Naureen Aqueel

Towards a cleaner Karachi

Posted on: August 7, 2008

An edited version of this article was published in Newsline, August 2008.

Heaps of solid waste lie open in vacant plots, streets and waterways of the city of Karachi. Distraught citizens pass by scrunching up their faces, pinching their nostrils and holding their breaths. But this waste poses more than just an eyesore and a source of stench in their streets. It has significant environmental and public health impacts in the form of diseases resulting from human or animal contact to the waste which often includes hazardous waste substances as well, and atmospheric, surface and subsurface pollution caused by the dangerous liquids and gases emitted by the accumulated waste materials.

The city of Karachi is generating an estimated figure of around 8,000 tonnes of garbage per day. According to Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah, Conservation Manager for Sindh and Coordinator Indus Ecoregion at World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan, the real figure is more than 9,000 tonnes per day. He says that approximately 50 per cent of the total solid waste produced in the city is actually collected and then properly disposed off. The remaining garbage lies unattended throughout the city creating a number of adverse environmental impacts, clogging up drains and threatening public health.

Most waste is illegally dumped near residential areas instead of being transported to and then dumped at the designated landfill sites for the city’s solid waste, where arrangements are made for effective disposal, incineration and recycling. The illegal dumpsites are then set alight to reduce the volume of the waste, adding significantly to air pollution.

Although the picture appears bleak, recent initiatives by the City District Government of Karachi create hope that there may just be light at the end of the tunnel. The city government has signed a contract with the Chinese firm Shanghai Shen Gong Environmental Protection Company Limited, according to which the Chinese company will manage the city’s solid waste including domestic waste, hospital waste and industrial waste in an environmentally safe way. The contract which was signed on January 11, 2008, and which is expected to be put into action from August 14, 2008, maintains that the company will invest $250 million to set up the system and the city government will pay $20 per tonne to the Chinese company for door-to-door collection of solid waste from all areas of the city and its disposal to the designated landfill sites, where the company will recycle it and use it to generate electricity.

“It is called the Build, Own and Transfer (BOT) Agreement,” says Quain Yu Lin, Chairman of Shanghai Shen Gong Environmental Protection Company. “We come here, we invest, we operate and after 20 years we will hand over everything to the city government.”

The project, says Lin, was conceived after initial research in 2006. The Chinese company was selected from a panel of five international companies who had responded to the call for tenders by the city government in 2007. Among all the international companies, the Chinese company had offered the lowest rate. After signing the contract on January 11, 2008, the company submitted its feasibility report on February 28. This was approved on Aril 6 and 7. Another report, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report is still awaiting approval from Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). Work can only begin after its approval, says Lin.

The media has reported that there have been repeated delays in initiating the project since the signing of the contract. Some say it is the unstable political situation of the country that maybe a major cause of delay. Although accepting that the security situation of the city has made them quite apprehensive, Lin voices his firm’s resolve to go ahead with the project. “We see Karachi as our sister city,” he says. “We are determined to do this project. It is a misunderstanding that the project has been delayed. This project involves a lot of investment, so there’s a lot of homework to be done. After signing the contract the feasibility report normally takes about six months to one year to prepare. We submitted it in less than two months. This isn’t a delay; we have to move step by step. The firm has mobilized the team, so technically the work has begun.”

Lin claims that the project has not been delayed by his firm. It is the great number of formalities that has slackened the pace of the work. “Many approvals are required by the Government,” he explains. “We can’t start our work before the EIA report is approved by SEPA. Many newspapers are reporting that we are delaying the work, but they don’t understand the nature of the project. It involves a step-by-step process. There are a total of five lengthy procedures. Physical work can’t start until all formalities are dealt with.”

Although appreciating the support the city government has provided to them, the Chairman of Shanghai Shen Gong states that one of the preconditions of the agreement has still not been fulfilled by the CDGK. According to the agreement, the Chinese company has the right of reserving the fulfillment of its obligations until the CDGK hands over the site to them free of charge and of any encumbrances, and until the CDGK issues land use license that would be valid till the expiry of the agreement.

The Executive District Officer (EDO), Municipal Services, Muhammad Masood Alam however explains it differently. “There are two main reasons for the delay,” he states. “One is political instability in the country. They read the newspapers and watch TV too. Even the local investor does not want to invest in the Stock Exchange and Real Estate, you can well imagine the anxiety a foreign investor would have.” As for the second reason which addresses the Chinese firm’s concern that the CDGK has not handed over the site to them, the EDO says it is just an administrative glitch. The Chinese company expects the long procedures involved in transfer of land sites as in their home country, while the Pakistani procedure is quite different. “We are facilitating them in all the procedures. They just have to obtain approval before work begins.”

According to the EDO, the Chinese company has been given the contract for all 18 towns and 178 union councils. But to start the work, the company will initially be launching operations in four towns which are Jamshed, Saddar, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Gulberg and Liaquatabad, the last two coming under the same umbrella.

So will this project come with some costs for the citizens whose waste this company will be collecting? The EDO says taxes will be imposed based on the square yards of land in residential units, commercial units and industrial units. The rates will be different for different categories.

The Chinese company has brought in some of the managerial staff from their country. The rest of the workers will be hired locally. They will also be inheriting the local labourers of the CDGK. Presently, there is a firm by the name Abaseen International which is managing the landfill sites, but they will leave as soon as the Chinese company takes over. The three landfill sites that will be used by the Chinese company are Jam Chakro, Gond Pass and Dhabeji. The company will be renovating and upgrading the Jam Chakro and Gond Pass landfill sites.

Previously, different initiatives have been taken by the CDGK and the town municipal administrations to outsource the municipal waste collection and transportation to the private sector. However, most of these contracts ran into serious trouble due to a combination of technical, administrative and coordination problems. This time the government and the Chinese company are cooperating to make the project work.

“As Pakistan and China enjoy friendly relations, we feel from the heart that we should contribute to the betterment of the city of Karachi,” says Lin. “We have taken the responsibility of cleaning the city and we take pride in this. If everything goes according to our plans, we can say that in three years Karachi will be the cleanest city in the South Asian region.”

Lin says that the venture is basically a non-commercial project. He describes it as “no profit, no loss”. The profit will be the valuables that they will generate from the waste which includes electricity, fuel, compost etc, which they hope to make useful to the citizens of Karachi. According to Lin, the basic problems with previous initiatives for solid waste management in Pakistan were the allocation of inadequate funds and the absence of an effective management control system.

Perhaps Ahmad Saeed, Head of Pakistan Ecosystems and Livelihood Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identifies the main culprit preventing such projects from achieving fruition. “The problem lies with us,” he points out. “It is the inconsistent policies and the inability of new governments to continue the projects of previous governments that is the problem.”

One hopes that this project goes on to achieve the vision the Chinese have set for it so that we can all enjoy living in a clean and beautiful city.

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