The trail of trash and belching facet of ‘The City of Lights’ – Understanding the politics of garbage

The trail of trash and belching facet of ‘The City of Lights’ – Understanding the politics of garbage


The sprawling city of Karachi, with a core population of 13 million and another 4 million living around it, is Pakistan’s most populated city, and the twentieth most populated urban centre in the world. It has always struggled to keep its streets clean.

No reliable data exists on the exact amount of garbage generated, but officials quote a figure of approximately 13,000 tonnes a week.

Most of this ends up on the streets, and the judiciary has now been dragged in. Hearing a civil rights case on Karachi’s water and sewerage problem in March, a visibly angry chief justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar ordered the relevant authorities to ensure the garbage in Karachi was removed forthwith. “I want a neat and clean Karachi within a week,” he said.

When it comes to garbage, Karachi is the king of the trash heaps. Garbage situation of Karachi is getting from bad to worse, day by day. Open sewage drains and garbage dumps are giving rise to many harmful diseases. Karachi is the economic hub of Pakistan but still there is no one to look after this city. Citizens of Karachi do not need to read about city’s sanitation situation in newspaper, they witness it in every street corner of the city.

There is no administration at all and because of this, citizens are really frustrated and they need some solution for this problem. Karachi needs serious attention and it is also a matter of great concern for higher authorities. Sindh government should look into the matter and take some proper steps to make Karachi clean and beautiful.

Garbage and sewage crisis are amongst the many tragedies that have afflicted Karachi over decades. In some areas’ situation is even worst, like sewage water enters homes, which gives rise to many harmful diseases.

Today, Karachi is once more facing a severe garbage outbreak, which has spread across the city from developed to underdeveloped areas. In many areas such as Lyari and Malir, communities live in close proximity to garbage dumps. This has led to an increase in illnesses and a health catastrophe, as flies and unhygienic disease carrying substances spread across the city, completely exposed to people.

Consequently, there has also been a rise in deaths, especially among infants who fall victim to these diseases. About 20, 000 tons of solid waste is produced everyday; however only 2,000 tons is transported to landfill sites outside Karachi.  This waste is usually left on streets or dumped wherever space is available, thus destroying the appearance of the city.

Citizens of Karachi do not need to read about sanitation of city in newspapers? as they can witness it in every corner of the city. Karachi is biggest city and also economic hub of country. It needs a serious attention but no one is serious to look after it. People are disappointed and they want a proper solution.

World Bank declares Karachi among the ten worst cities of the world. Garbage disposal and sewage water problems are also the main reasons behind it. Mayor Karachi Waseem Akhtar began 100-days campaign to clean the city but no sign of improvement. After the failure of provincial and local administration, Bahria Town has now extended cooperation in ridding Karachi of heaps of garbage that over the years has become a black spot on city’s face.

Some responsibilities are on citizens shoulders as well, like if the garbage bin would be placed in every corner of the street and if the people don’t litter in society or on roads and use dustbins then it would help in keeping the city clean. We just need to understand the root cause of the problems. If the people understand then it will surely help in making Karachi clean once again, but with the support of faithful city administration.

What if you were born in one of the most polluted cities in the world? Would you consider moving to a cleaner environment? Or would the sight of garbage piles on the roads and the air tinted with smoke become life as know it?

You might relate to these questions if you live in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. The problem of waste dumping is very much a part of the lives of Karachites, to a point where it is considered ordinary, it is very common to see piles of trash instead of trees on roadsides and outside houses. City waste, which includes domestic, industrial, mining and agricultural by-products amongst other pollution, is often left unattended, dumped in landfills or burnt rather than disposed of in a safe manner, which is a serious threat to the local population.

Throughout history, Karachi experienced a series of garbage outbreaks where pollution and litter in the city would increase drastically until it was controlled and reduced by the government of the time.

These outbreaks go back before the partition of the subcontinent, largely due to population rising so quickly that the city’s resources were insufficient. The waste generated by the rising population became too much for the sanitation and waste disposal system available.

There was also greater demand for different products and goods, and so industries focused more on producing food, clothes, gadgets and other items, and ignored the consequences of the waste they produced.

Since the city’s sanitation systems were not developed to accommodate the increase in waste, which had to be treated and disposed of, they were overwhelmed and the problem has escalated to become an emergency in Karachi.

Urban waste production is not only a Karachi problem—in fact, the World Bank estimates that urban waste is growing faster than the rate of urbanization across the world. By 2025, there will be 1.4 billion more people living in cities producing an average of 1.42kg of municipal solid waste per day—more than double the current average of 0.64 kg per day. As waste grows, so do the need to manage it efficiently with all the cogs of the wheels working in tandem.

According to Punjab government, waste generation per capita in Pakistan is around 0.612 kg per day growing at the rate of 2.4%.

In 2005, Karachi was producing 9,000 tons per day of waste. Though actual statistics are not available, some estimates suggest Karachi produces over 20,000 tons per day of waste now, majority of which does not reach the landfill sites.

As a result, a bulk of residential, industrial and medical waste is burnt on the daily that produces toxic gases which could be contributing to harmful diseases and infections. A rough estimation by this column suggests that per capita production of waste in Karachi is 1.21 kg per day.

At such dangerously high levels, Karachi has become even less prepared than ever before, if that’s possible, to manage it. Sindh Assembly passed the Solid Waste Management Board Act in 2014 which was meant to improve coordination and employ third party contractors to “take over management of solid waste on behalf of the Board”. To be clear, that didn’t happen.

Beaches, such as Seaview, are commonly littered and are made dumping grounds as in the case of Ibrahim Hyderi where garbage is regularly brought and discarded along the coast.

The garbage dumps can be advantageous as local scavengers extract handy items for reuse, which is commonly done at other dumpsites as well. Scavengers then sell the waste and depend on the dumps to earn money.

However, the overwhelmingly large amount of litter harms more than benefits the people of Ibrahim Hyderi. The garbage is a source of a terrible stench, and when it is burnt it releases a great deal of pollution and unhealthy fumes into the environment.

About 417 million gallons of untreated industrial and domestic waste is dumped in the sea every day. The polluted water threatens the lives of aquatic life as it causes mutations and deaths in marine life that becomes trapped in or consumes the garbage.

Ultimately the people of Karachi eat this contaminated fish and risk the chance of ingesting harmful chemicals that could threaten their health and livelihood. Polluted water forces fish further away from the coast, which is unfavorable for locals in Ibrahim Hyderi as most of them are fishermen, and they have to spend more time and money chasing after fish further into the sea. Their fishing expeditions often also end up becoming futile as pollution has reduced the fish population, and often instead of fish, litter is caught in their nets.

Additionally, garbage can end up cutting their nets as well.

Waste dumping can also affect plant life, as it degrades soil quality, thus resulting in poor production of vegetation. In this manner the greenery of Karachi has decreased, and many plants have suffered, such as mangroves, whose numbers have drastically fallen along the coast due to pollution and litter getting trapped in them.

Overall the problem of waste dumping has swamped the entire city. This is largely because while garbage continues to pile up, very little was done to solve the actual issue, and while attempts were made, most of them failed or had minimal impact.

The District Municipal Corporations (DMCs) and municipal officials have not taken appropriate action.

Organizations in Karachi such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have also worked to improve the situation as they focus on recycling projects, which attempt to reduce waste and turn it into something useful that can benefit people.

The organization has also worked to reduce waste dumping in the sea and spread more awareness. As Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a member of WWF-Pakistan stated, ‘People should be aware of waste dumping and its proper disposal. People should be aware that the waste can be recycled and used if it is properly sorted. We should support industries which are involved in the recycling of this waste and help them make our city clean.’

Decades ago Karachi was considered the cleanest city in Pakistan and India, and was even named ‘The Paris of Asia.’ Time has been cruel to this once beautiful city. The waste dumps and pollution cannot magically disappear by wishing them away, nor can the work of one woman or man be enough to make a difference. For the sake of saving Karachi it is necessary that people work in unity to find a solution and save this city from the devastation that it has endured. Some people have already begun the effort, but now it is time that the rest of Karachi joins in as well.

The politics of garbage

One of the major problems which affects not just the management of solid waste, but governance of Karachi as a whole, is the multiplicity of the agencies involved.

A total of 19 federal, provincial, and local land-owning agencies, corporate sector interests, formal and informal developers, international capital, and military cantonments control tracts of the city. No one entity has municipal authority over the entire city.

But the problems are not going away anytime soon.

The city cleans, but the residents don’t

Not everybody agrees with the mayor. In fact, several residents said that the city’s new cleaning efforts had worked.

“The city is definitely cleaner,” says Shehnaz Ibrahim, a doctor, but rues the lack of “civic sense” among people. Even Tofiq Pasha, an environmentalist, concurred. “Garbage is being lifted and roads repaired,” he said, “The citizens need to realise they are the contributors and therefore need to be responsible and need to reduce their trash at the source.”

“For the past two years now, I’ve watched the SeaView (road along the Clifton beach) being cleaned early in the morning every day,” said Asma Lotia, a school administrator who takes the route every day to her workplace. “I have seen them in winter and slogging away in the heat too, and the very next day there would be the same mess again; it would be worse after the weekend. They have provided bins but hardly anyone uses them,” she said. “There is need for a huge awareness campaign, something like a polio drive… or offenders should be slapped with heavy fines.”

The spewing, belching face of Karachi

Of the nearly 13,000 tonnes of garbage generated daily nearly 70% reaches two landfills; the rest remains strewn around the city in drains, or finds its way into the Arabian Sea. “I would say roughly 5% now goes into the sea, as dumping into the water has been controlled to a large extent,” said Ahmed.

“Anywhere between 400 to 500 trucks empty around 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of trash in 24 hours,” said Abdul Salam, a weighbridge operator at the 500-acre landfill site of Jam Chakro, located about 30 kilometres from Karachi’s city centre. Another 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes gets to the second 500-acre landfill site called the Gond Pass, near Hub river.

The remaining 3,000-4000 tonnes of waste is generated in areas which fall under the administrative jurisdiction of other landowning agencies, such as the six cantonment boards (army), industrial sites, the port, the railways, and the aviation authorities. In addition, nearly half of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements.

Nevertheless, in the last year, nearly 2 million tons of garbage has been transported to the landfill sites, but this has not changed the garbage strewn look of the city.

From the ubiquitous plastic bags to snack wrappers, from debris, to construction material such as cement, steel, pipes, concrete blocks, remain on roadsides for months on end. From felled tree trunks, to bathroom sinks and bathtubs, the roadside remains the most popular place to put discarded items.

“No city in the world can become garbage free unless the citizens cooperate,” said SSWMB’s Ahmed. “For the past one year, we have continuously been lifting garbage from the city, the backlog as well as that thrown daily. It’s been a never-ending exercise,” he added.

How trash travels

The SSWMB is responsible for collecting garbage from homes, commercial buildings, roads, restaurants, hospitals, and schools. It transports this to a garbage transfer station (GTS). There is a requirement for a GTS within a 10 kilometre radius from each locality. From there the garbage is sent to its last resting place – the landfill site.

Ten GTS sites have been identified around Karachi, but so far, the SSWMB has been able to acquire only five of these sites and start operation: at Qasba (in Orangi), Baldia, Sharafi Goth (Korangi), EBM Causeway (District East) and Dhobi Ghat (District South). Insiders say these are more like temporary collection points.

“Burning the garbage makes it easier for them to sift through,” said SSWMB’s Ahmed, “These people are completely oblivious to the noxious fumes they are inhaling,” he added.

There is a science to developing a landfill site. For instance, for dumping municipal trash, it is first lined with clay and covered with half an inch-thick plastic. The fresh garbage is continuously layered with soil and the idea is not to break down waste, just store it.

Some countries have generated electricity from burning this waste.  “I’ve been hearing about it all my life, and at various points in time, MoUs have been signed by both international and local companies but none has succeeded,” Ahmed said. This is what his experience of working in solid waste management now for 27 years has taught him.

Between the 1998 census and the 2017 one, Pakistan’s population increased by 57%. It is estimated that by 2025 nearly half the country’s population will live in urban areas, and Karachi’s core population will grow from 13 to 19 million in seven years.

While citizen awareness seems to be the track, there needs to be additional measures. “Manufacturers of products that do not biodegrade should be taxed heavily giving them an incentive to develop biodegradable packaging for their products,” suggested Pasha. But given that even the current laws are not being fully followed, it is hard to see how merely legislation will bring about the change Karachi desperately needs.

A report published in the Washington Post (November 21, 2017) declared that nearly all the major cities of the world were facing a serious ‘garbage crises.’ The report quotes a World Bank study that predicts that by 2025 the crisis will worsen as more and more people will move to the already congested urban areas.

According to a study published in Global Citizen (October, 2016) New York City in the United States generates the most garbage. Though much has been done to address this issue with an effective garbage-collecting and recycling mechanism, it is still considered to be a city with a massive trash problem.

The study informs that after New York City, Mexico City ranks as the second highest ‘urban waster.’ Other cities mentioned in the study are Tokyo (Japan), Los Angeles (US), Mumbai (India), Istanbul (Turkey), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Cairo (Egypt).

Most major cities in Africa, especially Laos in Nigeria, have serious trash problems. But unlike in the developed countries, cities in Africa and South Asia have yet to tackle the issue with any effective garbage disposal and recycling mechanisms.

Karachi’s garbage outbreaks

In South Asia, along with Mumbai, Pakistan’s largest metropolis, Karachi, has the worst garbage problem. But interestingly, ever since Karachi evolved into becoming a major urban centre in the late 19th century, it has bounced to and fro from suffering major garbage outbreaks to becoming one of the cleanest cities in the region.

The city has faced at least three major garbage outbreaks which have often emerged in between periods of relative cleanliness. Karachi faced its first outbreak in the late 19thcentury.

British traveler, geographer and officer, Sir Richard F. Burton, who travelled and stayed in Karachi in the mid and late 19thcentury wrote that there was a sprinkling of mosques, Sufi shrines and Hindu temples. He also wrote that there were ‘no less than three brothels’ and appalling sanitation conditions.

He described the men of Karachi as hard working but brutish and that the women loved to wear colourful clothes but were ‘very loud.’ The murder rate was high and alcoholism was rampant.

The British began to develop Karachi’s natural harbor and this drew more people to the city. The British developed cleaner ‘cantonment areas’ away from the more populated areas of the city. Karachi’s population grew from 20,000 in the 1840s to almost 100,000 in the early 1890s! The garbage and filth continued to mount, though.

In 1896 rats with fleas carrying the deadly bubonic plague escaped from a ship arriving from Calcutta. Calcutta was already facing a plague epidemic. The rats found ample food in Karachi’s growing garbage dumps and then entered people’s homes. By 1897 the plague had spread across the city’s congested areas, killing hundreds of people.

Thousands of Karachiites were quarantined as British doctors and traditional Muslim and Hindu medicine men tried to contain the outbreak. The plague was finally contained by 1900.

In the early 1900s, the British saw the construction of a complex sewerage system; and garbage disposal and collection mechanism. The administration also undertook regular cleaning of roads and streets (sometimes with water).

Karachi has risen from filth to become a bustling and lucrative trading and business hub and a preferred place of leisure. It also became one of the cleanest cities in India. It began being dubbed as the ‘Paris of Asia’.

Remarkably, the sanitation mechanism put in place by the British did well to cope with the drastic growth in population. It was further modernized, mostly during the hectic industrialization period initiated by the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69).

Even till the early 1960s, many roads and streets were still being washed with water.

Karachi’s population increased from 2,044,044 in 1961 to 3,606,744 in 1972. The government of ZA Bhutto (1971-77) launched a beautification project in 1973. But these struggled to arrest the sanitation and garbage disposal problems the city had begun to face from 1969 onwards.

Karachi witnessed its second major garbage outbreak in the mid-1980s. In the 1980s, the city received its second wave of refugees, this time in the shape of Afghans displaced by the Afghan Civil War. Tensions between Karachi’s Muhajir and Pashtun ethic groups were already mounting. The crime rate in the city had risen sharply and so had drug addiction.

As the city’s resources came under duress, serious ethnic riots erupted in 1986. By the late 1980s, the country’s sanitation mechanism had completely broken down. Things got even worse in the 1990s when ethnic riots left the city paralyzed. By the end of the 1990s, the city cut a sorry sight. Karachi it seemed was a city buried underneath a million tons of filth. 

When General Pervez Musharraf came to power (through a military coup) in 1999, he injected millions of rupees to revive Karachi’s economy that had been falling apart.

A lot of this money was also used to kick-start another beautification and cleaning project. An improvement in the overall economy of the country helped the project to become a success and the gloom and the filth that had had been haunting Karachi for so many years was lifted.

Karachi experienced its third major garbage outbreak from 2011 onwards. The problem was largely ignored by the authorities until in 2017 when a report in Dawn warned that ‘the city’s solid waste problem is assuming crisis proportions.’

The report added that ‘in neighborhoods across the city — from the enclaves of the elite to the sprawling urban slums — there are mounds of garbage piling up everywhere, with the provincial government and municipal authorities all at sea about how to solve the problem.’

Debates over the mounting issue between the city’s two largest political parties — the populist left-liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which presides over the current provincial government in Sindh, and the Mohajir ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — often degenerated into becoming animated vocal brawls.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which managed to bag the second largest tally of votes in the city in the 2013 election, seems to have no clue about the rather complex social and political dynamics of the city.

In 2017, real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz, decided to donate millions of rupees, machinery and manpower to lift the ever-rising mounts of garbage in the city.

The PPP government in Sindh responded by importing powerful garbage collecting machines from China and signing a Rs2 billion contract with a Chinese company to process waste in the city. The MQM (now splintered) has attempted to initiate various clean-up campaigns, but the garbage has continued to mount.

Another issue in this regard has been the defacing of walls and monuments with ugly graffiti, posters and paan stains. Graffiti and posters are aimlessly sprayed and pasted by a host of culprits ranging from political party activists, to religious groups, to quacks and small entrepreneurs.

Swatting the thick grey curtain of flies, you can get a clearer, but grey-hued view of mounds of garbage, some with smoke stealthily coming out. The deathly quiet is intermittently broken by passing motorbike, or a rickety truck groaning under the weight of the garbage or one that has just emptied its ware and is lighter and in a hurry to leave the godforsaken place.

Party flags are hoisted on electricity poles but then forgotten about till they rot and become muddy rags dangling from the poles.

From the ubiquitous plastic bags hanging for dear life on just about anything, to candy and snack wrappers (ice cream cups, chips, cookies); to debris, building and road construction material (including cement, steel, pipes, concrete blocks remain on roadsides for months on end), it is a garbage strewn city for an onlooker. The felled tree trunks and branches, and at times even bathroom sinks, potties and bathtubs, it seems roadsides remains the most popular exhibit place to put out discarded items.

Recently, however, government initiated a campaign to wipe clean the graffiti, but much still needs to be done to get rid of the decomposing party flags, posters, paan stains and even a plethora of cable TV wires which can be seen dangling from electricity poles that create a problem for the city’s electric supply company, the K-Electric.

Unfortunately, the people of this city have only added to the problem. Shopkeepers do not hesitate to throw their litter even in front of their own shops. But many Karachiites say one can hardly find a garbage bin anywhere in the city. Therefore, the Sindh government has now placed large and small trash bins and cans in all areas of the city.

Politics and the rot

Four years back, in 2014, on the pretext of repeated administrative lapses, Karachi’s solid waste management was extricated from the hands of the local government’s Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (the mayor and the municipality) and taken over by the provincial government after a bill, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board Act-2013 for setting up the waste management board was adopted by the Sindh Assembly.

“All over the world garbage lifting is the responsibility of the city government,” explains Karachi’s mayor, Wasim Akhtar, speaking to media.

The spewing, belching face of Karachi

Of the nearly 13,000 tonnes of garbage thrown out onto the city daily by a population of 13 million residents, nearly 70% reaches the two landfills; the rest remains strewn around the city in drains and some even finds its way quietly into the Arabian Sea. “I’d say roughly five per cent now goes into the sea, as dumping into the water has been controlled to a large extent,” says Ahmed.

Earlier, the provincial chief secretary had told the chief justice that only “4.5 tons was left to rot” on the city’s streets daily.

“Anywhere between 400 to 500 trucks empty around 6,000 to 7,000 tons of trash in 24 hours,” said Abdul Salam, weighbridge operator, his eyes glued to the computer screen entering the data as truckers stop outside his office window to get themselves weighed. It’s a busy day as the trucks trundle along towards the landfill after getting the green signal.

“Their performance has been quite dismal,” points out Karachi’s Mayor Akhtar, adding: “If I had the power, the equipment and the resources, I promise we can clean up the ten year’s backlog in Karachi in just four months; we already have the manpower and the experience!”

“No city in the world can become garbage free unless the citizens cooperate,” says SSWMB’s Ahmed.

Even environmentalist Tofiq Pasha finds: “Garbage is being lifted and roads repaired,” he says adding: “The citizens need to realise they are the contributors and therefore need to be responsible and need to reduce their trash at the source.”

“For the past two years now, I’ve watched the SeaView (road along the Clifton beach) being cleaned early in the morning every day,” said Asma Lotia, a school administrator who takes the route every day to her workplace.

Due to these scavengers, a lot of the garbage that enters the landfill has already been sorted in the city. Bang in the middle within the Jam Chakro landfill, on a flattened tract of land, stands a yellow behemoth; the place is a material recovery station.

It is not our responsibility to pick up debris, trees, branches, construction material or hazardous waste from the hospitals, or even the industrial waste. For debris, it is the responsibility of the residents, to have it picked up and sent it to the landfill site. It only costs around Rs 350 to 500/tonne. But they won’t even do that, instead they either throw it inside or leave it outside our bins which is only for garbage.

Pakistani’s government has its eyes on educating and informing the younger generation. “I think they are our last hope; we intend going to schools to inculcate civic sense in them and teach them the virtues of segregation and recycling waste before it is collected by us.”


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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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