With a length of 680 kilometres, the River Ravi is the smallest of the five main eastern tributaries of the Indus River. The river rises in the Himalayas at a height of some 4,000 metres and then flows through the basin of Bangahal in India’s Himachal Pradesh. It goes through the valley of Chamba, past Pathankot and Gurdaspur district before entering Pakistan at Shakargarh tehsil in Sialkot.
The Ravi then flows over the Ravi Siphon, past Lahore and then to the headworks at Balloki, some 133 kilometres downstream from the Siphon. The city of Lahore disposes of all of its municipal and industrial waste, untreated, into the River Ravi. The total disposal flow of wastewater into the River Indus and its tributaries has been estimated at 56.52 cubic metres per second (m3/s) with a BOD (biological oxygen demand) load of 1,900 tons per day. Of this, the disposal flow of the River Ravi is 28.09 m3/s with a BOD load of 885 tons a day.
In the 133 kilometres between the Ravi Siphon and the Balloki headworks, the city of Lahore effectively pollutes half of the water of the Indus River and kills the Ravi. The water of the Ravi, past Lahore, is unsuitable for recreation, extremely perilous to fish and wildlife, and harmful to humans. This contaminated water also mixes with irrigation water diverted at Balloki into the Balloki-Suleimanki link canal and is used for agricultural purposes.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has read the right to a clean and healthy environment into the Fundamental Right to Life guaranteed by our Constitution. It is a positive obligation of the State, in that the State must not wait for the right to be violated before taking action. The Pakistan Environment Protection Act of 1997 (PEPA) has been enacted to allow just for this.
The PEPA allows for the notification of National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) to be enforced by the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) and provincial EPAs. In August 2000, the ministry of environment notified the NEQs for municipal and liquid industrial effluents.
The water quality of the Ravi exceeds many of the NEQs prescribed. The untreated disposal of domestic and industrial waste into the river is a violation of the PEPA and of our Fundamental Right to Life. It is incumbent on the EPA, the Government of Punjab and Lahore’s Water and Sanitation Agency to take action to enforce the law.
The EPA has, in the past, issued notices to industry and housing schemes for violating the PEPA by disposing of liquid effluent in excess of the NEQs. These contraventions are exclusively liable for trial by environmental tribunals. The environment tribunal in Lahore has been defunct since last year on the retirement of its chairperson. No new chairperson has been appointed and over 1,000 cases remain pending.
In fact, the appointment of a new chairperson has become a sticking point post-Eighteenth Amendment. Under the Amendment, the subject of the environment now falls within the exclusive legislative domain of the provinces. However, the PEPA is a federal act and it states that an environment tribunal shall consist of a chairperson “to be appointed after consultation with the Chief Justice of the High Court and two members of the Federal Government”. The Government of Punjab maintains that because of the devolution, the Federal Government’s authority to appoint a Chairperson has become defunct and that, unless and until there is a new law on the environment passed by the Punjab Assembly, no new Chairperson can be appointed.
It’s been one year since the devolution, and new provincial environment legislation still seems a long way away. Meanwhile, the Tribunal stands defunct and the EPA unable to carry out its powers to prevent this city from poisoning itself. Surely some middle ground can be found. For example, there is room in the language of PEPA to allow the Provincial Government to request the Federal Government to make an appointment after consulting with the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court. Or it could take the Constitutional route provided for in Article 144 and pass a resolution requesting the National Assembly to make an amendment in PEPA to remove this sticking point. Unless clean irrigation and drinking water (and air quality) become apolitical considerations, we will do nothing but continue to pollute ourselves until the politicians get their act together.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2012.