THE LARGEST freshwater lake in Pakistan and main source of water supply to Karachi and parts of Thatta district, the Keenjhar Lake faces a serious threat from pollution, which, experts warn, if not attended to in time, could make the entire lake poisonous.

Recent studies have shown that that the wetland, a Ramsar site and wildlife sanctuary, is being badly polluted by increasing effluent discharged from the Nooriabad industrial zone.

The other sources of pollution of the lake are the Sonahri, Jhampir, Manchri and Shoro drains apart from the unchecked activities of tourists visiting the lake in large numbers.

The increasing pollution in the lake has already put the lives of thousands of people at risk who are directly dependent on the water body for survival. The situation is aggravated by the fact that these poor communities are deprived of basic necessities of life, including medical support.

“Effluents from the Nooriabad industrial zone are causing grave harm to the Keenjhar Lake that also receives domestic waste from the surrounding villages. The water contamination might not be directly affecting the lives of Karachiites as the concentration of contaminants reduces with distance, but a population of about 50,000 people, living along the lakes banks, who drink its water and also use it for growing vegetables are also human beings.

“Their misery is appalling. A majority of these people suffer from water-borne diseases and they have become so much used to seeing themselves sick that they no longer look at their health as an issue that needs to be taken care of,” laments Hafeezullah, site manager, Keenjhar Lake, Indus for All Programme of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The damage being caused by the increasing pollution at the lake, according to Hafeezullah, is not being documented and taken seriously because its intensity is usually evident in the monsoon, when industrial effluents flow into the lake and kill tonnes of fish, besides damaging bird habitats and causing various infections to people.

The increasing growth of weeds is also adversely affecting the lakes ecology as they release poisonous gases and contaminate water. “It actually happened in Africa and Europe where weeds made the lakes poisonous and they had to be rehabilitated.

And it could happen at the Keenjhar Lake, too, where there is no agency on the ground to look after the water quality of the wetland and maintaining its ecology,” he says.

Experts suggest the need for establishing an authority, comprising officials of relevant departments, dedicated to address the issues confronting the lake as right now half a dozen departments, including the departments of irrigation, fisheries, tourism and wildlife, operate at the lake without coordination and none of them is responsible for the quality of water.

“Karachi is the largest beneficiary of the Keenjhar Lake, but it does not spend a single penny on its maintenance despite the fact that the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board earns a substantial amount on account of water charges,” says Jehangir Durrani, natural resource management officer, WWF, posted at the lake.

Though facing multiple threats from pollution and receiving little care for its upkeep, the lake with its deep blue water still attracts visitors. It indeed looks like a sea at peace.

Located 113 kilometres from Karachi and spread over about 145 square kilometres, the Keenjhar Lake is regarded as a semi-natural lake as it gets most of its water from the Indus through a canal (KB feeder) originating from the Kotri barrage while a part of the water is contributed by the run-off water from the adjacent hills and torrents.

There are about 62 small and large villages around the lake which fall under four union councils. Sonahri, Chill, Ghandri, Chakro, Moldi, Dolatpur, Chilliya, Khambo and Hillaya are major villages. Fishing, agriculture, livestock and mat-making are the main occupations of the communities that widely use pesticides in cultivation.

Due to a major decline in fish catch over the decades, some people are also involved in quarrying in the nearby hills.

Speaking to media, residents of Sonahri, also a major fish-landing site at the lake, said that their major problem was the provision of safe drinking water, besides a lack of a sewerage system and facilities for education and health.

“A fresh water scheme launched by an NGO is benefiting many villagers, but it is not adequate to meet the needs of all. There is no sewerage system, no hospital in any village and people prefer not to seek medical assistance as they cant afford to travel long distances,” a resident said, adding that every second person was suffering from a skin disease.

It was ironic to see that though people were living in abject poverty and extreme unhygienic conditions, most were found to be hooked to gutka. The trend, according to Jehangir Durrani, is the same in all villages that have similar living conditions.

Alarming level of diseases

A study conducted by the WWF in 2008 states: “The incidence of malaria, diarrhoea, skin disease, typhoid and jaundice was very high in all villages at Keenjhar Lake while the incidence of skin diseases was found at alarming level. There is a dearth of health infrastructure, only three per cent villages have dispensaries and one village basic health unit. Professional maternity services are missing and 87 per cent births are being attended by local birth attendants.”

On the water quality, it says: “The turbidity, biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand were high along with the toxic pollutants such as cadmium and lead in Keenjhar Lake water collected from the vicinity of KB feeder.

“Sufficient organic load is observed in Keenjhar, causing depletion of dissolved oxygen (DO). The 4 mg/l is the lowest DO required for the survival of all types of fish species in fresh water. In the present study, the DO values are found less than 3 mg/l, which is not favourable condition for the juvenile fish stock and its further growth. This may be the cause of fish decline in recent past.”

The water from the Keenjhar Lake and Hub Dam, 550 million gallons and 100 million gallons, respectively, is chlorinated at five filter plants. Besides, metal contaminants get settled naturally in the lake. Metal contamination is more common within the city on account of illegal connections, leakages and old distribution network. The practice of not cleaning storage tanks for a long time by residents could also contribute to it.

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