Revealed: 91% of Karachi’s water unfit to drink

Faced with leaky pipes, faulty treatment plants and illegal tapping, the government of Sindh is struggling to provide clean and safe water to Karachi’s galloping population
<p>A man sourcing water in South Karachi [image courtesy: PCRWR]</p>

A man sourcing water in South Karachi [image courtesy: PCRWR]

In January, Mohammad Riaz, a chauffeur and father of five who lives in one of Karachi’s squatter colonies – Shirin Jinnah – decided to switch to bottled drinking water. A month before that, another resident had filed a constitutional petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against several government offices, saying that they “are required to ensure provisions of potable water, sanitation and hygienic atmosphere to the people, but they have individually and collectively failed to discharge such fiduciary, statutory and constitutional duty”.

Riaz’s 22-year-old daughter Aasia, who lives with her husband and three-month-old son next door, says they buy water from a tanker: 45,400 litres every month for PKR 4,000 (USD 37). What was wrong with the water the agencies supplied? “Often, we found insects crawling in it, and despite sieving it through the thinnest of muslins, we still found something passing through and getting into the filtered water.”

“Often the water tasted salty, or was cloudy,” adds her sister Rashida.

All of Riaz’s family members, including his wife, work as domestic help in homes around the more affluent area of Clifton, next to Shirin Jinnah. Their jobs mean that they can afford the more expensive bottled water for drinking, but only if they use it sparingly. “We are able to make the 25-litre barrel costing PKR 200 (USD 1.80) last two days, even in the scorching summer heat,” says Aasia. Their neighbours have also started buying filtered water “which comes sealed”.

The judicial route

On hearing the petition in December 2016, the Supreme Court had constituted a judicial commission headed by Justice Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro of the Sindh High Court to investigate.

Justice M. Iqbal Kalhoro visiting the areas [image courtesy: PCRWR]
The commission submitted a report to the Supreme Court on the basis of which the court ordered the implementation of the commission’s recommendations by setting up a nine-member taskforce. One of the orders was “to observe the quality of water being provided to the people of Sindh for drinking from various sources including rivers, canals, reverse osmosis plants, water supply schemes”.

Earlier this month, the taskforce submitted its report stating that 83.5 % of water in 14 out of 29 districts in Sindh is unsafe for drinking.

When the report was presented to the commission, Justice Kalhoro was visibly perturbed. “He was livid and asked the head of the Karachi Water and Sanitation Board (KWSB), which is responsible for the supply of 90% of water in the metropolis, to show him one area which was supplied with clean water,” said Ghulam Murtaza, who was appointed the amicus curiae for the commission. The report has already been submitted to the Supreme Court.

Collecting the samples

A senior research officer of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Murtaza, told thethirdpole.net that out of the 460 samples collected from all over Sindh, 232 (50.4%) were collected from surface water, 179 (39%) from groundwater, 46 (10%) from reverse osmosis filtration plants and three (0.6%) from mixed sources.

Taking a water sample from community hand pump in Karachi [image courtesy: PCRWR]
The samples were from 14 cities. Villages were left out because the taskforce was asked to only look into major urban centres where water was supplied by government agencies, so that the latter could be held accountable since they are “public-trustees”.

Thar was the only place that did not come under the definition of a big urban centre, being remote and under-developed. “That is because the government had invested huge amounts to set up reverse osmosis plants there,” said Murtaza. “We started collecting water samples from different sources, water supply schemes, canals, reverse osmosis plants, from public points, hospitals, schools, and bus stands in the urban areas.” Murtaza was also asked by the Sindh High Court to head the sampling teams.

Water samples were collected for physicochemical and microbiological analysis to check colour, odour, taste, pH, electric conductivity, total dissolved solids (TDS), arsenic, nitrate-nitrogen, fluoride (F-), iron, sulphate, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, hardness, bicarbonates, coliforms and E. coli. The analysis was carried out using the American Public Health Association (APHA) standard method.

Murtaza said all the standard precautionary measures were rigorously followed while collecting samples in the field. For example, boric acid was used as a preservative in sampling bottles for nitrate, ice boxes were used to transport certain samples to the lab for bacteriological testing, and the samples were incubated in the field immediately after the sampling.

Karachi most contaminated

Karachi has the highest water supply contamination score in the report.

In all, 118 drinking water samples were collected from Karachi: 99 from surface water sources like supply systems, filtration plants and pumping stations; 13 from underground water sources; three from reverse osmosis (RO) plants and three from other ground and surface water sources.

Sampling the water at an RO plant in Mithi [image courtesy: PCRWR]
Based on physiochemical analysis, 21 (17.8%) water samples were found unsafe for drinking due to the presence of turbidity (cloudiness) values beyond the safe limits. From the bacteriological standpoint, 104 (88.1%) were found to have presence of coliform bacteria beyond the World Health Organisation values (0/100ml cfu) and 40 (33.4%) had faecal contamination (presence of E. coli). The overall data showed that 107 (90.7%) samples collected from various places in Karachi were unsafe for drinking purposes.

“The presence of E. coli indicated the mixing of sewerage and drinking water supplies,” said Murtaza.

Mohammad Yahya, chief chemist at the KWSB, conceded to the possibility of E. coli being present in the water supply, but added that there can be several other reasons for the presence of E. coli in such large numbers.

A water pumping station in west Karachi [image courtesy: PCRWR]
E.coli is a fast-growing bacterium; just one can multiply into an entire colony in 24 hours. In Karachi, water is not supplied 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Some areas get water after a week or even after 10 days,” says Yahya. “Even if one E. coli bacterium entered the dried-out pipeline, in a week it would have multiplied into trillions.” If there was water running through the lines all the time this wouldn’t happen, he said. In addition, the insides of some pipes develop biofilms which are “ideal” breeding grounds for bacteria. Karachi has 10,000 kilometres of both old iron pipelines and new ones made of high-density polyethylene plastic pipes snaking through the city.

The problems of supply and distribution

“With a requirement of as much as 1,100 million gallons per day (mgd) for a burgeoning population of 25 million, over half of whom live in squatter colonies, we are able to supply only between 450 to 480 mgd. In addition, KWSB also supplies water to nearby areas of Karachi like Dhabeji, Ghaggar and Gharo,” said Asadullah Khan, deputy managing director for technical services at the KWSB.

Women waiting for water in the village of Nagar khan brohi Manchar, in Jamshoro district, Sindh [image courtesy: PCRWR]
Karachi gets its water from the Keenjhar lake – sourced from the Indus – nearly 122 kilometres from the city, through a canal system. “The first drop of water that reaches Keenjhar lake from the Indus takes 17 days to travel to Karachi,” said Khan, emphasising the value of the water.

“Yes there is contamination,” he said and laid part of the blame on the residents, who “steal” water like they steal electricity. “When electricity is stolen, you can see the kunda [hooks] and can take action. When water is stolen from the mainlines which are underground and are punctured, you cannot,” he said.

Often it is through these punctured points that the sewerage gets mixed into the water, said Yahya. He said it was important that people also played their civic part by keeping their underground water storages clean. “How often do we hear of residents of high rises, mosques and hospitals getting their tanks cleaned?”

Another water board official requesting anonymity said: “The board does repair leaks, and even replaces pipes every now and then, but while a complete rehabilitation of the entire distribution network is needed, it is a huge undertaking and may require two to three years. It is also very expensive.”

Little proper treatment of water

Along with a messed-up distribution network, Karachi has six water treatment plants (one in the town of Gharo but under the KWSB) that are not working optimally.

In January, when Justice Kalhoro visited the treatment plants, Khan had admitted to him that “200 MGD is supplied unfiltered owing to a lack of capacity“.

“Yes some of the filtration plants are old and ailing; most work partially, one is now obsolete,” admitted the anonymous KWSB official. In fact, he said, there was only one (the NEK2) that was working at full capacity.

“Foreign companies come and install these plants and leave. Our own technicians cannot maintain them as they are not properly trained. So when faults arise, we make do with what little expertise we have. Eventually, having lived their life, the machines collapse,” he told thethirdpole.net.

The water board, however, is in the process of adding another imported filtration plant to its system, which, Khan said, “will be able to supply 260 mgd of treated water when it is installed by June 2018”.

The shortfall

With unrestrained demand from Karachi’s galloping population, the water board is expanding the water supply system while failing to rehabilitate the existing one. However much they try, Khan admits, “there is still a shortfall of 50%”.

And this shortfall is met by the supply of water (stolen from the state) by the tanker mafia who work in collusion with those running the illegal water hydrants. “There is no better business than the water business. It’s something no one can do without and it’s right there. We need to manage and supply. We can become a prosperous department if we start admitting what’s wrong and who is doing wrong,” said the anonymous KWSB official. “Our own homes get contaminated water; who in their right mind would want their kids to drink unclean water?”