Tackling Karachi’s garbage crisis

Inclusion of latest machinery, skilled sanitation workers and modern recycling techniques may help clear the mounting urban waste in the largest city of Pakistan.

Once known as the “city of lights” because of its breezy evenings, wide and clean roads, lush green parks and cheerful late-night outings, Pakistan’s port city of Karachi nowadays appears to be a godforsaken metropolis.

Already tainted by a relentless spree of crime and violence, the country’s commercial capital is facing a slew of problems, ranging from an unplanned urbanisation to an enormous influx of population from the country’s every nook and corner to ever increasing pollution, and above o all, the lack of an effective and modern waste disposal system.

Whether it is the high-end neighbourhood of Clifton along the Arabian Sea or the middle-income Nazimabad or the run-down Orangi town, heaps of garbage piled up on roadsides or in the empty plots, are a common sight due to a string of longstanding waste disposal problems.

The city’s drainage system consists of outdated earthenware pipes, which frequently clog and burst, inundating large and small portions of roads and empty lands with pools of putrid water.  

To make matters worse, the world’s 12th most populated city – home to over 20 million people – according to the World Atlas, has been without a local government and mayor for nearly five years.

Currently, the country’s largest city produces 12,000 tonnes to 14,000 tonnes of garbage per day, of which 9,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes are disposed of, leaving a daily backlog of at least 2,000 tonnes, according to the state-run Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB). The figures are also endorsed by the Urban Resource Centre, a Karachi-based think tank involved in research on urban planning issues.

A gradual deterioration  

A series of on-the-record and background interviews with government officials and city planning experts suggests that the metropolis has seen a gradual deterioration in terms of garbage disposal, primarily over the past decade due to multiple factors, of which, some could have been averted.

A lack of planning and management, unplanned urbanisation, inappropriate and insufficient machinery, increasing population, a so-called boom in construction industry, and absence of skilled manpower are viewed as the key factors behind the fast deteriorating waste disposal conditions in the city.

The increasing population and housing needs have already turned large swathes of green land around Karachi into concrete jungles, resulting in an exorbitant increase in the quantity of waste in recent years.

According to the officials of Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), the city would have produced an average 6,000 tonnes to 8,000 tonnes of garbage until 2012, which has almost doubled over the past decade. Aside from the environment, the loss of green land would have cascading effects on the country’s food security as well in years to come.

“Real estate developers are offering farmers triple the market price, a temptation hard to ignore,” said Shaukat Ali Chadhar, president of Kisan Board of Pakistan, a nationwide organisation involved in research on agriculture.

Karachi’s historic Malir district is hit the hardest by the real estate developers’ greed, where large sections of once lush green fields and jungles have been turned into housing schemes. According to Chadhar, around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of fertile land in and around Karachi have been converted into industrial units and housing schemes in the last 10 years.

Seconding Chadhar’s view, Zahid Farooq, a joint director of Urban Resource Centre, said the real estate developers and land grabbers had not spared even the city’s natural drainage routes.  

Scores of informal housing settlements have sprung up along the banks of the city’s storm water drains – Malir and Lyari rivers. The rivers are supposed to drain the rainwater into the sea. But instead of serving that purpose, the two seasonal rivers, which run parallel to each other, have been converted into dumping grounds of solid and liquid waste, releasing all kinds of garbage and sewage into the sea.

So much so, the offices of the country’s two widely-circulated newspapers have been built on drain channels. Even an average rain inundates most parts of the city, washing away the houses built on or along these drains.

The recent super floods that brought a third of the country under water is a glaring example of how clogging of the natural drainage route, which is being used for regular cultivation along the Indus River, could cause a staggering disaster.

Absence of skilled manpower

The quantity of garbage has soared to huge levels with the passage of time but the disposal system, particularly the inclusion of modern techniques, and trained human resources, has not been expanded by successive governments.

Until 2014, the KMC dealt with the city’s garbage disposal. It had a trained force of sanitation workers, who would get a reasonable salary and all other benefits of a government employee, including medical facilities. They were the backbone of the city’s cleanliness system.

Nonetheless, a gradual decrease in workforce over the years without proper replacement drastically hit the overall disposal system. A ban on the appointment of sanitation workers on regular basis since 1994 caused a significant shortage of skilled manpower. Now, the KMC’s permanent workers comprise less than 10 per cent of Karachi’s total sanitation manpower; they mostly handle the hospital waste.

Donned in patched and tainted uniforms, groups of sanitation workers can be spotted, cleaning the roads and streets with mere brooms, although cleaning vehicles can also be seen at main thoroughfares or the posh localities.

 In 2014, the Sindh government set up the SSWMB to exclusively deal with the garbage issues in the big cities including Karachi. It is undertaking Karachi’s waste disposal works through three private Chinese companies.

These companies have a combined strength of approximately 8,000 sanitation workers, hired by them through local contractors. Apart from the Chinese companies’ strength, another 5,000 workers are employed by the six cantonment areas in Karachi, and other federal institutions including the Defence Housing Authority, Port Qasim Authority and Karachi Port Trust. This means that the SSWBM deals with 65 per cent of the city’s total waste through the Chinese companies, while the remaining 35 per cent are dealt by the KMC and the federal institutions. .A vast majority of these workers have been employed on daily wages with no regular job benefits. Nizamani acknowledged the fact but declined to comment further saying “it’s between the sanitation staff and their contractors (Chinese companies).”

A sanitation worker hired by the Chinese companies is paid (in Pakistani rupee) Rs.650 ($2.45) to Rs.700 ($2.63) per day, of which, he has to pay Rs.100 for the transport and as much for food to their contractor. Even in case of an accident, there is no medical or financial cover.

The meagre salaries along with an overall discouraging job atmosphere often force these workers to quit, allowing the outsourcing agencies to recruit new and untrained manpower. “Garbage disposal is a permanent job, which requires permanent people. The current ill-trained lot of sanitation workers in no way is capable of doing this job,” Farooq observed.

Financial resources, he acknowledged, had been one of the crucial issues, which hampers the improvement of the city’s garbage disposal system.“The government has recently imported new machinery but it’s not enough to cover more than 20 per cent of the city,” he said.  

When asked if the current strength of the sanitation corps and the machinery is sufficient to handle the city’s garbage disposal, Nizamani avoided giving a direct answer. “If there is a need for more workers or machinery, they will be hired and acquired,” he said.

Deteriorating sea pollution

Karachi, which has also been the poster child for political instability and violence, has one crowning jewel that sets it apart from all other Pakistani cities – its long stretches of beaches that provide a respite to all, no matter what social background or ethnicity one may belong to.

Its famous beaches like Sea View, Hawksbay and Sandspit have for generations provided relief from the scorching heat to millions of people, but lately the otherwise scenic sites present a garbage-strewn look.

Tankers filled with sewage water can be spotted releasing the highly contaminated liquid into the sea at two portions of Sea View at least. In addition, release of sewage and dirt from nearby posh localities of Defence Housing Authority and Clifton through a gutter line is adding to the already rising sea pollution. Besides, the toxic industrial waste from the industrial areas of eastern Landhi and Korangi towns, equally wreak havoc on marine life.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a technical adviser to Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF),  Pakistan Chapter, said the marine life at the two points – western Gul Bai and southern Gizri Creek – from where solid and liquid waste of the whole Karachi enter the sea, has been completely destroyed. At least a dozen of marine species, especially lamp shell and Arabian pupfish had vanished due to heavily polluted water, Khan said.

“These two points had been famous for commercial fishing and oysters since the 1980s, but the water has become polluted to a level where these areas have turned into azoic zones,” Khan went on to say.

The increasing water pollution and garbage scattered across the beaches have also resulted in decreasing natural habitats to the dwindling number of several salt-water species, some of which have completely vanished in recent decades.

The South Asian country has already lost 25-30 per cent of the nesting ground for rare green turtles over the past decade, according to Adnan Hamid, who serves as a deputy conservator in Sindh Wildlife Department. Hawks Bay and Sandspit are among the 11 largest nesting sites for green turtles worldwide. However, they are getting destroyed mainly because of uncontrolled construction and human activity in recent years,

“The solid waste left behind by the picnickers, particularly plastic, which makes up 65 per cent of the total waste at Karachi’s beaches, turn out to be killers for the reptiles, who get killed due to asphyxiation after consuming the plastic substances,” Khan added.

On the other hand, different species of turtles lay their eggs by digging pits in the sand, but sometimes there is so much plastic that they are not able to dig through the waste and give up. “This altogether has destroyed the aesthetic value of our beaches,” Khan said.

Serious ecosystem threats

Khan gave credit to the SSWMB for making “some difference” in terms of improving garbage disposal in recent months, but said the backlog was so huge that it needed “equally huge” efforts. Farooq, on the other hand, observed that an excessive use of plastic bags and other material, which are costly and difficult to recycle, have enormously aggravated the city’s already fragile garbage disposal system.

The city has long been dependent on the two landfill sites for its garbage disposal. Anywhere between 400 and 500 mini-trucks and dumpers empty a combined quantity of 8,000 tonnes to 9,000 tonnes of waste every day at these sites. Farooq reckons that around 70 per cent of the waste reach the two landfill sites, while the remaining waste is either strewn around or burned in open plots and spaces, causing serious health and environmental issues.   

Both landfill sites are located in remote corners of the western district, making the disposal process costly and cumbersome. A truck loaded with garbage takes at least one and a half hours, even more in case of a traffic jam, to reach Jam Chakro site from southern Clifton, covering a distance of at least 40 km.

The SSWMB has also set up five garbage transfer sites (GTSs) near the city’s populated neighbourhoods, which are used for preliminary gathering of garbage, and later a major chunk of that is transferred to the main landfill sites. It takes hours, and in some cases days, to transfer the accumulated trash to the landfill sites. In addition to causing a permanent nuisance for the residents of the area, he GTSs are also said to burn the trash, although the SSWMB officials deny the allegations.

The officials claim that only the main landfill sites continuously burn in an attempt to arrest the waste accumulation. According to Dr. Mirza Ali Azhar, an executive committee member of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), a nationwide body of medical professionals, the fumes containing metals, dioxins, furans, chlorides, sulfides and other toxic stuff are causing a string of respiratory and other diseases among the citizens inhabiting nearby.

A careless disposal of hospital waste is another big issue, which has long been plaguing the city. A random visit by the author of this article to state-run and private hospitals suggests that only a few health facilities are involved in safe disposal of the medical waste, which is way dangerous for human health and environment compared to general trash.

The city houses between 250 and 275 small and big hospitals, of which only five have incinerators for safe disposal of the medical waste, according to a research paper pegged by Dr. Tipu Sultan, a former president of the PMA.

The majority of the hospitals and clinics hardly bother about medical waste. They either simply dump it like ordinary trash or have hired contracts and KMC employees to pick the waste and dispose of it in whatever way they like.

The most dangerous aspect of the exercise is that many contractors dump the medical waste into the Lyari and Malir rivers, two favourite spots for scavengers who sort out plastics, metals and other valuables mixed with hospital waste, according to Sultan.

These scavengers, he said, resell these toxic materials to different factories and junkyards across the city, resulting in a hike in a number of diseases, particularly cancer.

Modern recycling system as solution

An informal recycling industry, which has flourished manifolds in the last 10 years, has been playing a key role in Karachi ‘s waste disposal.

Over 40,000 scavengers, including young Afghan refugees, pick up between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of solid waste daily across the sprawling metropolis, sizably bridging the gap of leftover garbage by the municipal agencies, according to Arif  Hasan, the head of  Urban Resource Centre and an expert on city planning. Riding mini trucks, rickshaws, pick-ups, bicycles, and even on foot, groups of these scavengers, mostly children and young boys, sort out the garbage from dumping points, and sell that to contractors, who have set up small and huge godowns across the city, many in densely- populated areas, to store the collected waste.

After another round of sorting, loads of plastic, metal, hardboard, wires, rags of clothes, and other metal and wooden materials are transferred to the recycling markets, mainly in Shershah and Baldia Town localities of Karachi West district.

The SSWMB in collaboration with Tearfund, a UK-based NGO, is operating two recycling facilities at its garbage transfer stations in Karachi West and Malir districts, where at least 36 tonnes of garbage, mainly plastic and kitchen waste, are recycled into plastic and construction materials, and animal feed daily.

Junaid Shah, an official of Tearfund, said that the NGO has involved community and religious leaders to change the overall “community behaviour vis-a-vis safe garbage disposal,” by targeting at least 24,000 households in Kemari and Malir districts.

According to a report compiled by the Urban Resource Centre, over 500 undocumented recycling factories and small units are operating in Karachi alone, providing livelihood to more than 100,000 families. These recycling materials are also transported to the industrial districts of northeastern Punjab province, especially Gujranwala district, which produces nearly 40 per cent of the raw plastics for crockery, electric wire and other industries across the country.

An off-the-record conversation with a couple of contractors revealed that a sizable quantity of plastic, tins, hardboard, and other waste is “illegally”  imported from the United Arab Emirates.

Arif Hasan, a Karachi-based expert on city planning, observed that the government’s facilitation could give a huge boost to this informal industry, which subsequently might create thousands of jobs and improve the current ‘unsystematic’ recycling procedures.

Suggesting the government to chalk out a 10-year plan aimed at converting the informal recycling sector into a proper revenue- generating industry in line with the other regional countries, Hasan urged the authorities to “give concessions to this sector instead of creating hurdles”.

What next?

Several latest studies and experts have come up with a set of suggestions aimed at improving the garbage disposal system in Karachi.

Farooq suggested setting up of at least one landfill site in each of the seven districts, recruitment of more skilled sanitation workers, and provision of regular benefits to the employees, to improve the incumbent cleanliness system.

Syed Zulfiqar Shah, president of the KMC Labour Union, thinks that at least 30,000 trained sanitation workers are required to keep the city clean. According to him, the current strength of sanitation workers and the available machinery are not capable of disposing more than 50 per cent of the total waste the city produces daily. The cleanliness system, he suggested, needed to be decentralised, preferably on the level of small union councils in order to keep an effective check.

Hassan suggested that the scavengers and the contractors should be provided specific spaces, preferably near landfill sites, so that they don’t illegally occupy empty plots within residential areas, to store the recycling materials. Secondly, the recycling industry should be facilitated with electricity, water, and equipment to dispose of the polluted water at minimum costs. Also, the people involved in the sector should be provided technical assistance and easy loans to modernise this sector.

“This all can help establish a garbage city, away from the populated areas, which will boost the recycling industry manifolds,” Hasan maintained.

Published in AFPak by Mian Aamir 29 Mar 2023