Water treatment project starved of funds

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 6, 2014,

Islamabad – Those who drink the water must also pay for its quality.

It is this simple logic which is likely to cause another delay in an already delayed project to further improve the quality of drinking water supplied from the Rawal Lake.

The Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration had envisioned a mega project to install four sewage treatment plants to clean water in the lake’s catchment areas before it entered the lake.

But, after months of efforts to finance the project at the federal level, a recent meeting held by the Physical Planning and Housing Section of the Planning and Development Division concluded that the Rawalpindi administration should be brought on board to share the project’s cost.

The project’s proposal was part of long-term administrative efforts to improve water quality, after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling had directed Punjab and federal environment protection agencies to monitor contamination in the lake.

Water from Rawal Lake is supplied for human consumption to Rawalpindi residents after purification at a treatment plant operated by at the lake by Rawalpindi’s Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA). The apex court had later, in February 2013, accepted a report by the Cabinet Division that the lake’s water is fit for drinking.

But the mega project, which proposed installation of treatment plants on lake inlets at Bari Imam, Simly Dam road, lower and upper Shahdara, would have reduced considerably and, perhaps comprehensively, the risks to the lake from waste discharged in the catchment area by human settlements, commercial activities and livestock pens.

Despite the drinkability of the lake’s water, the four major and 43 small tributaries that fall into the lake from the Korang River do impact its water.

In a research paper published in the international Environmental Monitoring Assessment journal in December 2013, Asma Saeed and Dr Imran Hashmi from the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) studied the water quality and diversity of bacteria in the Rawal Lake.

They found that the physiochemical parameters — pH, alkalinity, hardness, turbidity and total dissolved solids, to name a few — of Rawal Lake’s water quality were higher at the tributaries and diluted in the lake.

The pollution in the lake can thus be attributed to human activities in the lake’s surrounding areas, said Hashmi, a professor of environmental sciences at NUST. He said the turbidity and total dissolved solids in water from the tributaries can especially increase the cost of the lake’s water treatment.

“You will need more chlorination to clean the water which will make water treatment more expensive and we usually don’t have funds,” Hashmi said.

Short-term measures by the ICT, such as constructing soaking pits and closing sewerage connections, and by the District Environment Office Rawalpindi, such as penalizing poultry farms that were discharging waste in to the lake, have helped.

But the long-term solution stalled due to funding issues.

The ICT had commissioned the Capital Development Authority to conduct a feasibility study for the project in 2012, said Muhammad Asfar, the ICT’s Director Agriculture said.

By March 2013, the administration had forwarded a proposal for the project to its parent ministry, the Interior Ministry, which brought it to the attention of the Planning Commission in July, according to Asfar. The development budget for 2013-14 had been approved by then.

After a reminder to the division in November, the Physical Planning and Housing Section called ICT officials for a meeting in March.

“After much discussion, it was decided since Rawalpindi residents are the main beneficiaries of the project, the Punjab government should also fund the project,” Asfar said.

The project’s estimated cost is around Rs2.25 billion, according to ICT administration.

Asif Sheikh, the development budget advisor for the Planning and Development Division, confirmed that the division will now coordinate a meeting between the Rawalpindi Development Authority, which manages WASA, and the ICT officials to discuss financing share. The meeting’s date has not been fixed yet. WASA officials were unavailable for comment on their thoughts about the cost sharing.

But Sheikh said the ministry of interior, which is the ICT’s source of funding, did not include the project in its proposed list of Public Sector Development Programme 2014-15 projects sent for budget approval. It means the project might not materialize any time soon.

Whenever policymakers do, however, think about clean water through better treatment plants, monitoring laboratories and skilled human resource, they should consider the cost savings it might deliver in the long run.

“If the drinking water is clean, the health costs will significantly decrease,” Hashmi said.

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