Both humans and animals alike bathe in the polluted Hudiara drain, a tributary of the Ravi river.
LAHORE, Pakistan (Asia Water Wire) - Small piles of oversized vegetables, covered with the occasional sprinkle of water, add a coat of freshness and make the greens more appealing to the average consumer.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. “No need to be happy. The plants we use the yield of are watered by Hudiara drain,” says Hania Aslam of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan, referring to a highly polluted tributary of the River Ravi.
Until about 30 years ago, the Hudiara used to be a storm water drain used for irrigation and domestic purposes and to drain water into the Ravi. It added to the river's aquatic health. But this is no longer the case.
“The people living along the drain in Pakistan -- especially in areas bordering India -- are afflicted by the hazardous effects of the untreated water,” says Hammad Naqi Khan, another WWF Pakistan official.
Untreated water, when used for irrigation, seeps into the soil and facilitates the entry of a number of pathogens into the food chain. “Vegetables grown with toxic water may cause diseases when used by the people un-cooked,” Khan says.
Villagers are aware of the high levels of pollution in the drain along the India-Pakistan border near the Pakistani city of Lahore.
“We have been facing this problem for the last 20 years. The pollution fluctuates according to the volume of the water," says Muhammad Jamil, a farmer in his sixties. Mian Mahboob, a local politician, even suspects that pathogens are being transmitted through cattle milk because buffaloes and cows drink from the drain too.
Experts say that many of these fears are not unfounded.
“Cadmium, chromium and copper in chemical waste from factories located alongside the drain are making vegetables outsized. The heavy chemicals, all carcinogenic, eventually end up in the food chain,” explains Aslam, who coordinates a project that is trying to improve water quality.
The project, being implemented by the WWF Pakistan, is supported by the small grants programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The UNDP is also funding a similar project in India to clean up the Indian side of the Hudiara. The World Wildlife Fund in India is collaborating with the Gurunanak Dev University in carrying out a survey of the pollution there.
The goal is to reduce the pollution load in the Hudiara drain by working with stakeholders and putting in place clean management practices, says Dr Anjana Pant of WWF India.
The findings of the survey will be announced after two years and a strategy drawn up to tackle the issue, in partnership with the WWF- Pakistan, which has already conducted a survey of the Hudiara drain, she adds.
Both the projects are expected to be completed by 2006, following which the WWF hopes to help formulate a joint pollution control strategy by the Pakistan and India.Pakistan has already surveyed the pollution levels on Hudiara section within its territory and is now in the second phase of the project for cleaning the canal.
A 2001 Pakistani assessment found the environmental health of the drain “highly unsatisfactory”. It said the water was unfit for irrigation, had high levels of heavy metals, was biologically contaminated and was also contributing to groundwater pollution.
“There are around 100 industries located adjacent to the Hudiara drain on the 55-kilometre Indian side, so it is already quite toxic when it enters Pakistan,” says Hania Aslam. “Then we have 112 small industries located next to the drain on our side as it travels 63 kilometres through the Punjab into the Ravi.”
But this water is used for irrigation along the length of the canal. The villagers even use water from wells dug close to the drain, which are exposed to the pollution through seepage.
The general awareness of pollution is low -- children play in the water while their cattle wallow in the drain.
But “this water is okay,” says Niaz Ali of village Noorpur. “We use that water for the fields. It is good for our crops, makes them grow fast and we don't need fertiliser,” he adds, referring to the dark sludge. “We have no other water so we don't have a choice. The tubewell water is good water, but it is used only for drinking,” he adds.
WWF Pakistan has begun an awareness campaign to educate villagers about the dangers of using polluted water. It also has plans to provide industries with technical support for installing cost effective pollution control measures.
“This trans boundary project could be an example of regional cooperation in South Asia. With all the goodwill now surrounding Pak- India relations, Hudiara can be a symbol of all that can go right once two neighbours decide to clean up their act together,” says Rina Saeed Khan, an analyst.