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SOUTH ASIA: Pakistan, India in Canal Cleanup Act

Waqar Mustafa - Asia Water Wire*

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan 23 2006 (IPS) - To the average consumer the piles of outsize vegetables in the local markets look appealing and fresh, especially when given an occasional sprinkle of water. But there is more to the giant greens than meets the eye.

”No need to be happy. These vegetables are watered by the Hudiara drain,” says Hania Aslam of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan, referring to a highly polluted tributary of the River Ravi.

Until about 30 years ago, the Hudiara used to be a storm water drain used for irrigation and domestic purposes and to drain water into the Ravi. It added to the river’s aquatic health.

But this is no longer the case.

”The people living along the drain in Pakistan – especially in the areas bordering India – are afflicted by the hazardous effects of the untreated water,” says Hammad Naqi Khan, another WWF-Pakistan official.

Untreated water, when used for irrigation, seeps into the soil and facilitates the entry of a number of pathogens into the food chain. ”Vegetables grown with toxic water may cause diseases when used by the people uncooked,”says Khan.

Villagers are aware of the high levels of pollution in the drain along the India-Pakistan border near the Pakistani city of Lahore but are unsure of the extent of the damage it can cause to human health.

”We have been facing this problem for the last 20 years. The pollution fluctuates according to the volume of the water,” says Muhammad Jamil, a farmer in his sixties. Mian Mahboob, a local politician, even suspects that pathogens are being transmitted through milk because buffaloes and cows drink from the drain too.

Experts say these fears are not unfounded.

”Cadmium, chromium and copper in chemical waste from factories located alongside the drain are making vegetables outsized. The heavy chemicals, all carcinogenic, eventually end up in the food chain,” explains Aslam, who coordinates a project that is trying to improve water quality.

The project, being implemented by WWF-Pakistan, is supported by the small grants programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The UNDP is also funding a similar project in India to clean up the Indian side of the Hudiara. The World Wildlife Fund in India is collaborating with the Gurunanak Dev University in carrying out a survey of the pollution there.

The goal is to reduce the pollution load in the Hudiara drain by working with stakeholders and putting in place clean management practices, says Dr Anjana Pant of WWF-India.

The findings of the survey will be announced after two years and a strategy drawn up to tackle the issue, in partnership with the WWF- Pakistan, which has already conducted a survey of the Hudiara drain, she adds.

Both the projects are expected to be completed by 2006, following which the WWF hopes to help formulate a joint pollution control strategy by Pakistan and India.

Pakistan has already surveyed the pollution levels on the Hudiara section that falls within its territory and is now in the second phase of a project to clean the canal.

A 2001 Pakistani assessment found the environmental health of the drain “highly unsatisfactory”. It said the water was unfit for irrigation, had high levels of heavy metals, was biologically contaminated and was also contributing to groundwater pollution.

”There are around 100 industries adjacent to the Hudiara drain on the 55-km Indian side, so it is already quite toxic when it enters Pakistan,” says Hania Aslam. ”Then we have 112 small industries located next to the drain on our side as it travels 63 km through the Punjab into the Ravi.”

But this water is used for irrigation along the length of the canal. The villagers even use water from wells dug close to the drain, which are exposed to the pollution through seepage.

The general awareness of pollutant load in the water is low – children play in it and cattle are allowed to wallow in the drain.

”This water is okay,” says Niaz Ali of village Noorpur, unsuspectingly. ”We use that water for the fields. It is good for our crops, makes them grow fast and we don’t need fertiliser,” he adds, referring to the dark sludge.

”We have no other water so we don’t have a choice. The tubewell water is good, but it is used only for drinking,” he adds.

WWF Pakistan has begun an awareness campaign to educate villagers about the dangers of using polluted water for farming. It also has plans to provide industries with technical support for installing cost-effective effluent control.

”This trans-boundary project could be an example of regional cooperation in South Asia. With all the goodwill now surrounding Pakistan-India relations, Hudiara can be a symbol of all that can go right once the two neighbours decide to clean up their act together,” says Rina Saeed Khan, an analyst.

(*The Asia Water Wire is a series of features on water and development in the Asia-Pacific, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacifc.)

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