What if you were born in one of the most polluted cities in the world? Would you consider moving to a cleaner environment? Or would the sight of garbage piles on the roads and the air tinted with smoke become life as know it?
You might relate to these questions if you live in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. The problem of waste dumping is very much a part of the lives of Karachites, to a point where it is considered ordinary, it is very common to see piles of trash instead of trees on roadsides and outside houses. City waste, which includes domestic, industrial, mining and agricultural by-products amongst other pollution, is often left unattended, dumped in landfills or burnt rather than disposed of in a safe manner, which is a serious threat to the local population.
Throughout history, Karachi experienced a series of garbage outbreaks where pollution and litter in the city would increase drastically until it was controlled and reduced by the government of the time. These outbreaks go back before the partition of the subcontinent, largely due to population rising so quickly that the city’s resources were insufficient. The waste generated by the rising population became too much for the sanitation and waste disposal system available. There was also greater demand for different products and goods, and so industries focused more on producing food, clothes, gadgets and other items, and ignored the consequences of the waste they produced. Since the city’s sanitation systems were not developed to accommodate the increase in waste, which had to be treated and disposed off, they were overwhelmed and the problem has escalated to become an emergency in Karachi.
Today, Karachi is once more facing a severe garbage outbreak, which has spread across the city from developed to underdeveloped areas. In many areas such as Lyari and Malir, communities live in close proximity to garbage dumps. This has led to an increase in illnesses and a health catastrophe, as flies and unhygienic disease carrying substances spread across the city, completely exposed to people. Consequently, there has also been a rise in deaths, especially amongst infants who fall victim to these diseases. About 20, 000 tons of solid waste is produced everyday; however only 2,000 tons is transported to landfill sites outside Karachi. This waste is usually left on streets or dumped wherever space is available, thus destroying the appearance of the city.
Beaches, such as Seaview, are commonly littered and are made dumping grounds as in the case of Ibrahim Hyderi where garbage is regularly brought and discarded along the coast. The garbage dumps can be advantageous as local scavengers extract handy items for reuse, which is commonly done at other dumpsites as well. Scavengers then sell the waste and depend on the dumps to earn money. However, the overwhelmingly large amount of litter harms more than benefits the people of Ibrahim Hyderi. The garbage is a source of a terrible stench, and when it is burnt it releases a great deal of pollution and unhealthy fumes into the environment. About 417 million gallons of untreated industrial and domestic waste is dumped in the sea every day. The polluted water threatens the lives of aquatic life as it causes mutations and deaths in marine life that becomes trapped in or consumes the garbage. Ultimately the people of Karachi eat this contaminated fish and risk the chance of ingesting harmful chemicals that could threaten their health and livelihood. Polluted water forces fish further away from the coast, which is unfavourable for locals in Ibrahim Hyderi as most of them are fishermen, and they have to spend more time and money chasing after fish further into the sea. Their fishing expeditions often also end up becoming futile as pollution has reduced the fish population, and often instead of fish, litter is caught in their nets. Additionally, garbage can end up cutting their nets as well.
Waste dumping can also effect plant life, as it degrades soil quality, thus resulting in poor production of vegetation. In this manner the greenery of Karachi has decreased, and many plants have suffered, such as mangroves, whose numbers have drastically fallen along the coast due to pollution and litter getting trapped in them.
Overall the problem of waste dumping has swamped the entire city. This is largely because while garbage continues to pile up, very little was done to solve the actual issue, and while attempts were made, most of them failed or had minimal impact. The District Municipal Corporations (DMCs) and municipal officials have not taken appropriate action despite requests to do so, due to “lack of resources” including financial or logistical constraints, such as the unavailability of fuel or machinery needed for the collection of garbage and dumping it at the designated landfill sites. The provincial government also set up the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SWMB), which works to collect garbage from households and businesses across the city, and then recycles it, utilizating it for energy production and disposal. However, the board has not begun its work yet. Despite failures, at the end of 2016 there was a promise of progress as the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board and a Chinese company Wuzung entered into an agreement according to which, Wuzung would collect waste in Karachi and lift garbage from houses free of cost. This provides hope that waste will gradually decrease.
Organizations in Karachi such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have also worked to improve the situation as they focuse on recycling projects, which attempt to reduce waste and turn it into something useful that can benefit people. The organization has also worked to reduce waste dumping in the sea and spread more awareness. As Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a member of WWF-Pakistan stated, ‘People should be aware of waste dumping and its proper disposal. People should be aware that the waste can be recycled and used if it is properly sorted. We should support industries which are involved in the recycling of this waste and help them make our city clean.’
Decades ago Karachi was considered the cleanest city in Pakistan and India, and was even named ‘The Paris of Asia.’ Time has been cruel to this once beautiful city. The waste dumps and pollution cannot magically disappear by wishing them away, nor can the work of one woman or man be enough to make a difference. For the sake of saving Karachi it is necessary that people work in unity to find a solution and save this city from the devastation that it has endured. Some people have already begun the effort, but now it is time that the rest of Karachi joins in as well.