Wasted management

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Back in law school, one had the opportunity to study the landmark British case of the Cambridge Water Company against Eastern Counties Leather. In that case, the court recognised the hazards of toxins from a tannery percolating through the ground and poisoning the water aquifer over a long period of time – truly fascinating stuff for one who had yet to become an advocate for the environment. Out of law school, one’s academic idealism returned to Pakistan and was eventually brought to bear on figuring out the future of Lahore’s Mahmood Booti landfill site which lay hanging in the balance of the High Court.

Soon, a technical committee was formed to advise the court on how to proceed in what may be termed as perhaps the first judicially driven inquiry into municipal service delivery. Back then, the legal fraternity was lamenting how the system of urban management had deteriorated to a point where the judiciary had to micromanage local government departments through committees. Fast forward twenty years and not only is judicial micro-management of state institutions still being practiced; it actually seems to be the order of the day.

Starting from humble beginnings in 1992, the Mahmood Booti landfill site has become a public nuisance following years of open dumping. Perhaps a celebration is in order now that we are approaching two decades of wanton land abuse but back then the residents of Mahmood Booti were embroiled in land acquisition proceedings against the government which had initiated the paper work to implement a World Bank funded waste to energy pilot project but had failed to complete the transaction following departure of donor agencies.

It is common knowledge that the donors walked away citing improper land acquisition procedures and the presence of an environmental hazard due to the site’s situation in a flood plain of the River Ravi. While the impact of a flood in the area is foreseeable by many, few are aware that Mahmood Booti has a dark secret that lies buried beneath twenty years of trash.

It turns out Lahore’s only landfill site doesn’t need to worry about the effects of a hundred year flood or the slow leaching of poisons into the water table at all. For in the bowels of Mahmood Booti lies an ancient well that has been giving toxins direct access to Lahore’s water source. So if you were worried about the quality of your water supply earlier, now you know why it is time to hit the panic button.

For twenty years, the government has callously allowed the well to contaminate our water supply, and we are now paying for that institutional indifference. Instead of closing up the well, the government’s response is to establish a composting plant on the landfill site and discourage us all from drinking tap water. This may be an ideal situation for those that have the financial insulation to pay for bottled mineral water, but it does not bode well for the majority of inhabitants who can afford no other option.

Resultantly, water borne diseases are on the rise requiring the economically disadvantaged to divert no less than ten per cent of their paltry incomes towards their treatment and cure. But they are to get no sustainable relief as five tube wells operate on the landfill site to supply water to the locality.

If the water aquifer was static and contained, one may have painted a rosier picture of Lahore’s waste disposal system. However, a dynamic body of water that is interconnected through underground channels does not give us much to be optimistic about. For Mahmood Booti is perhaps the greatest ecological disaster that ever occurred in this city and it’s rather aggravating that the government seems nonplussed about the matter.

We may beseech the government to open up its previous record and drill down to the SWECO report which first alerted authorities to the presence of the well in 1994, but something about the government’s state of denial and the dilapidated condition of public archives leads one to believe that is not something that is expected to occur in our lifetimes. Therefore we don’t stand a chance of ever getting the government to disclose its plans for mitigating the adverse impacts of the well at Mahmood Booti.

Every passing day that the government does not take action is a death sentence upon the inhabitants of Lahore. Perhaps it is time that the government stopped paying lip service to the environment and sorted out the well at Mahmood Booti before epidemics become pandemics and the provincial headquarters of the Punjab becomes a graveyard.

 

The writer is a consultant on public policy.