Contaminated water: The factory which produces hepatitis, gastroenteritis and more

Residents of Mohlanwal cannot afford to dig 300 feet for clean water.

Sonia Malik March 16, 2012


About 25,000 people in Mohlanwal, a housing scheme near Lahore, drink severely contaminated water, which is caused by chemical sewage dumped by a factory set up less than 100 feet away.

Doctors in the village’s only dispensary say the number of cases of hepatitis and diarrhoea are rising as the quality of ground water falls. The residents, mostly low-end government employees or self-sufficient farmers, are too poor to get a motor pump to dig deeper for a cleaner water supply. It would cost about Rs35,000 or more for one house.

Ten-year-old Jamal is a victim of the contamination; he has survived Hepatitis B and typhoid. Samina Bibi, his mother, takes the long walk to Atthaara Village, a mile from Mohlanwal (23 kilometres off Multan Road) and now a part of Lahore, to fetch clean water after she learned that both diseases are waterborne.

“He is sensitive. I make a fire just to boil the water for him every day because he is prone to diarrhoea and had been sick several times,” she said.

Combustible chemicals such as toluene, lupranate, poly-propropolene glycol and polyether polyol are dumped in about four 90-foot deep socket pits. More dangerous, according to an expert, are silicon and methylene chloride. These carcinogens are apparently acutely toxic. Kidney failures, liver cancer and hepatitis are highly possible if exposed to them, the expert said.

Some residents have also started bringing water for drinking from nearby villages. But children still sometimes drink water from handpumps. The same water is also being used for crop cultivation and animals.

Very few people bring water from tube wells from Attharo village (a mile from Mohlanwal) or from a water plant in Bahria Town, says Abdul Majeed, who has lived in Mohlanwal for over 40 years. “It is too much effort. Most people still drink what is available,” he said.

He said water used to be clean 10 years ago, before factories were set up around the village, but now it turns yellow if kept in a container for over two hours. He later showed a sample in a bottle he had brought to his workshop for drinking. “I re-fill it with fresh water once it changes colour,” he said.

Muhammad Pervez, who works in the main local factory, said about 60 Mohlanwal residents also work there. They know the water is unclean, but there is no point protesting because one’s job is on the line. Also, he said, clean water can be procured from Attharo, a mile away.

Pervez said the socket pits have been sealed several times but always end up reopening.

Muhammad Rizwan Shakat, 22, started a small movement two years ago and got people to take the matter of unclean water with the union council nazim.

Shakat said the cost of installing one pump is about Rs35,000. “No one can afford that much here. Also, when I took this up with the nazim, I realised he had no clue about the procedures for approaching the concerned department to get clean water. Things remain unchanged,” he said.

A two-room dispensary by a trust was opened in the village in November 2010. Dr Husne Ahmad has been treating patients there for the last six months. He said most patients are children with gastroenteritis or diarrhea. Typhoid and chest infections are also common.

Dr Muhammad Bajwa, manager at the dispensary, said at least 10 gastritis or gastroenteritis patients come daily. “We also treat up to 30 patients of typhoid every month. Eye and chest infections are also common,” he said.

Village nazim Zulfiqar Ali said more than 50% of Mohlanwal residents depend on farming for living. They grow mustard, wheat, cattle fodder, and corn. They also raise buffaloes and goats and sell milk for money. Another 30% work in factories.

The factory workers get free treatment facility at the Nawaz Sharif Hospital. However, mostly children and women rely on the dispensary for treatment.

Ali also denied claims of water contamination. “Those getting dirty water are getting it because they do not do anything about it,” says Ali, who gets his supply from 300 feet. “If someone has a problem, they should dig deeper for cleaner supply.”

“We are weak. We can-not go against the factories or persuade a higher government authority to replace our water pumps,” said Abdul Majeed after hearing the nazim’s claim of clean water.

An Environment Protection Department (EPD) spokesman said they have issued Environmental Protection Orders to the factory several times for a safer sewage disposal system. “The pits have been sealed several times too, but they reopen as soon as we stop inspecting,” he said, adding that ineffective monitoring on part of the EPD and having no environment tribunal is also part of the problem.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2012.


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