No data and no regulation: In Pakistani cities, toxic waste is killing people

No data and no regulation: In Pakistani cities, toxic waste is killing people

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While the question posed in the topic is straightforward, the answer may not be readily available. Pakistan lacks accurate data on how much solid or other forms of waste is added every minute; even more difficult is to find how much of this is toxic waste. Even the national level figure on how much waste is channeled to treatment facilities is rarely updated. Weak checks and balances by municipal authorities imply that we don’t know the precise locations from where hazardous waste originates! It is this waste which has both health and environmental costs. 

In this backdrop, the unfortunate news of 18 people dying in Keamari district after inhaling toxic fumes, comes as yet another reminder of collective neglect and indifference to ongoing violations of environmental regulations. There are countless pockets in the area where life threatening production activities take place without any regard for human life residing nearby. The boundaries between commercial and residential areas have become blurred across most urban centers in the country. Continuous emission of smoke, dust, and foul smell is a norm that goes unchecked. Waste which is not recyclable often gets buried in the same or nearby localities destroying life underground and often the remnants seep into potable water supplies. As these production activities continue to operate in the grey, regular inspection is also not conducted or reported. Of course, sustaining such activities is never possible without the involvement of official authorities responsible for their enforcement. 

A research paper by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics provides an example from the country’s textile industry operations. This is the largest export industry in Pakistan and the second largest employment generating sector. Still, it is not clear why firms in the garment and textile sector choose to ignore environmental regulations and effluent standards while a regard for these would make their output more attractive in the eyes of foreign buyers. 

River Swat is polluted beyond imagination by tourists from all over the country and even the local hotels have the audacity not to put proper disposal arrangements in place. 

Dr. Vaqar Ahmed

The survey data in this paper explains that there exist nine broad environmental management practices in the textile sector. Only 12 percent of the firms adopt all nine practices, 50 percent embrace around five practices and some 87 percent of firms adopt two or less environmental management practices. The paper finds institutional deficiencies in implementation of regulations such as inadequate monitoring and fines hinder enforcement and compliance. It also found that pressures from international customers and adoption of good practices by competitors acted as a major source of influence which moved private sector decision making in favor of adopting environmental practices. However, local factors such as community pressure, naming and shaming by local media still have limited impacts. Due to painstakingly slow court processes, legal action is often not resorted to as it involves high transactions costs. 

The paper found that larger firms were careful, feared loss of orders from abroad and were more likely to adopt good environmental management practices relative to medium and small sized firms.

A conventional solution to this problem is four pronged i.e., improve environmental compliance through mandatory installation of effluent treatment technology; improve regular monitoring; create a rating system which triggers competition among firms; and for smaller or new firms, offering training and information services at the district-level.

All this is easier said than done. Saving lives from the impacts of environmental degradation requires a national-level commitment. It is a pledge that the Council of Common Interests (CCI) should give so that no province is left behind in its commitment to at least ensure the bare minimum in mitigating the impacts of hazardous waste. Economically backward provinces and regions may require support from the federal government. Likewise, effective social protection mechanisms need to cover the health expenditure and treatment of those who face the brunt of this negative externality. Most hospitals at the district-level may not have the knowledge or necessary infrastructure to help patients who are sick due to toxic elements. For such patients, it is a race against time. Lives are lost before they are transported to the nearest urban health facility. 

Last but not the least, the impact of hazardous waste going into rivers and oceans needs to be recognized and effectively responded to. River Swat is polluted beyond imagination by tourists from all over the country and even the local hotels have the audacity not to put proper disposal arrangements in place. Water Services and Sanitation Companies across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Tehsil Municipal Authorities need to initiate waste characterization studies, based on which integrated resource recovery centers may be set up to help appropriate recycling – examples of which are seen at the micro scale, being set up by Sub-National Governance (SNG) program and Akhtar Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC). 

- Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist and former civil servant. He tweets @vaqarahmed

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