The Executive Committee of the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan has filed a public interest writ petition before the Lahore High Court regarding the discharge of untreated wastewater into the River Ravi.
The River Ravi is one of the three Western rivers of the Indus Basin whose waters were allocated to India under the Indus Waters treaty, 1960. Since the early 21st Century, the development of irrigation and water infrastructure in India has meant that little or no water flows across the Indo-Pak border in the River Ravi.
Unfortunately the banks of the River Ravi along Lahore are used for the discharge of untreated domestic and industrial wastewater and effluent. There are over a dozen disposal stations and two surface water drains that discharge untreated wastewater into the river. The levels of impurities in the water are in excess of National Environmental Quality Standards set by the Pakistan Environment Protection Council and enforced by the Environment Protection Agency, Punjab (the EPA, Punjab). The scale of this discharge is enormous. It is calculated that nearly 48% of the overall pollution discharged into the River Indus comes from the River Ravi. At this point in time, the River Ravi is no more a river but a sludge carrier.
The environmental impacts of this discharge are also enormous. Not only is the water flowing in the River Ravi unfit for human consumption, but the toxic industrial effluents that flow into it make is unfit for recreational purposes too. The pollution has led to the extinction of some 42 species of fish that inhabited the river as it flowed past the city and has meant that a natural habitat for birds and animals has been destroyed and they have been forced to migrate elsewhere.
The wastewater discharged into the River Ravi at Lahore flows to the irrigation headworks at Bolloki and is then used to irrigate parts of Southern Punjab. The pollutants in the water mean that it is unsafe for drinking purposes. The research of water quality shows that a high metal content in the water makes it susceptible to soil leeching, which means that many crops grown with this irrigation water are also contaminated.
The health impacts of this pollution are staggering. UNICEF estimates that 20-40 percent of Pakistanis in hospitals today are there because of waterborne disease. The death rate amongst children due to impure water is extremely high, suggesting their vulnerability to the effects of pollution.
Because of the impacts of this pollution on water quality, access to clean water, quality of food, human and animal health, PILAP moved the Lahore High Court with a public interest litigation petition seeking directions to the Government of Punjab, the Water and Sanitation Agency and the EPA, Punjab to take immediate remedial action.
The problems of sewage treatment in Lahore are well known and PILAP has also conducted research on the initiatives taken by the Government of Punjab, WASA and EPA, Punjab in the past. The purpose of the petition is to work with the Judiciary to ensure that public bodies and officials are directed to focus on issues of public importance with respect to their Fundamental Rights.
In April 2012, PILAP filed the River Ravi petition. The River Ravi Commission (RRC), which was established in June 2012, was tasked with finding a sustainable solution to restore the natural ecology of the River Ravi.
The RRC proposed setting up a pilot waste-treatment plant near BabuSabu, which was approved by the High Court in early 2013. However, the Commission had difficulty in following up the proposal.
In 2013, the Lahore Development Authority proposed the River Ravi River front Development Project (RRRDP). The LDA and the Government of Punjab are now resisting the proposed waste-treatment plant on the grounds that the site identified by the RRC may interfere with the proposed RRRDP.
At the 3 April 2014 RRC meeting, members expressed their apprehensions over the RRRDP, as handing the riverbed for development to the LDA will make restoration of the natural ecology of the River Ravi, impossible. The Commission agreed to meet with the LDA to obtain further details of the RRRDP on 21 April 2014.
During this meeting, the LDA shared that is was envisaging large-scale treatment of the River Ravi that will yield an additional 3000-4000 cusecs of treated wastewater for use in the irrigation network. The LDA is awaiting various studies of the hydrological cycle of the Ravi River before it makes a final decision on the kind of waste-treatment it will pursue and how it will finance such a project. However, it was conceded by the LDA that one of the means of financing this project could be through urban development. Hence, one of the possible outcomes of the RRRDP could be the development and sale of land along the Ravi riverbed to finance waste-treatment.
The RRC agreed to wait for the LDA to receive its studies so that it can report to the Lahore High Court, the exact nature of the RRRDP and whether or not the Commission would be able to continue in the presence of such a development project. On receiving the reports, the RRC will convene to consider future steps.