Pakistan's Environmental Nightmare

Millions of Refugees Deepen a Nation's Ecological Woes

 KARACHI, PAKISTAN-Twenty years ago, residents say, they swam and caught fish along the banks of this city's Lyari River. Today the tributary runs like a mile-long stain through the city, its waters black with sewage and toxic waste. The river's banks are lined with piles of burning trash-a putrid combination of decaying food, medical waste, dead animals, and millions of plastic bags. Like figures from some post-apocalyptic nightmare, young boys appear out of the smoke, trailing magnets through the garbage, seeking out nails or bits of metal to be sold.

By any measure, Pakistan's environment is in ruins [see photos]. The mayor of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, recently declared the city's water and sewer system "on the verge of collapse." Air pollution here and in other Pakistani cities is estimated to be 20 times higher than World Health Organization standards. The country's percentage of forested land is among the lowest in the world, and the rate at which it is disappearing among the highest. The coastline near Karachi is ravaged by oil spills. There are also questions about the country's disposal of nuclear waste, and environmentalists are outraged by the government's recent decision to allow gas and oil exploration in Kirthar National Park, home to numerous endangered species.

Pakistanis attribute much of the damage to an influx of several million refugees over the last two decades, many of them from neighboring Afghanistan; refugees from the current war are arriving daily. Karachi was designed for 1 million people, then replanned in the 1980s for 6 million; today the population is 14 million and growing. The city generates 8000 tons of garbage each day; only 40 percent is collected. Eighty-six percent of its sewage goes untreated, fouling natural drainage creeks and rivers.

Trash fires burn along the banks of Karachi's lifeless Lyari River.
photograph by Michael Kamber
Trash fires burn along the banks of Karachi's lifeless Lyari River.

In the northern provinces, refugees in makeshift camps have gradually chopped down entire forests for fuel to heat their homes and cook. But environmentalists blame other factors contributing to the devastation as well: an epidemic of corruption among government officials, poor environmental planning, and poverty that leaves the majority of Pakistanis illiterate and surviving on less than $500 a year. In a country struggling to feed its people, environmental protection has never been a priority.

Karachi has a system of nallas, or drainage channels, that run through the neighborhoods and are designed to carry rainwater out into the ocean. Many have become blocked or filled with waste products. In some neighborhoods, the nallas-eight feet deep, 20 feet across, and hundreds of yards long-are packed solid with garbage. In other places they carry waste oil rather than water. In Korangi, the center of Karachi's leather industry, a main thoroughfare runs alongside a nalla brimming with brown toxic waste laced with arsenic and chromium. The volatile mixture literally percolates, bubbling and spitting as it makes its way into the nearby ocean. Even in the open air, proximity to the rising fumes burns the eyes and causes dizziness.

Local residents seem little concerned by the toxic waste; they work in it all day long, they say, in the factories, where they earn about a dollar a day. Some tan the hides with caustic chemicals; others stand in them, working barefoot in large vats. There are no gloves, goggles, or other protective equipment. The government does not provide potable water, so the residents drink water from ground wells dug in one of the most heavily polluted aquifers in Pakistan.

Business owners argue here-as they do in other countries-that environmental protection is too costly and comes at the expense of economic development. The government seems to agree; it has done little to stop the wholesale dumping of toxic wastes. The tannery owners brag that they work-through subcontractors-for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and other "brand-name" designers. "With the U.S. environmental regulations, they can't pollute like this in their own country," says Gul Najam, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "So they send the work to a place where there are no laws."

It is the Afghans who are blamed for much of Karachi's environmental devastation, yet they also dominate the city's recycling industry. In this desperately poor city, any item that brings even a fraction of a cent is eagerly sought out. Tens of thousands of children tread the city streets, stooped like old men, eyes fixed on the ground, burlap sacks full of plastic, paper, animal bone (the bones are boiled and the extract used to make soap), and metal balanced upon their backs.

Sifat-Ullah recycles with a rag rather than a sack, but otherwise he is typical. The 11-year-old Afghan makes his living in Kymari, in Karachi's port area, where petroleum spills from the ships, tanker trucks, and oil-storage tanks have in some places turned the earth to a greasy black slush. He and dozens of other boys spend their days soaking up the PCB-laden oil with rags, a few ounces at a time. They get 50 rupees-or about 85 cents-for each 10-liter jug. Theirs is a Sisyphean task. They soak up the oil by the ounce; it is spilled into the earth by the barrel. A block away, the drainage canals are filled with thousands of cubic yards of the thick black sludge, a small, carcinogenic river moving leisurely into the Arabian Sea. Nearby, Karachi's beaches are unusable, blackened by this and other oil spilled by the huge tankers anchored in Karachi's harbor.

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