, “And the people of Sindh receive safe drinking water and the sewage released from municipalities, industries and hospitals are properly treated before being thrown into the water bodies and the sea.” The Supreme Court has given the Sindh government a final chance to come up with a plan. The next hearing is in the fourth week of January.

Sindh’s reaction

“So far the government has remained no-committal and non-compliant,” Mr Usto added. When this became clear he responded by filing contempt-of-court petitions. “No wonder the Hon’ble Chief Justice was pretty upset when he saw the reports of the commission and my video and called the chief minister,” said Mr Usto. The video he refers to is a revelatory documentary on just how bad Sindh’s drinking water system is. It was shot during Justice Kalhoro’s investigation field work across the province. This was also perhaps the first ever time that a chief minister had been hauled up in such a case.

The SC’s three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar summoned Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to explain his government position on ensuring people get safe drinking water and sanitation. The court is of the view that the government has failed to do this and was dumping untreated human waste into the sea on purpose. This, said the chief justice, was an act that flew in the face of or contradicted the Constitution. The court also asked former Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal to explain how 50 out of 129 acres for a water treatment plant in Mehmoodabad were leased out during his tenure.

In his government’s defense, Mr Murad Ali Shah argued that the situation in Sindh was hardly different that of the rest of Pakistan as contaminated water was being supplied to citizens in Lahore and other cities as well. He cited a study in support of his arguments.  His irritation into what he described as interference surfaced in October this year. “Let judiciary take care of its own work. If it interferes in administration’s work the issues will not be resolved. I can’t be a journalist and a cricketer can’t be a politician so let everyone take care of his own job,” he is reported to have said.

Nevertheless, one could say that this government is still taking water more seriously than previous ones. It is, for example, saying it will install water treatment plants at more than 700 major points to tackle domestic waste and industrial effluent. The CM rightly pointed out that as Sindh is at the tail end of the system, it gets contaminated water from the rest of the country upstream. Studies show that several industrial cities, including Faisalabad unleash untreated effluent in the Indus. So Sindh is effectively paying a price for everyone else’s dirty business.
In his government's defense, Mr Murad Ali Shah argued that the situation in Sindh was hardly different that of the rest of Pakistan as contaminated water was being supplied to citizens in Lahore and other cities as well

Deep rot

A reading of the petition and commission reports is enough to depress and alarm at the same time. Karachi’s Lyari and Malir Rivers have been turned into sewerage drains. At about 800 points in the system sewage is flowing into clean water. Filter plants are not working across the province and 77% of water in Sindh is unfit for human consumption. Water you get at Reverse Osmosis plants do not meet WHO standards. A report this August claimed that millions of people were at risk of arsenic poisoning in the Indus valley. Last year parliament was told that approximately 80% of our water sources are polluted with bacteria or other impurities to the level where they can be declared unsafe to drink.

Sindh’s ‘misfortune’ is that it is located in a semi-arid zone and doesn’t get much fresh water from the mountainous regions. It doesn’t rain here much (6-7 inches, well below the national average of 8.8 inches per year). According to the WWF, less than 30% of the groundwater is fresh. In some places like Kohistan (an arid hilly region in south west Sindh) 80% of the drinking water obtained from wells is brackish and contaminated. Consequently, Sindh depends on the River Indus for its water. But despite having the largest canal irrigation system, its lower parts after Kotri are short because of dams upstream.
Sindh's 'misfortune' is that it is located in a semi-arid zone and doesn't get much fresh water from the mountainous regions. It doesn't rain here much (6-7 inches, well below the national average of 8.8 inches per year)


The constitution says that it is the government’s responsibility to provide people potable water and for its part the Sindh government has made public its ‘Sindh Drinking Water Policy 2017’. The reality, however, is that the mayor of Karachi claims that the city hardly gets 420 million gallons per day (mgd) but needs 1,100 mgd.

The mayor, who does not have any control over the water and sewage board, has, given his disenfranchisement, spoken openly about the untreated water causing enormous health hazards. In a report titled ‘Pakistan’s Waters at Risk’ (2007), it is said that a study conducted by UNICEF found that 20% to 40% of the hospital beds in Pakistan are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis, which are responsible for one-third of all deaths. The problem has to be viewed as separate, however, for our cities and rural areas.

The countryside

In rural Sindh, unlike with the rest of Pakistan, scant fresh groundwater is available. Therefore, drinking water has to come from the Indus, canals and streams. People in Punjab enjoy the best rural water supply from among the four provinces. As compared to Sindh where 24% of people depends on wells, the river, canals or streams, only 7% of people in Punjab receive drinking water from these sources.

In theory, all this water must be treated before it can be drunk. Unfortunately, this is not the case for people in Sindh’s cities let alone its countryside. The problem multiplies by the very fact that treatment plants must be designed according to the type of contaminants and impurities in the water. Despite being brackish in most cases, as less than 30% of groundwater is fresh. In rural Sindh more than 60% of the population has to use hand pumps.

To fight drought in Tharparkar district, for example, in 2015, the government of Sindh embarked on an ambitious program to desalinate underground saline water by introducing water purification in 750 reverse osmosis plants across the region at an estimated cost of $33 million. However, mixed reports hit the headlines. A senior civil judge, Mian Fayyaz Rabbani, who inspected the Thar issue, submitted a report to the Sindh High Court that the RO plants were effectively being operated. However, according to other reports in nine months half of them were out of order.

Desperate housewives

In the 1990s some women of a neighbourhood that falls on the left of the Shaheed-e-Millat flyover next to PECHS block 6 in Karachi got fed up with the fact that their area had been neglected by the KDA and KMC. According to Prof. Noman Ahmed of NED University, who is a water expert, these women formed the Karachi Administrative Women’s Welfare Society and started filing public interest litigation. One letter from the KAWWS complaining that water for household use was being contaminated by sewage was taken up and converted into a human rights case by the Supreme Court (9-K/1992). In fact, the society grew in strength and the courts started to take their applications and haul up the KDA DG and KWSB chief.

The cities

In Sindh’s urban areas more than 70% of people get their water from a tap. In major cities municipalities are responsible for making sure this happens. But demand grows and supply shrinks every day. The population explosion and rural-urban migration have meant that more and more people have flooded Sindh’s cities.

Perhaps the worst case is Karachi’s, the biggest city in the province. According to the (now defunct) Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KW&SB) it receives 670mgd from various resources but loses 35% or 234.4mgd in line losses. Therefore, a city of 17 million only 435.5 mgd is available. In March this year, the board’s deputy managing director informed the judicial commission that the total demand for the city was estimated at 1,188 mgd.

According to the KW&SB it has only 1.4 million registered consumers in Karachi which has 17m people. More than 65 percent of Karachi lives in informal settlements or slums and use water but do not pay for it. Influential political and social leaders use their contacts to construct and install pipelines in these areas. Leaders even collect money from individual households and prospective users in their personal capacity and make all the arrangements to get a connection from the main line. In some cases, they have built a reservoir, supply room with an electric pump and ensured an illegal electricity connection from a nearby pole. In some cases, an influential person may even appoint a man who looks after the entire set-up and even collects money in the name of repair charges from each and every home each month.

The KW&SB is also being criticized for giving illegal connections to industries, newly established slums and gated communities. For instance Abdullah Goth near the Karachi District Council, on the National Highway received water and electricity connections quicker than the nearby Shah Latif Town residents because the owner of the land was influential and could bribes officials.

Almost privatised

In 1983, on the recommendation of the World Bank, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board was created and to facilitate the MQM under the Zia regime, the mayor of Karachi was made its chairman. And so all these years, the KW&SB was formerly controlled by the mayor. However, using its majority in the provincial assembly, the Pakistan Peoples Party placed the KW&SB under the control of the provincial government. Instead of the mayor, now the board is headed by the minister for local bodies in Sindh.

The increasing gap between supply and demand has led to a severe water shortage in almost all sectors and has invited a number of solutions. The World Bank suggested a private sector participation strategy in 1994-95 as a first step to privatize the utility. But, as people know, there is no such thing as a free lunch in the World Bank’s scheme of things. And sure enough, trade unions, ex-officers of the KW&SB and citizens’ groups took the issue as public interest and the Sindh High Court had to halt the entire process.

Theft and tankers

The major cause of line losses is theft. It is clear that with the expansion of the city, commerce and industry have attracted population from the rural areas of Pakistan. Now the city is expanding in three directions: along the highways leading to Balochistan (Hub River Road), Hyderabad (Super Highway/Motorway) and Thatta (National Highway). Moreover, in the city center residential plots and houses are being converted into high-rise buildings. So Karachi is expanding horizontally and vertically. This means that tankers are being used increasingly to cater to this new demand.

The water tankers are being used to supply water in bulk, especially for factories. According to a study by the Orangi Pilot Project on the tanker mafia, they generate Rs50 billion annually. And while this data may be dated, it gives an idea of the magnitude of the business.

According to the OPP study, KW&SB started out by officially running a water supply system via the tankers for areas where it did not have a pipeline network. There were nine official hydrants managed by the Rangers to supply water to such water-deficient areas. This opened the door for the rationale for the supply via tankers. Pointing to the rapid rise of a political leader in Landhi industrial area, a policeman once told me: “Water is an even more lucrative business than pushing heroin.” Within years this leader is not only running a business in Dubai but has also acquired properties worth millions in Karachi and become a transporter and contractor as well. On the National Highway near Malir Jail, one hydrant was being run by an influential person who had the backing of an important leader from Sukkur.

“The president of the All Karachi Water Tankers Ittehad, Mohammad Tariq Sadozai, justified the presence of the tankers in the city, saying that the quantity of water required for the city is available in the system, but KWSB is unable to provide that water to the citizens,” a reporter once explained. “Therefore, we are here to help citizens get water. We do not run the hydrants, we are just transporters and we ensure we take the water from the hydrants and supply it where it is required. Most of the hydrants are run by influential people, and are supported by the KWSB.’’ According an Al Jazeera report, 70% of stolen water is being sold to big businesses.

And as the KW&SB has been unable to provide people with clean drinking water, we have seen the rise of bottled water factories. They do pretty much what the tankers do and what the water board should do: take groundwater, clean it up, and give it to us. International brands have captured the market. One multinational pushes out 20,000 small bottles of water an hour.

The PPP may find it difficult to present itself as an entirely uncontroversial broker in the water crisis. Whatever it might say about the intentions of the judiciary, it cannot ignore the issue. The government might be wise to stop treating drinking water as an abstract moral conundrum and start framing the issue instead as a public interest matter. Rural and urban areas in Sindh are facing acute shortages and terrible quality. The government must act quickly because much water has flowed under the bridge.