Gilgit-Baltistan: Water pollution, challenges and survival

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Water is a valuable resource which is unfortunately finite. In Gilgit-Baltistan this resource is mainly present in the form of large glaciers, with some of them placed in the list of largest glaciers of the world outside polar regions. Melting glaciers and natural springs provide for different needs of the local population. The rivers of Gilgit and Baltistan converge and flow downstream into lower parts of Pakistan where it is used by millions of other people, before it ends up in the Arabian Sea. In this article I wish to share my own observations regarding the rise in water pollution in some of the districts of Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Several weeks ago there was a news regarding increase in the number of typhoid cases in Gilgit city. Many linked it to the unavailability of clean drinking water whereas others attributed it to the Covid-19 pandemic. This puzzle could not be solved well in time but one question that still remains pertinent today is that, is every household in Gilgit city provided with clean drinking water- fit for human consumption? Sadly, the answer is no. In recent years I myself witnessed dirt particles in the tap water in certain localities of Gilgit city, the administrative headquarter of the region. Some people still directly consume this tap water without boiling, as they think it is potable. Other people use bottled water, which they consider clean and processed.

In addition to that, there is another issue in Gilgit city. If one takes a stroll along the riverside near Gilgit Bazar people can be seen washing their vehicles on the sides of the river. This pollutes the river water that enters Gilgit from the western side. Moreover, in Gilgit city alone the river side near the bazar area has malodorous aroma due to open defecation. It becomes a real discomfort walking along this path.

The same activity of river pollution is present in Ghizer district. The area between Gahkuch bazaar and the river flowing nearby was laden with garbage. I happened to see this in September 2017. The garbage included plastic bags, plastic bottles, tin cans and various other exhausted products. Moving on to Gupis in the same district I saw a guesthouse built on the right bank of the main river. I observed that the staff of this guesthouse were using the river below, as a dumping site. The waste composed of rotten vegetables, kitchen waste and shopping bags. Some tourists might have also offered a helping hand.

3. Indus river flowing downstream through Diamer district- by the author in 2019.

In Hunza district, I had another unpleasant experience. In summer 2014, I stayed a guesthouse in Aliabad. Unfortunately, the attached washroom did not have running water. I was informed by the staff that a single bucket of water was available. This water had high levels of silt. I was disappointed. The first thing I did in the morning was to check out of the facility. Back then, I had not realized the increasing population density of the area with influx of tourists in summers would further strangulate water resources of the area. When I visited Baltit in Hunza, in May 2017, a renowned multistory hotel also had the same water issues. I was again horrified to see water with high levels of silt in the washroom. After this experience I got to know that it was a common practice for hotels to use this quality of water as they had no other choice. It was not only limited to hotels, households in that area also used this murky water.

Throughout Gilgit-Baltistan water related issues are numerous. The slow but hazardous contamination of water sources take place via soak pits. Use of soak pits is common throughout the region. Both commercial and domestic sectors use them. There is no proper drainage system in place ensuring safe collection and treatment of sewage, hazardous to the natural environment. In the coming years, rivers, water springs and glacial streams adjacent to human settlements will be under serious threat.

2. A glacial stream in Hunza district used as dumping site by the local chicken slaughter house- by the author in 2019

With a rise in the number of hotels, restaurants, shops, kiosks and houses, cement structures are escalating. Construction increases demand for water and in many villages (emerging tourist destinations) water crises is just around the corner. The laundry section in hotels also consume large amounts of precious water resources. It is said that some bottled water companies plan to use local spring water to setup their businesses in the region. Commercial ventures should keep in mind fragility of the environment and of the local community.

There are many other environmental issues in G-B, such as proper disposal and treatment of toxic wastes. For any problem solving initiative engaging experts, government officials and local community organizations is firstly needed. For water pollution related issues water treatment plants should be installed with continuous monitoring. Research could then be carried out from the data obtained and continuous feedback would ensure safer water consumption for the denizens.

Public toilets should be built by the government and public defecation should stop at all costs as it is very damaging to public health. With the influx of millions of tourists each year this needs more attention than before. The gravity of the situation has really changed. Areas with dense population should be provided relevant sewage and drainage programs by the government on emergency basis, following a participatory approach of work in close collaboration with village based organizations.

As far as hotels are concerned, they should pay a water tax to local village organizations or bodies that manage water related activities. Establishing business, making profits and in return creating hurdles for the community in the form of water scarcity, should be discouraged. Furthermore, bottled water companies should also follow them. A mechanism should be devised by local support organizations to fix, charge and revise water tax. This would be a practical and sustainable solution. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2020: Water and Climate Change, stresses on the need to prioritize water for domestic needs. It says: In small urban and rural settlements, use of water for agriculture and in some cases industrial applications results in reduced availability for domestic uses. Domestic supplies must be prioritized under the human rights to water and sanitation”.

1. A developing tourist facility on the left bank of Attabad lake- by the author in 2019.

Everyone should realize the importance of water, as a finite resource. Absurd media campaigns are futile. Long term sustainable solutions should be envisioned and promoted to improve the availability and quality of water which is a basic human need. Local communities in Gilgit-Baltistan should be engaged with, so that improvisation/development takes place sustainably. Polluting water resources certainly has detrimental effects on human survival, if left unchecked.

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