Pakistan’s Environmental Nightmare


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.

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.

Other recyclers include Karachi’s 600,000 heroin addicts. Their bounty is the thousands of used hypodermic needles they scavenge from the medical waste dumped on city streets. The addicts shoot up openly on the sidewalks, an army more than half a million strong, men like scarecrows dressed in rags. They are left alone to their desires: Their lives are regarded as punishment enough. There is no money for treatment, and the Karachi city jail does not need more mouths to feed. One morning last week, an addict, who identified himself only as Pervez, pulled from his pocket a dirty plastic bag filled with needles. “These syringes we got from the hospital garbage,” he explained, as a friend rolled up his sleeve to reveal a needle hanging idly from a vein. “They’re perfectly good; they’ve only been used one time.” Pervez and the other men claim the needles can be used for up to a week before the sharps get dull and the rubber plungers begin to leak their mixture of blood and heroin. Warned of the dangers of sharing needles, he said simply, “Our life is already dangerous, we do not worry about that.”


It was a year ago, on the second day of Ramadan, that Mohammed Ayub left Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance and the Taliban were fighting in Nangarhar Province, where he lived. “We knew that soon we would have nothing,” he explains. And so Mohammed and 30 other families, all relatives of his, left for Pakistan. In Nangarhar, he had made his living as a wood seller, cutting the trees from the nearby hills. In Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, in the Shamshatu refugee camp, Mohammed resumed his business in a vacant lot next to his mud hut.

The UN high commissioner for refugees gives the refugees flour, lentils, and some cooking oil every month, but no fuel with which to cook. For the Afghans, as for the majority of Pakistan’s 140 million people, wood is the fuel of choice. International environmental organizations recommend that a country have 20 to 25 percent of its land covered by forest. The official figure in Pakistan is about 4 percent. Dr. G.M. Khattak, former chief conservator of forestry for the Northwest Frontier province, estimates the real figure to be about 2 percent. “In the poor areas, the people are desperate,” he says. “Not a blade of grass stands, not a tree, not a shrub.” Pakistan is losing timber at the rate of 5 million board-feet a year. In a decade, the country’s forests may cease to exist altogether.

Many conservationists tell tales of corruption almost comical in its blatancy. Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, served as minister of the environment in his wife’s administration. Now jailed on corruption charges, he was known as “Mr. 10 Percent,” for the kickbacks he demanded from companies seeking government contracts. Large “timber mafias” are still allowed to illegally cut wood from government lands in exchange for cash payoffs. It is from these mafias that many refugees buy their wood. “All orders [from top forestry officials] came in over the telephone,” recalls Dr. Khattak. “Nothing was put in writing. They’d call and say, ‘Let Mr. X cut 500 trees, let Mr. Y cut 200 trees.’ If you protested, ‘This is against government policy,’ they’d say. ‘Do you want to serve, or do you want to stay home?’ ”

Though the war has interrupted operations, the same mafias have cut wood in Afghanistan for years and smuggled it into Pakistan. Still, even without these mafias, it is the people’s need to cook that fuels the demand for timber. All over Pakistan, in the evening time, a thick layer of smoke blankets the towns and villages as people prepare meals. “I’ve gone to villages and told the people, ‘Look at this beautiful forest. Why are you cutting it down?’ They say, ‘You come here in the winter when it’s cold. We can’t eat the beautiful forest, but we can cook with it,’ ” says Dr. Khattak. “We are talking about deforestation, but what we should be talking about is poverty.”

A Ray of Hope

In 1980, the squatter settlement of Orangi, on the outskirts of Karachi, was awash in sewage. Residents built “soak pits,” but the ground quickly became saturated with waste, and many relied on open sewers in which dysentery and malaria flourished. Eventually, inhabitants attempting to solve their own problems formed the Orangi Pilot Project, a nonprofit organization designed to aid the residents’ cleanup efforts. Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan spent six months organizing one street. He showed the residents-many of them illiterate immigrants-how to form an organization and collect money for construction materials. And he provided technical assistance-teaching residents to dig a trench and lay the sewer line themselves. Block by block, Orangi residents laid their own sewage system with OPP guidance.

From this beginning, the OPP branched out into education, helping residents to construct their own schools, then set up a credit union, provided low-cost immunization, and trained local midwives in family planning. Today Orangi is largely self-sufficient. In fact, OPP discourages foreign loans and recently helped defeat a $100 million Asian Development Bank loan to build sewers in other Karachi neighborhoods. According to Perween Rahman, OPP’s director, the loan would have increased Pakistan’s staggering national debt, replicated work that was already done, and cost taxpayers approximately 35 times as much as work done under the OPP model. “Last year,” Rahman says, “56 percent of Pakistan’s budget went to loan interest payments; 32 percent to the military; 10 percent to running the government. Only 4 percent was for development.” A model of development, the Orangi Pilot Project is being replicated in cities throughout Pakistan, and in other countries throughout South Asia.

Related story:

Environmental Devastation in Pakistan: A Photo Essay” by Michael Kamber