THE slow drainage of storm water is a long-standing issue in Lahore. The flooding of the city on Sept 4, 2014, was a replay of events during the heavy rains of August 1996. Had lessons been learnt from that disaster, the city streets would not have turned into rivers this monsoon. Clearly, no significant improvement has been brought about in the drainage system during the last 18 years.

No doubt, excessive rainfall — 200 millimetres fell in a few hours on this occasion — cannot be drained out instantly. A sudden downpour naturally takes several hours to clear after the rains stop. However, it is fair to question the extent of the flooding and its duration during and after the rains. Many localities were knee-deep in water all day long and it took them one to two full days to dry out post rainfall.

Under media pressure, government functionaries went into action, running to affected areas to show their concern and carrying out some relief work. This is the usual pattern. Once rains are over, the issue of an efficient drainage system is put on the back burner.

A major problem is that Lahore does not have separate channels for sewage and storm water. In intense rains, the city’s dilapidated and inadequate sewerage pipes get choked and overflow, flooding the city. Leave alone making new drainage channels for rainwater, even the old nullahs for this purpose have either been converted into sewage outlets or encroached upon. The once beautiful canal passing through the city has become a big sewage carrier.

The city does not have separate channels for sewage and storm water.
Many studies have been conducted to resolve the city’s drainage issue, mostly sponsored by the World Bank or the Japanese development agency, Jica, but their recommendations are gathering dust.

In 2000, Nespak conducted a thorough study and proposed a comprehensive project to tackle the situation, but the Punjab government through the Water and Sanitation Agency completed only a few small projects.

A recent Jica study proposed the separation of sewerage and storm water outlets in the city and offered funding for the purpose. The government looked the other way, preferring instead to construct flyovers and distribute laptops.

During the last few years, the Punjab government has drastically reduced its spending on the development of water supply and sanitation projects. In 2010-11, it spent around Rs7 billion on such projects, whereas in 2013-14 it spent only Rs4bn. Adjusted against inflation, the actual spending has declined by nearly 150pc.

Yet another master plan is under preparation and scheduled to be completed in the next 18 months. The improvement of the city’s sewerage and drainage would be part of the new plan. Until then, the issue will remain in limbo.

Meanwhile, waste water flows have increased manifold as the city is expanding fast and water supply has been enhanced accordingly. The number of tube wells has jumped from 100 to 400 during the last two decades.

According to official figures, the water table in the city has fallen from 150 to 700 feet, causing saline water intrusion in underground water. Effects of the seepage of saline and polluted water from the Kasur region into Lahore’s water table are disturbing. In about 90pc of Lahore’s tube wells, water has been found to be contaminated with arsenic. The lowering of the water table is also creating underground cavities. If these keep expanding, they may lead to the collapse of buildings.

This alarming situation requires water conservation measures but no steps have ever been taken towards this. Fresh water wastage could be checked by installing meters on the use of tap water to discourage wasteful practices such as washing of cars and irrigation of gardens with tap water.

In Lahore, water is supplied to users at an average consumption estimate of 80 gallons per person per day, which is on the higher side given the city’s population of nearly 10 million. This level can easily be halved without creating scarcity. Economical use of water will also lead to reduction in sewage besides slower depletion of underground water.

Every day nearly 2,000 cusecs of untreated waste water from the city goes into river Ravi, polluting it. This causes health risks for a vast population that consumes fruit and vegetables from fields irrigated with the polluted water.

The quantity of waste water produced by Lahore is equal to the flows in a large irrigation canal the size of the BRB. During the last 66 years, not a single waste water treatment plant has been installed in the city.

Flooding in Lahore can be prevented by laying separate trunk drains for storm water and improving the existing sewerage lines. The issue is not shortage of funds but the misplaced priorities of the rulers whose imagination stops at motorways and flyovers.

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist and researcher.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2014