A sea of emerald stretches out before me, a canopy of hundreds of verdant leaves crowned with red, yellow and orange canna lilies. Close by, a family of ducks happily paddles in a pond as honeybees buzz between the blooms, their lazy movements in perfect sync with the idyllic atmosphere. It’s not just the animal kingdom that’s having a good time here. A short distance away are a couple of kids splashing away in a stream of crystal clear water. All this isn’t taking place in some massive nature preserve or park, but rather in a small enclosure with mud walls.
This is the village of Majeed Keerio, located in Sindh’s Sakrand taluka, on the left bank of the once-mighty River Indus and just two kilometres from the Pai Forest. Home to about 5,000 people, life in this village has remained more or less unchanged in its 700 years of existence, and up until recently the villagers relied on farming and rearing livestock for a living much as their ancestors had done for centuries.
But then, change came to the village of Majeed Keerio, and not in a good way. Increasing water shortages led to fewer crops being planted and less fodder for the farm animals. So precipitous was the decline that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature estimated that villagers in the surrounding areas lost up to 90 per cent of their livestock in just two decades, pushing many locals well below the poverty line.
Water starvation also led to gradual decimation of the nearby Pai, Mehrabpur and Mari forests, further contributing to the environmental degradation of the area. The reduced forest cover, in turn, raised local temperatures and reduced rainfall, creating a vicious cycle. To add to the village’s miseries, the decades-old drainage system collapsed and blocked sewerage lines, flooding the streets with raw sewage and human waste. Environmental apocalypse had come to Majeed Keerio.
But where most people would have despaired and done nothing, one man decided to act. That man is Ameen Keryo, team leader of the Sindhica Reforms Society project and the mastermind behind what has become the first-ever constructed wetland park in Pakistan.
“We realised that the contamination of freshwater resources was the main hurdle in the path of environmental development, the protection of people’s health and also the conservation of local flora and fauna,” says Ameen. “We also decided that the easiest and cheapest way to treat this wastewater would be through low-cost biological means — in effect, through constructing a wetland park.”
Wetlands, whether natural or constructed, are considered to be the biological supermarkets of the world. Home to countless plant and animal species, they are among the most productive environments in the world and form a link between our land and water resources. Acting as nature’s sieves, wetlands filter out dangerous pollutants and excess nutrients from the water. Water from the land works its way slowly through wetland soil and vegetation, and many of the impurities are trapped before the water reaches its next destination. In the case of natural wetlands, this is usually the sea. In the case of Majeed Keerio, it is homes and agricultural fields.
“The constructed wetland at Majeed Keerio now treats and recycles 76,800 gallons of waste water per day,” says Ameen with pride. The treated water nourishes two-and-a-half acres of cotton, provides water for livestock and irrigates the nearby water-starved Pai Forest. It’s also being used for household purposes.
But when he first came up with the idea, it was clear that good intentions alone weren’t going to be enough, and the immediate problem was how to gain the technical skills to accomplish this task. Armed with a handbook on constructed wetlands courtesy of the UN Habitat: Water for Asian Cities programme, he contacted the project’s South Asian chief technical adviser, Dr Roshan Raj Shrestha and got to work. By this time, WWF-Pakistan also came on board and helped get international experts to visit the site, getting Sindhica started on this project in 2009.
“We planted a neem tree nursery to promote the greenery and beautification of the site and also to encourage the youth to counter the lack of trees. In fact, the tree plantation and the duck farming we do in the ponds can turn out to be a source of income generation for the unit’s operation,” Ameen says.
But while these operations would have taken time before becoming profitable, money was immediately needed to set up the project. The cost of constructing this wetland was around Rs6 million and they needed about Rs100,000 for annual maintenance. Instead of turning to the government or to NGOs, Ameen opted to mobilise those who stood to gain the most: the people of Majeed Keerio themselves. The response was stunning.
Ameen claims that the 29 different castes of the area pooled their resources and contributed Rs100,000 in cash and close to Rs3 million in kind, donating land and other items the team needed. What remained was made up by a WWF grant.
“Now we are charging Rs50 per month from every household for providing water, and we sell agricultural water for Rs200 per hour,” says Ameen.
This also taught him a valuable lesson in how to mobilise communities for the greater good. “Demand should be created by the community rather than by relying on NGOs or government bodies. This created pressure on the government and elected representatives for the rehabilitation of the drainage system at Majeed Keerio,” says Ameen.
It was this demand that finally prompted local MPA Ghulam Qadir Chandio to get the drainage system repaired. The streets of Majeed Keerio are now no longer flooded with sewage and the waste now feeds into the wetlands, where it is purified. Involving the community in the actual working of the project had other benefits as well; it reduced the cost of the project substantially and got it completed on time.
“The biggest advantage [of this project] is that no energy and very few supplies are needed,” says Nasir Ali Panhwar of WWF-Pakistan. “Constructed wetland facilities can get by with periodic on-site labour, rather than continuous full-time attention. It only needs low-tech methods as no new or complex technological tools are required,” he says.
Starting in 1993, with a group of 15 matric students out to make a difference, the Sindhica Reform Society has come a long way, and now boasts of 50 staff members and over 300 project staff. Their success hasn’t gone unnoticed, and they are currently engaged in consulting on constructed wetland projects in no less than 14 sites in Pakistan, from Sindh and Punjab to Balochistan as well.
“The initiative is the first of its kind adopted by WWF-Pakistan,” adds Panhwar. “Two are in Shaheed Benazirabad and three are in Sanghar district. Covering areas of only 0.25 to 0.5 acres, the combined projects will treat an estimated 11,800 gallons of water every day.”
The corporate sector has also gotten involved, with both Engro Polymer Pakistan and Mitchell Fruit Farms taking Sindhica on board to construct wetlands on various sites. The society is also working with UN Habitat as consultants for their international projects.
“Constructed in urban centres on district and municipality levels, or to a smaller extent in muhallahs, these wetlands can work miracles,” says Panhwar.
For Ameen, it’s not just a victory but a validation of years of work. “I hope this is the beginning of a green era,” he says. “Even though some local feudal lords do try to disrupt us, commitment and sincerity toward nature and the national interest gives you the willpower to face and overcome these obstacles. If you keep moving ahead, ultimately you will win.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 16th, 2012.