Karachi’s garbage crisis turning the city “into a trash bin”

BE2C2 Report — Karachi’s garbage crisis is becoming insurmountable or, it has been made to appear as one. Political bickering, turf war, corruption, nepotism, and finger-pointing make solutions hard to grasp, many Karachiites say.

“This city has been turned into a huge rubbish bin,” Karachi’s former mayor Mustafa Kamal roared at a public rally recently. Experts say capability is the main issue, not capacity building, as the city has access to funds and the ability to seek funds if they don’t have — on public-private partnership if needed.

Mr. Sajnani, chief of Sindh province’s Solid Waste Management Board (SWMB) set up in 2015 to deal with the garbage disposal, told AFP bluntly: “The present capacity and resources of the city (Karachi) cannot cater to the quantum of garbage being generated daily.”

He did not suggest viable solutions – it’s a political hot potato for the mega city — Pakistan’s financial capital and its largest city population-wise. Towering high rises and sprawling illegal settlements on the Arabian Sea saw its growth explode in recent decades after waves of migration, largely refugees fleeing the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas moved in.

The metropolis’ 20-25 million population produces roughly 12,000 tons (or more according to an unofficial estimate) of trash daily, officials say.
Municipal authorities are able to remove about half, says Sajnani – though skeptics argue it is far less.

The rest is strewn in the streets and alleys, some organic and decomposing in the sweltering heat of the port city, the rest piling higher and higher.

Alarmingly, some officials and residents are improvising disposal — by burning the leftover garbage, largely plastic waste, said Imran Sabir, a senior official at the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for Sindh province.

“The plastic burns and releases toxic gases”, some of which are carcinogenic, he told AFP.

The burning goes on for months at a time beneath hazy skies in some parts of the city. According to a 2016 World Health Organization report, air pollution in Karachi is worse than that in Beijing, China.

Recently, neighbors forced their way into a home — Mohammad Umair’s, battling smoke and flames in a desperate bid to rescue his young family – he and his wife survived, their children did not.

The fire began in a heap of garbage which blocked the narrow alley outside the five-story building and quickly spread inside, engulfing the family as they slept that night.

Umair, a 31-year-old cloth merchant, broke down as he explained that two of his children died before they even reached the hospital.

“The third one, Abdul Aziz, died while the doctors were trying to save his life,” Umair told AFP, recalling the cluster of doctors working frantically but futilely around the tiny body of his infant son.

Police have yet to find out what caused the rubbish to catch fire but it spread quickly to their first floor apartment, filling the lone bedroom they shared where the family were all sleeping together.

Umair’s wife Shameen blames the city and its citizens for her children’s deaths. “Those who dump trash and those who do not fulfill their duties to clean up are responsible,” she said flatly, eyes dry as she stood with her husband among the cinders of their former home. “Who else?”

Shameen is perhaps the most tragic figure to point fingers at waste management authorities accused of corruption and ineptitude, but she is not the first or the only one.

The tragic case has angered Karachiites already frustrated by a failing waste management system, who are calling for more to be done.

Salma, a resident of the Qayyumabad area of Karachi, said she has been repeatedly promised that the trash outside her house will be removed. “Till someone comes to clear this up, people in this neighborhood are suffering from all kinds of diseases. The garbage is a breeding ground for mosquitoes,” she explains.

According to Sajnani of Solid Waste Management Board (which has a huge organizational structure and manpower deployment shown on its website), “there are two landfill sites located in Karachi’s western outskirts but they are far from the city center, on traffic-clogged roads, and at any rate are already overflowing. Garbage is burnt there in open sky to reduce its volume and create space for more.

Mustafa Kamal, who served as mayor until 2010, blamed sheer corruption and the gross incompetence of his political rivals, citing kickbacks on waste disposal contracts and even the diesel used to run the garbage trucks.

But current mayor Waseem Akhtar, elected in 2016, complains he has no money and no power, his authority taken away by the provincial government, which in turn has now brought in Chinese contractors to manage garbage disposal in at least two of the city’s five districts.

The government would pay the Chinese firm Rs2 billion ($20 million) each year, which, the officials claimed, was the least costly option by international standards, a report in the Dawn newspaper said.

Akhtar says local contractors can do the same work for lesser cost than being paid to the foreign contractor – and it beats localization also.

According to Mr. Amil Usmani, representative of Jeddah-based Urdu News daily paper, who recently interviewed Mayor Akhtar, said there was anywhere between 12 to 16 million tons of garbage in the city and sixty percent still remains in the neighborhoods and their alleys and streets. “It will take some time for Karachi’s problems to be solved,” the mayor told Mr. Usmani.

Many believe the real fix can only come if authorities and citizens address the root of the problem: rampant consumption and waste by millions of residents in a city where there is no recycling, no attempt to curb the use of plastic and no one willing to take responsibility for cleaning up.

Admittedly, the provincial government needs to deliver, but for that, they also need Karachi’s help. Either the city’s residents ignore waste disposal rules or they lack the basic knowledge to keep the environment clean.

Mr. Usmani pointed out four basic reasons for the crisis: lack of civic sense of the mixed populace; lack of ownership of the city; absence of local government, and the fact that more than 50 percent of the population are economic migrants with no real stakes in the city.

Mr. Arjumand Azhar, a Karachi-based media personality says, “corruption, nepotism, misappropriation and mismanagement of funds have turned this once a beautiful city into a big garbage dump”.

Local culture must be “radically transformed”, warned KMC’s Mr. Zaman, according to AFP.

Riyadh-based IT and Training professional Abbasi has a different take on the issue. “I was in Karachi last weekend…not seen any thing as such. It’s all Indian propaganda to portray negative image of Pakistan.”

SWMB said it plans to transfer the garbage to a landfill site where it would establish a power plant to produce energy from the city’s garbage.

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