September Issue 2019
A Solid Problem
Monsoons and city floods in July and August once again turned attention to solid waste management in Karachi. Poor solid waste management was cited as one of the culprits behind the rain emergency, as clogged drains exacerbated flooding, leading to loss of life in city areas. Uncollected garbage, plastics and organic waste can also pollute underground drinking water. There are many adverse impacts of ignoring this basic service.
Karachi generates more than 6,000 tons of solid waste and, according to estimates, only 50 per cent is collected and taken to the final disposal sites. This means 3,000 tons of waste every day, equivalent to 500 truck loads, add to garbage heaps all over the city. The majority of low-income areas in Karachi do not receive any collection service for solid waste. As a result, waste matter not only provides a breeding place for flies, rats and mosquitoes, but finds its way into drains and drinking water sources during the monsoons. This reduces the capacity of drains to discharge rainwater and creates risks to human health.
Final disposal arrangements for solid waste are inadequate. As a result, the collected waste is taken to a number of open areas. Some of those piles of waste are visible besides the Lyari and Malir rivers. According to observers, some of the final disposal sites are close to the oceans of Karachi, discharging the waste onto the beaches, with flooding.
Improvements in the management of Karachi’s solid waste are taking place, but at a very slow pace. The establishment of a dedicated department, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, is a good sign. However, this department is responsible for a number of other cities in the province and distribution of budget and resources may be challenging. Recently, some areas in Karachi were awarded to an external contractor for waste collection. Those areas have fewer piles of waste, as compared to before. This is a constructive action, provided that the city budget is able to sustain it. Contractors’ vehicles and municipal staff are more visible in high-income areas, commercial areas and on so called ‘VIP roads.’ Low-income areas remained neglected. The responsible departments have no strategy or plans to improve solid waste management in these areas. Cantonment Board areas and Defence societies have their own system of waste collection, though they do not have their own arrangements for sanitary final disposal.
One of the neglected areas of Karachi’s waste system is the management of healthcare waste. This includes infectious waste and chemicals. A proper system is needed, and private healthcare institutions are able to pay for this.
Karachi has some strengths and opportunities to build up the system of solid waste management. Most important, it has an extensive system to recycle waste, through the private sector. According to some estimates, the majority of households in Karachi separate waste at home for further resale. Karachi has a recycling industry in paper, metals and plastics. This creates a demand for waste. Some of this industry receives recyclable waste from other cities and even other countries. This industry is connected to a network of waste collectors (itinerant waste buyers), who brings out large quantities of waste from the residential areas for recycling. This system is entirely self-financed and does not depend on official grants or any other external funds. Recycling and waste reduction is seen as the foundation of modern solid waste management. This is often the highest priority in developed countries.
Karachi does not have a fee collection system for solid waste. However, Karachiites pay municipal or self-employed sweepers for their waste collection.
The aggregate of this amount is a large sum, paid because the arrangements between the municipal institutions and citizens is not very clear. The trust may be lacking and institutional accountability is weak.
Karachi also has a number of research institutions that could provide research, training and support to improve the system. This includes NED University, Karachi University and the Urban Resource Centre. Research work happening in these centres must be used fully to improve the systems in Karachi.
Work is needed on a number of aspects to improve Karachi’s solid waste management. Without any doubt, new projects and investment are an important part of this, but without a vision, planning and downward accountability, this can only bring out limited outcomes. Improvements in solid waste management can be delivered by using the strengths and resources available in the entire system of Karachi. New approaches are particularly needed in reaching out to the low-income areas. Karachi has a very large number of unemployed youth and a profusion of small businesses. It has thousands of entrepreneurs who can make money from the basic services provision. If the right support and enabling environment is created, this can create a system of waste collection for low- income areas, without burdening financial resources. In fact, this approach may generate new resources, as the citizens are ready to pay if a regular, reliable and accountable system is provided.
Karachi recycles and this is one of the most needed aspects to reduce waste quantities, save resources and reduce the climate impact. The recycling system of Karachi needs recognition and support.
According to estimates by the author, this system already reduces 15 per cent of waste and has the capacity to recycle more.
Karachi needs to work with its citizens. This includes communication, consultation, inclusion and accountability. The Sindh Solid Waste Management Board needs to focus on enlarged infrastructure for final disposal and transfer stations. Politicians need to create an institution which provides an important link with the citizens, has the ability to use the entire ecosystem and to mainstream innovation. Over the last 10 years, some excellent work has happened globally, and in the region to improve solid waste management. For instance, the city of Dhaka has one successful sanitary landfill site and work is underway to construct the next. Many cities in Asia are improving collection and recycling rates. Many have developed sanitary disposal sites. Karachi can learn from all this experience.