Construction banned in Rawal Lake catchment areas

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jul 28, 2013.

The Rawal Lake monitoring committee has decided to formally forbid any future construction in Rawal Lake’s catchment areas and watershed region without prior environmental approval, Asif Shuja, the committee’s chairperson, told The Express Tribune.

Shuja, who is also the Director-General of the Pakistan-Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) and is currently holding the additional charge of Director-General Environment at the Climate Change Division, said the committee agreed this week to issue a notification putting a  blanket ban on unapproved new structures in the lake’s catchment areas.

“The lake’s water is derived from the rainfall in the catchment areas, which flows into the lake” Shuja said. “Over the years, most of the catchment areas have been turned into human settlements.”

He said the Rawal Lake is a source of drinking water for over 2 million residents of Rawalpindi and cantonment areas. But untreated waste discharged into the lake from human settlements — some of them illegal colonies that encroach upon the streams and tributaries that flow into the lake — and livestock stables in the catchment areas are a threat to the quality of the water.

Rawal Dam was built on the Korang River in 1960 and the lake’s catchment areas stretch from Bhara Kahu and Bani Gala to Phulgaran and Tarait.

ICT Zoning Regulations 1992 forbid any construction in areas adjoining all water bodies, lakes and reservoirs in the capital’s Zone III, which includes the Margallah Hills National Park and areas south of it up until the Murree Road.

Section 12 of the Pakistan Environment Protection Act 1997 also does not allow a construction project to commence without submitting an initial environment examination or environmental impact assessment report.

But environmental law enforcers said the environment report falls at the end of a construction project’s pipeline. If the project is not allowed to acquire land near water bodies in the first place, the harm will be avoided.

They blame the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and ICT administrations for either conniving with the illegal constructions in the catchment areas or turning a blind eye because of pressure from influential builders.

ICT DC Amir Ali Ahmed denied that there is any administrative connivance but said the violations regarding construction in catchment areas have continued for a long time and enforcement has gone slow on it. Ahmed said the encroachments that have been built over 30 years cannot be removed in one year.

He said illegal constructions are being dealt as a policy matter so that the native settlers are not treated unfairly and the new settlers also take responsibility of environmental impact.

The Rawal Lake monitoring committee, which receives regular reports from WASA about water quality, includes representatives of the Capital Development Authority, the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), WASA, Small Dams Organisation and Punjab Environment Protection Department among other organizations.

It was formed in 2010 during the proceedings of a Supreme Court suo moto case regarding the water pollution in the lake. The apex court finally disposed off the case in February after Cabinet Division and Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) assured the court the lake’s water is fit for drinking.

WASA has an operational water treatment plant at the lake which treats outgoing water supply. But the water falling into the lake is at risk of pollution.

The Pak-EPA has so far plugged 511 drain pipes that were discharging raw sewage into streams that eventually fell into the Rawal Lake.

One of the sources of the water waste, the Quaid-e-Azam University, has started treating its waste before discharging it into the nearby streams. A septic tank and soakage pit have been installed at Bari Imam to retain and absorb the human waste that was being discharged into the Rawal Lake from 103 bathrooms set up near the shrine for use by devotees. The ICT administration has also funded a similar soakage pit in Phulgaran.

Similarly, the Rawalpindi District Environment Office has cracked down upon poultry farms in Murree who were releasing effluents into the Rawal Lake, by fining them and shutting them down.

“But these are temporarily solutions,” Shuja said. “The ultimate solution is water treatment plants that clean water entering the lake.”

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) had conducted a study for a mega project that would include four water treatment plants, sources told The Express Tribune. The CDA had prepared a PC-I for the project that was sent to the Ministry of Interior and later to the planning commission.

If funds are released, the project, which is estimated to cost Rs3 billion, would see three new water treatment plants for Rawal Lake in ICT territory and one in CDA’s domain, sources said.

Meanwhile, an official of the Pak-EPA told The Express Tribune that the Small Dams Organisation had recently sent a proposal to build a floating platform in the middle of the Rawal Lake for leisure. The idea was that people would reach this platform for sightseeing by boat and it would provide a tourist attraction.

But sources said Pak-EPA suggested that this kind of platform would inevitably result in water pollution as people might discard food items in the lake from the platform.

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