The ‘fortunate’ few

Eleven-year-old Kewal Bheel of Bijhuto is panting. The four-kilometre journey from his village to Phingariyo in Tharparkar has left the boy exhausted. “I come to fetch potable water twice a day, every day,” Bheel says as he goads six donkeys laden with containers bearing water.

Siblings in school, a mother busy with household chores and father at work, the boy walks 16 kilometres every day to collect clean drinking water for his family. It becomes harder as the mercury rises. I struggle in summer, he says.  

But, Bheel is happy. The installation of water filtration plants in Mithi, Tharparkar’s largest city, has made life better. Earlier, people walked tens of kilometres to collect potable water daily. Now, distances are shorter.

Pratap Mengwaro has been teaching at a Sojhani Goth school, two kilometres from Bheel’s village, for over a decade. A filtration plant has been installed in front of the school. Mengwaro is a relieved man. He no longer frets about children having access to potable water. The teacher says health standards in the area have drastically improved following the installation of the plant.

Bheel and Mengwaro are but exceptions. Scores of Tharparkar residents have no option but to consume water unfit for human consumption. Niaz Ahmed of village Majeed Jai Wind says clean drinking water is only available at Vijoto Stop or Rabo Vikya Goth, both kilometres away. Stored rainwater is another source. As many lack the means to travel this far, they consume water with total dissolved solids (TDS) content running in the thousands, Ahmed says. The man says this leaves scores with myriad illnesses. Many expectant women give birth on their way to collect potable water, Ahmed adds.

Payments in arrears

In the aftermath of Tharparkar crisis grabbing headlines in 2014, the Sindh government started installing filtration plants to remedy high TDS content in water. The largest of its kind was installed in Mithi by the Sindh Coal Authority in 2015. The hybrid plant operated by Pak Oasis Industries can treat two million gallons of water daily using solar energy or electricity.

Pak Oasis Installations Manager Muhammad Irshad says Mithi consumes one million gallons daily. He says water is also provided to Islamkot, another Tharparkar city 45 kilometres from Mithi. Irshad says Pak Oasis, operating 650 plants across the latter city, has also installed water tanks every five kilometres between the two cities for citizens’ benefit.

Irshad says the plant has been set up at a cost of Rs5 billion. He says 16 bores have been drilled to extract high TDS water. Untreated water is stored in a massive tank before being processed. It is passed through cartridges before being filtered by 0.001 micron-sized membranes. Forget dissolved solids, the process does not even spare germs, Irshad adds.

The official says the plant employs state-of-the-art technology to deliver clean drinking water at less than half a rupee per gallon. ‘Moreover, nearly 1,500 are employed across plants operated by the company. Cartridges need to be replaced every week. Machinery has to be maintained. All this has a price,” Irshad shares before revealing that many Tharparkar plants earlier looked set to shut down with the Sindh government not having cleared arrears in years. The Sindh government owes Pak Oasis Rs400 million, he claims.

Previously in limbo

Irshad says a shut down notice had been served to the Sindh government later. Pak Oasis virtually operated for free. Operations were set to cease had arrears not been cleared, Irshad says.

He says the government ordered district authorities to take control of the filtration plants following the presentation of the shut down notice. However, officials refused saying they lacked capacity to run the plants.

In a December, 2016 letter to the Tharparkar DC, the Mithi AC said he had personally conducted a survey of all reverse osmosis plants and held a meeting with all stakeholders. “Keeping in view the intricacies of maintenance and repair, it was observed that a surplus of various mechanical instruments had to be maintained. Hence, procurement would present another challenge for local government entities,” the official wrote.

“A striking observation worth sharing is that interactions with local government representatives revealed they were totally confused...It is probably because they are well aware of their limits when it comes to human resource management and technical expertise,” the letter goes on to read.

Presenting recommendations the AC wrote, “Being typically associated with this business Pak Oasis Limited can manage the facilities with much ease compared to nascent local government entities. It has an established set up encompassing human resources, technical expertise, procurement and maintenance. They only requirement is a lateral check and third party audit system to ensure accountability.”

A January, 2018 letter by the now-defunct Special Initiative Department (SID) to the chief secretary on funds allocation to maintain and streamline operations across Sindh filtration plants installed by various departments also brought government attention to the issue. “The contractor M/s Pak Oasis Industries responsible for the operations and maintenance of reverse osmosis plants of Special Initiative Department (SID), health department and the SCA has already served a notice of shutdown of these plants in case of non-payment of operations and maintenance due cost,” the document reads.

Springing into action

Mithi MPA Ramesh Kumar told The Express Tribune earlier in March that control of filtration plants was being transferred to the health department. He said this was being done in line with recent Supreme Court orders on the SID. “It will take a few months. Company arrears will be cleared then. I will personally look into the matter.”

What seemed to be a situation mired in uncertainty till recently appears salvaged with in-part payment of dues commencing.

Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has approved the payments. The health department is devising a schedule. The company will receive Rs200 million in April. Regular payments will enable Pak Oasis to effectively deliver, Chief Operating Officer Irshad Hussain says. He also thanked the Sindh Water Commission and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for intervening in the matter.

The PPP chairman ordered the issue to be quickly resolved. Bilawal recently toured the area to inspect coal power plants. The PPP chairman had also visited selected filtration plants over his Tharparkar tour, Information Minister Nasir Hussain Shah says.

The minister adds payments remained stalled due to two issues. There were reports of some filtration plants not functioning. The firm has been directed to remedy this. Also, the issue was sub judice. Control of filtration plants had to be transferred to the health department in line with court directives, he adds.

Story and photos by: Muhammad Shahzad

Illustrations by: Saadat Ali and Ibrahim Yahya

Produced by: Saad Saud and Rahima Sohail