In Pakistan, the Water Kills

May 26, 2011
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Every year 250,000 children die from drinking unsafe water.


704 Garbage floating on stagnant water - Garbage dumped in standing water promotes disease. Muzaffargarh, southwestern Punjab, Pakistan. (Photo credit: Kamila Hyat/IRIN)


After several weeks of severe sickness, with unrelenting diarrhoea and high fever, Shamshad Ali, aged five, from a village near the town of Sheikhupura in Punjab Province, finally feels strong enough to venture out of his house again.

“For a few days, when he was really sick and weak and could not even keep liquids down, we thought we might lose him. We were terrified because last year my cousin lost a four-year-old daughter to diarrhoea,” Shamshad’s father, Muhammad Akhtar, 32, told IRIN.

Shamshad, who is now back in school, has been fortunate. According to a new study by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a government body, details of which have appeared in the media, 82% of water sources tested in 24 (of the country’s more than 100) districts across all four provinces, provided water that is unsafe to drink.

The report, which has yet to be formally released, is based on a five-year study and notes that 250,000 children die in the country each year as a result of diarrhoeal disease originating from impure water.

PCRWR Chairman M. Aslam Tahir told the media the study was “comprehensive” and that he did not need to make further comments. Previous studies have also found poor water quality in urban centres.

“The findings seem to be accurate. Due to policies over past years, there has been widespread contamination of water sources. Poor governance adds to the problem and people are basically helpless,” Khalid Hussain, an Islamabad-based expert on water issues, told IRIN.


Water filtration

He also said the problem could be solved only by “adopting indigenous methods”.

Indigenous methods have been devised and are being used, but on an extremely small scale. Sindh-based NGO Association of Humanitarian Development has been using a simple filtration system using two clay pots in the province.

Khursheed Bhatti, head of the organisation, told IRIN: “We have developed this method as a cheap, indigenous way to filter water. Up to 15 litres of water a day can be cleaned in this way.” Larger NGOs have shown interest in the unique filtration technique, which has been used for over three years in Sindh.


Water boiling

Poverty and a lack of awareness on the part of people add to the issues involved in accessing safe water. “We know we should boil the water we collect from a hand-pump for at least 15 minutes, but how can I manage this when all I have is a tiny kerosene stove with one burner?” asked Uzma Bibi, who lives in a village 50km from Lahore.

A mother of four, she added: “I must also prepare food daily for a household of nine on the same stove, and fuel prices are rising so sharply we can barely afford to keep the flame burning except when it is essential for cooking.” The prices of petroleum products have risen several times over the last few months triggering angry protests earlier this year.

“Even now there are people who do not boil water because they are unaware it is a principal source of disease. I see people suffering from conditions caused by unsafe water almost every day,” said Rubina Ijaz, a paediatrician in Sheikhupura. She said infants and small children were often the worst sufferers, as mothers who were not breast-feeding frequently “mixed dry formula with water that was not safe” resulting in sickness.

According to experts, growing water scarcity adds to the problems associated with the availability of safe water in the country.

“All my three children suffer from diarrhoea every now and then. Doctors say water is responsible, but it is not easy to locate safe water, or to boil and then cool it in summer. After all, we have no refrigerators,” Shamshad’s mother, Sadiqa Bibi, said.


The article was first published in IRIN in April 2011.