Sunday, November 7, 2010


By Rabia Ahmed

Our neighbour Mrs X, had ‘billud’. I am not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg but she also had a foul temper. We often heard her screaming in fury from within her house. Following such episodes Mr X would be found standing just outside their gate, puffy eyed and trembling, feverishly smoking cigarettes. After each cigarette was smoked to the quick, he discarded it in the patch of grass outside the gate, covering it with dirt much as a cat covers her leavings.  When he was all smoked out, he crept back indoors and we would hear Mrs X shrieking again, followed by the distinct sound of repeated thwacks.

Other than being a merciless husband beater, Mrs X was a merciless cleaner. She had innumerable little ornaments around the house: the Eiffel tower jostled against ‘A Gift from Lands End’ which in turn vied for space with Nefertiti, Cinderella, a silent crowd of china ducks, shepherdesses, and a plastic Mickey Mouse wearing a sombrero. 

On Mrs X’s dressing table were many bottles of perfume, and as many bottles of medicine, brushes, combs, and at least ten photographs of siblings in ornate frames. Each of these things was dusted twice a day and sometimes thrice. The house was spotless, because every morning Mrs X dusted it herself, after her maid had swept it and thrown the daily bag of trash over the wall onto the road.

It was I who took her trash along with that from my own moderately clean house to the big bin on the main road.  Small children could be found here, picking through the rubbish and I thought of my own two children in their (moderately clean) home, but did nothing.

There are some things in life you just cannot get away from, such as air, water and food. Waste disposal may not be as urgent a requirement in a crisis, but in the long run it is just as important; if you fail to dispose of your waste properly, you will not die right away, but as sure as anything else, the day will come (and it is almost upon us), when our deaths will be a direct consequence of this failure.  What is more, to die of pollution is a worse death than to die of plain starvation or thirst. It is a lot nastier.

It is strange that we do not even begin to solve this problem, given that what mental illness, illiteracy, superstition and pornography are to the mind, a dirty environment is to the body. We work on building schools, look askance at black magic and ban websites, yet we sweep within and defile without. Do you find it as aberrant as I do, that a society that has a nuclear programme has no effective nationwide waste management system?

Solid Waste Management (SWM) has to be one of our priorities.

Solid waste is material that requires disposal such as normal household garbage and the treated product from treatment plants, commercial waste (for example from slaughter houses), and waste from construction sites. It does not include untreated sewage, or hazardous waste, such as certain chemicals, or nuclear waste.

The responsibility for providing facilities for proper waste management rests with local governments, however it is up to the citizens in their capacity as residents, public and private, to use the facilities provided by their government.

In 2007, the World Bank published a report on SWM which pertains only to some cities and areas of the Punjab, and not to the entire province.  It was presented to the World Bank and the Urban Unit, Government of Punjab in 2007.

One of the conclusions of the report was:”There is no comprehensive solid waste management guideline on a national level, addressing all important waste categories. Since the action plan has not yet been developed, the concrete approach with defined steps and milestones are missing. Therefore the basis for implementation, for the allocation of financial and human resources is still to be developed.”

The report goes on to say that according to a rough estimate, since no studies are available, the total household waste for just nine cities of the Punjab is 10,000 tons per day, or 3.3 million tons per year.

At present, waste collection services in Punjab’s cities are responsible for collecting between 40% - 70% of the waste.

Only part of waste collected thus is deposited in official facilities. The rest is simply dumped anywhere, on the street, in empty plots, or into drains, and water courses. “There is no properly designed and operated sanitary landfill in the nine cities – and reportedly not in the whole of Punjab, or Pakistan.”
Improper rubbish disposal
causing choked drainage

There has to be a final disposal of the rubbish collected and dumped at various spots. At present, it is finally dumped mainly into any open space, flood plains, or ponds.

Flooding, anyone?

It isn’t as though Solid Waste Management is a lost cause in Pakistan. All it needs is planning, and the will to make it work. We have a Government whose job, oddly enough, is to do both these things, and once done it is possible to manage waste, as illustrated by this example:

Dhok Munshi
In 2005, an experimental six month project was initiated to implement the report’s initial suggestions. The place chosen for this project was a small area called Dhok Munshi in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, consisting of about 30,000 low income people.

Because the people of Dhok Munshi are neither affluent nor politically critical, it had been completely neglected, and was without any waste management system at all.  Trash was regularly deposited on open plots which were no longer anything but large mounds of waste.

Under this project, social workers were hired to teach the residents of Dhok Munshi the importance of proper waste disposal, and a monthly service charge of Rs 30 was levied on them.  Waste was collected door to door and this collection was monitored by organisers. Once collected it was taken by collection truck to a disposal site. The dump sites were also cleaned on a regular basis.

The waste collected was sorted according to various categories, and sold to relevant buyers.

The community of Dhok Munshi responded to the scheme with enthusiasm. They cooperated throughout, paid their dues, and placed their trash in the required bags and sites.

As soon as the project was over and it was handed over to the local council however, politics took over and it stagnated.

Dhok Munshi is part of Pakistan.

There are two main lessons to be learnt from this experiment: firstly, given a chance and proper information, the people of Pakistan are obviously willing to improve their surroundings. Secondly, the Government of Pakistan needs to look beyond the selfish interests of its individual members and start planning for and implementing policies that are in the interests of the people they supposedly represent.

There is always another option, and that is to ignore our environment. However, if we do that the issues it poses will not die away. We will. 

This article appeared in The Dawn magazine on the 7th of November 2010 where it was called 'What Rubbish'. 

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