May Issue 2019

By | Newsbeat National | Published 3 months ago

One of many car washes in Peshawar that came under scrutiny for the unchecked use of drinking water.

Dozens of car washes, gas stations and wedding halls in Peshawar came under scrutiny for their unchecked use of precious drinking water, when the Water and Sanitation Services Peshawar (WSSP) launched a drive against all such unregistered and non-licensed facilities in late January.

As the five-day campaign – the first of its kind – got underway, WSSP teams inspected gas stations in all four zones within its domain in Peshawar, excluding the Cantonment area and the posh Hayatabad township that come under the authority of the Cantonment Board Peshawar and the Peshawar Development Authority respectively.

Zafar Ali Shah, the Chief Executive Officer of WSSP and the driving force behind the recent operation, remarked that the campaign was “long overdue” as a precious natural resource was being wasted. “Many commercial entities and the public at large are using water without any payment to the government for the provision of clean water. When people are made to pay for the services, they will care to use only the required quantity,” he says.

The WSSP, it seems, woke up after the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of the unlimited extraction of ground water by bottled water companies without paying a single penny for it. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Provincial Minister for Local Government, Shahram Khan Tarakai, wanted the concerned authorities to take similar action.

“The provincial government wanted to tax those who were extracting ground water without paying any taxes. Similarly, those wasting drinking water must also be discouraged, and billing them is an efficient way of doing that,” said Zafar Ali Shah, adding that thousands of gallons of clean drinking water was being wasted on washing cars daily.

Before the operation, the WSSP identified 17 target entities, including gas stations, wedding halls, commercial plazas, hotels, government offices, rest houses and private users. Providing details of the campaign against car wash gas stations, Engineer Turab Shah, WSSP Zonal Manager for Zone D, said that 208 stations in all four zones were checked and recoveries of Rs 15 million were made from 131 stations. “Initially, 128 facilities were stopped from working and were advised to pay the No-Objection Certificate (NOC) fee and registration fee. Seven outlets have moved the court against us, while three service stations are closed due to ownership disputes,” said Turab. He added that the remaining facilities promised to pay their dues within the given time period.

Besides the action taken against gas stations, 123 wedding halls, two government offices, one rest house and 29 commercial plazas were also fined during the campaign. Total recoveries of Rs37 million were made during the drive.

A one-time NOC for operating a car wash station costs Rs 121,000. Subsequently, the stations are expected to pay a further monthly fee of Rs 6,000 for the water they use. “The water bill could be brought down to Rs 300 per month if they switched to using water provided by the WSSP,” added Turab.

The water table in Peshawar is witnessing rapid depletion and the recharge rate is not fast enough to keep up with the extraction. According to Turab, the data made available from the drilling of new tubewells suggests that the water table has gone down from 160 feet in 2015 to nearly 200 feet deep in 2018.

However, Hazrat Khan, a service station owner in Peshawar’s Tehkal area, did not approve of the hefty fines and the way ‘raids’ were conducted against the service stations. We can manage a penalty, but a visit by nearly 70 officials – including the police – to our service station amounts to a raid. People from all the workshops and markets in the vicinity came to witness the proceedings. “They probably assumed that I had done something terrible,” he said.

Hazrat added that he had decided to close the auto wash as the penalty was excessively high. “These gates were closed for a few days, but then my employees begged me to resume work as they were unable to find other work. I paid the NOC fee and three months’ advance bills,” he said.

Dr. Asif Khan, a PhD in Water and Climate Change from Cambridge University, UK, believes that countering the wastage of water is one way of tackling climate change and future threats of water scarcity. “In developed countries, 80 to 100 litres of water is used to wash one car. This is mainly due to the modern washing equipment used, including high-pressure spray nozzles that utilise less water. We do not have such equipment in Pakistan [and this] results in the usage of more than 150 litres of water per car,” he says.

Backing the drive against unlicensed use of water, Asif argued that service stations can recycle and reuse the water. “Any impurities, detergents and sediments can easily be separated to make the water reusable for washing other cars. Similarly, all service stations can even store rain water for their use,” he added.

The drive was not easy to begin with and the WSSP had to team up with the district administration and work jointly in the field. Turab added that “It was decided that action should be taken against service stations in the first phase. The Deputy Commissioner’s office provided the vital manpower for the inspections.”

Nearly 1,500 samples of water were tested for impurities. “All the samples were found to be clean, and good for drinking. However, many of the remaining 1,200 samples at the consumer end contained impurities due to the fact that the water distribution pipes passed through sewage lines,” explained engineer Turab Shah, a Zonal Manager for the Water and Sanitation Services Peshawar.

The WSSP used the Local Government Act 2013 to implement its orders. The act provides details about the types of penalties that can be levied for any violation with regard to wastage of water. “We are preparing a plan to issue abstraction licenses to all entities with their own sources of water. These licenses will be based on the quantity of water that is abstracted in gallons, or the pumping power of the water pumps,” said Turab.

He added that once the mechanism for licensing was in place, the WSSP would move on to the installation of flow metres to check the usage of water at commercial and non-commercial facilities.

“Flow metres are very effective in tackling wastage of water. A pilot project is about to be launched in Islamabad, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). When people realise that every glass, cup and bucket of water costs money, they will use water more carefully,” said Asif.

The water table in Peshawar is witnessing rapid depletion and the recharge rate is not fast enough to keep up with the extraction. According to Turab, the data made available from the drilling of new tubewells suggests that the water table has gone down from 160 feet in 2015 to nearly 200 feet deep in 2018.

A child drinks water from a pipe in a makeshift settlement in Peshawar.

Asif argued that more water reservoirs were required for storing rainwater. “Unfortunately, ill-planned urbanisation is resulting in the loss of agricultural land, which also acts as an absorbent of rain water. We need proper planning to use or reuse the excess rain water in order to counter the climate change that [is] expected to adversely affect our region in the near future,” he said.

The WSSP is also working on the replacement of distribution pipelines throughout its area of operation. So far, 117 kilometers of the old asbestos pipe has been replaced mostly with modern High Density Polyvinyl (HDP). “The HDP is rust-proof. It has more than 40 years of life and is equipped to handle contamination problems,” explained Turab.

Nearly 1,500 samples of water were tested for impurities, including 300 samples at the source, i.e. the 480-500-feet-deep government-operated tube wells. “All these samples were found to be clean and good for drinking. However, many of the remaining 1,200 samples at the consumer end contained impurities due to the fact that the water distribution pipes passed through sewage lines,” Turab revealed.

The CEO, WSSP highlighted the fact that saving underground reservoirs for the future generations was vital and that one way of doing this was to provide Peshawar with drinking water from the nearby dams that are to be constructed in the future. “A 28-kilometre pipeline from Jabba Dam, in Khyber Tribal District, would provide drinking water to nearly half of the city. The remaining needs will be fulfilled from the Bara Dam,” said Zafar.

According to experts, climate change predictions suggest that the intensity and quantity of rains and droughts will increase in the region. And more rains will mean more floods, unless new reservoirs are built to store the excess water. Any rise in temperature due to climate change, will result in an increase in evapotranspiration, and consequently, underground water reservoirs will also shrink.

Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.