Clean Water Scarce in Pakistan

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. US officials worry about a lot about Pakistan. They're concerned about Al Qaeda and Taliban militants based there. And they fear that Pakistan's weak government could collapse. Now, add one more worry. Pakistan is short on water, and much of what is available is making people sick. The World's Laura Lynch prepared this report.

LAURA LYNCH: At a clinic outside Rawlpindi, near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a four-month old baby sick with diarrhea cannot be soothed by doctors or his mother. Dr. Satash-e Zawaf treats patients here. She says one in every five of them are sick with water-related illnesses.

ZAWAF: I know there is the problem of water because even in home when I don't use boiled water, my kids even they get diarrhea. Even I get diarrhea. So I know that is because of water.

LYNCH: According to the Pakistani government's own figures, every year 3 million Pakistanis get sick with water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, hepatitis and typhoid. More than a million of them die, including 250,000 children under 5. A visit to just about any waterway in or around the city illustrates the problem. Rivers, streams and canals like this one near Rawalpindi are contaminated with raw sewage, garbage, industrial waste and runoff from farming operations. Abdul Majeed is a civil engineer who has worked on water issues inside and outside the Pakistani government for more than three decades. Majeed knows all about the human toll, the huge numbers of people getting sick and dying from the water they drink.

ABUDL MAJEED: These are the direct results of that contamination. No doubt, water pollution is the major issue right now. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we have rules, we have regulations, we have laws, but unfortunately the implementation of the laws is a major problem in Pakistan.

LYNCH: The Pakistani government wouldn't necessarily disagree. By its own admission, more than half the country's population of more than 175 million people don't have access to clean drinking water. And a 2007 report from the Asian Development Bank said only one percent of urban wastewater is treated, so raw sewage goes right back into local waterways and the drinking water supply suffers ? when there is water to drink. This local water station in Islamabad is typical. A group of boys bearing plastic jugs have come to fill up ? but there's nothing coming out of the taps. Abdul Majeed says even if water stations like this one have water, often the filters aren't replaced or the storage tanks aren't cleaned.

MAJEED: We do create infrastructure, very good infrastructure for the benefit of people, but then we tend to forget maintenance. What happened with the filtration plants project is it was a very good project and should've benefited most of the population, I'd say not 100% but it was targeting. They should have gone for ? but the problem is once the infrastructure is created and runs for a while it needs some kind of maintenance, and we forget that maintenance. Where this funds going to come from? Because there are no funds, everybody forgets and then the system goes down and there you are.

LYNCH: The pollution problems persist even in some of the country's most genteel settings. A sunny spring day brings out crowds who line up to go for a ride on Rawalpindi's Rawal Lake. Young women step gingerly into the rowboats in their high heels. Then the crewman pushes off and heads out. But even this picturesque artificial lake is polluted. Most of its water flows to a nearby filtration plant and then on to serve parts of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. But some of it also seeps into the surrounding aquifer, which provides water for a local neighborhood. Several hundred yards from the lake, an enclosed well draw up water for the residents. The well's caretaker, Mohammed Siddique, says the water is excellent.

SIDDIQUE: Nothing comes close to this water. Our water goes direct from the ground into the water tank, and the tank is very clean. So there is no way the water is bad.

LYNCH: Siddique is right in principle. Groundwater deson't usually doesn't carry the same kind of pathogens that can contaminate surface water. But in this case, it seems that even the groundwater is dirty. Not far away, we meet Mehreen Rashid, who lives in the colony and gets her water from the well.

MEHREEN RASHID: Come take a look.

LYNCH: Inside her gate, a vintage washing machine rumbles and shakes in the courtyard. There's water enough for laundry, then ? and water enough to drink. But as she pours herself a glass, Rashid, who's in her 70's, complains about the number of people who are getting sick here.

RASHID: Before, we never had so many people getting sick. We don't know why, why illness is so rampant now. There was no such thing in the old times.

LYNCH: Abdul Majeed, the civil engineer, says he knows why. The groundwater has been contaminated with pollutants from the reservoir.

MAJEED: It gets polluted, the groundwater gets polluted and definitely there are all the chances that people are going to get sick.

LYNCH: And the problem here and throughout Pakistan is likely worse than even the dire official statistics suggest. In much of the world, many of the people made sick by contaminated water never see a doctor ? and industrial pollutants tend to cause long-term and chronic illnesses that generally are never traced to their source. Fazalullah Quereshi, a former top bureaucrat in charge of Planning and Development for the entire country, is outraged that his government can't provide the most basic services like clean water to its people.

FAZALULLAH QUERESHI: It's a question of national priorities. It's a question of politics. We are always busy on non-issues. Our whole national attention is diverted. Kashmir ? then we get rid of Kashmir. Then one war with India, then another war with India. Then, last 20 years, the Afghan crisis. So national priorities are not there.

LYNCH: The government declined repeated requests for an interview with the minister responsible for water. But it says it is in the midst of ambitious water quality programs. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister opened a new sewage treatment plant in Islamabad. And there are plans to build more water filtration and treatment plants across the country, in addition to hundreds that have already been put in place. But the challenge is staggering, and in this already fractured and unstable country, there are growing concerns of a backlash. On a promenade near Rawal Lake, a monkey chained by the neck dances to his master's tune. Delighted children are warned not to get too close ? the monkey's been known to bite. Former government engineer Abdul Majeed is sounding similar warnings of his own. Along with all the other conflict roiling Pakistan, there are also growing protests over water ? and Majeed believes it could get worse.

MAJEED: You know, even a small animal ? if you corner that animal, ultimately the animal will have no option. After all, they're human beings. So if you corner them and continue cornering them, they are left with no option. Then definitely they will resort to violence, and it's alarming.

LYNCH: But for so many people here, water ? their lifeline ? is still making them sick and even killing them. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch, at the Rawal Dam in Pakistan.

WERMAN: Tomorrow, Laura reports on the decline of the Indus River in Pakistan.