Lahore, the city of gardens, the metropolis of Pakistan’s most industrialized province, is slowly losing its grandeur as it sinks deeper and deeper into nightmarish mountains of waste. Most of the solid waste is either burned, dumped or buried on vacant plots becoming open unregulated dumpsites and landfills.
Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan produces over 13,500 tons of waste every day which is either burnt or dumped in open-air landfills. In other areas, solid waste is often cast aside outside of the city limits without any controlled sanitary landfill sites, posing a significant environmental and public health hazard.
Mitigating adverse impacts of waste materials on public health and the environment are an essential foundation to build any livable city on. Our country, unfortunately has pitiable rural and urban waste management these are unsystematically planned waste management, infrastructure, administrative hurdles, poor urban planning, lack of environment-friendly legislative mechanisms and low public awareness.
Successive governments and donor agencies including JICA and the World Bank have placed a special emphasis on the sector of solid waste management yet urban waste management is mired in a cross, with the creation of a sustainable infrastructure gradually becoming a mammoth development challenge for the government.
Lahore became the first city of Pakistan to introduce a mechanized collection of waste, with mechanical sweepers, machine-assisted waste collection and management, and a dedicated public sector company to oversee the operations. Two international Turkish Contractors were engaged to keep Lahore clean and as a result of the collective efforts of public and private sector experts, the city of gardens began living up to its name.
The two Turkish firms divided the union councils of Lahore into two zones, collecting solid waste from doorsteps and transporting it to landfill sites, weaving the use of hi-tech machines and vehicles into waste collection and cleaning services. Benefitting from the Turkish expertise, the citizens of Lahore witnessed orderly and efficient urban waste collection, transportation and cleaning services.
Later, the foreign janitorial services were ousted rather unceremoniously at the risk of international arbitration and embarrassment. In an attempt to create a more balanced, cost-effective model of waste management via local contractors and to build local capacity for solid waste management. With the removal of private service providers, today, Lahore like the rest of the country is developing without adequate systems in place to manage the rapidly changing and multiplying composition of urban waste. Tragically, to date, only short-term and adhoc strategies have been adopted to tackle the challenge of urban solid waste management.
Challenges faced are many and amongst them are waste cataloguing, treatment facilities, refurbishing landfills sites, creating new open-air landfill sites and the provision of infrastructure in order to facilitate our growing urban sprawl.
Strengthening the current waste collection mechanism to cope with the volumes of waste generated by an ever-growing urban population is a temporary measure and would not be successful in bringing about a transformation in efficiency and service delivery. In short, a systematic smart approach needs to be adopted. To avoid another case similar to Lahore, where once the band-aid of foreign janitorial services was removed, the roads of the city transformed overnight into open dumpsites, there is a need for a paradigm shift, ushered in via critical solid waste management legislation, financing, policy and planned decision making as well as social inclusion and public participation. To emerge from this bad equilibrium, efforts should begin with understanding the way waste is produced – how much and where, as well as its composition and factor its future growth rate.
The mathematics are simple, if garbage production is wrongly calculated, it has a domino effect on waste collection and disposal plans. Focused data collection and planning can enable the government to create integrated waste management infrastructure that caters to the future, instead of mere day to day firefighting. There is a need for realistically allocated budgets, assets, and land as well as technologies and strategies including enlisting the help of strategic partners such as private sector or NGOs for service provision and the decentralisation of waste collection and management systems. Keeping the cities clean is not only the government’s cross to bear, but the people have an equal if not more important role to play. Grass root public education campaigns centred on source separation and reuse can lift some of the pressure of keeping the cities clean and the weight of waste management from the shoulders of the government. Behavioural change among the public to minimise littering, wastage, and illegal dumping of waste need to be knitted into the policy agenda for ushering in a sustainable solid waste management equilibrium in Pakistan. Community-wide awareness and a change in people’s attitudes towards solid waste and their disposal can be one of the aces that improve our solid waste management system. Workers associated with this segment are another important ace. Presently, recycling is primarily undertaken by the informal sector – untrained waste pickers and scavengers who usually resort to burning the waste causing landfill fires and air pollution.
Like any other sustainable system, social inclusion is the linchpin where integration of waste pickers into formal systems, supported through incentives and organized by labour laws and unions, can transform Pakistan’s informal recycling sector into a segment of the economy that generates employment, reduces poverty, cuts municipal spending, and increases industrial competitiveness.
Waste to energy is another key component that can bring the much-needed balance to solid waste management infrastructure. Small to medium scale waste to energy plants not only attract FDI but also have a host of economic multipliers associated with them such as local job creation. Infrastructure development improved livelihoods of workers associated with the sector, mushrooming of allied industries as well as mitigate climate change. Waste recycling plants to treat solid waste are another opportunity that offers triple dividends – economic, environmental and social – as they generate economic activity and conserve nature.
A clean, breathable city that accords to public safety is the right of any citizen, irrespective of the size of the city or its population growth. This burden to create a livable city is shared equally among the citizens, administration, policymakers, and the NGOs. The rate of population growth, infrastructure development and industrialization are all galloping ahead in Pakistan despite the challenges presented by COVlD-19, yet the mix to put the economy on a fast track neglects a critical building block – a solid waste management infrastructure that looks to the future and keeps pace with the country’s growth. Times call for moving away from short term policy decisions that rely upon archaic models to deliver better results and towards more sustainable, planned, integrated, technology-based solid waste management systems, even if they are decentralized or foreign.