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The sprawling city of Karachi, home to at least 14.9 million people according to the Census 2017—once used to be the city of lights. What was once the face of an urban Pakistan has now become a city of garbage; piles and piles of waste decomposing on street corners, behind the mosques, near schools, and everywhere imaginable. 

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 percent. 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. 

The management control still lies with the Sindh government. The board issues tenders for certain jobs to contractors in order to handle different forms of waste across Karachi districts. Two Chinese contractors were brought on to manage garbage disposal in South and East districts of the city. In the East, the Chinese company under contract was to invest $7 million and deploy 96 garbage collection vehicles, with more than 4,000 dustbins and containers in the city. 

The contractors allege they will be producing electricity from waste as well. Tall claims, and together, the contract has a worth of RS2 billion which is mammoth. The firm was tasked to lift garbage from homes, lanes, streets, localities, link and main roads and take it to landfill sites. But the system remains incredible inefficient and changes, if any, are not visible. 

A major problem is that Karachi still comes under the ambit of Sindh and the relevant power has not been devolved to the city. There is a tug of war between Sindh and city government currently fighting the battle in court. 

In April, the board awarded a contract costing Rs34 million to private firms to collect data on the volume of industrial, private and public sector hospitals’ waste in Karachi. Another survey to estimate residential waste will be conducted later. These surveys will give a better idea how best to manage waste and is a positive step. But ultimately, Sindh government will have to relinquish control of this to city administration which will have to pass on the authorities to district level management. 

Experts also believe that just handing out contracts to private companies will not help. There is a large informal sector that has existed in Karachi for decades that picks, sorts and recycles waste across the city. Incomes of 100,000 labourers are tied to waste management. The system requires efficiency with monitoring parameters set to evaluate performance, assess impact of contractors and regulate; without which all the funds spent will amount to nothing—essentially, waste. 

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017

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