40% of all deaths in Pakistan are caused by water contamination

40% of all deaths in Pakistan are caused by water contamination

Let Them Drink Bottled Water

KARACHI, Pakistan — Twice a week every week, I lug four empty bottles of Nestlé Pure Life water to a shop near my home and lug back, one by one, four full bottles of Nestlé Pure Life. Each bottle contains 18.9 liters of safe drinking water. The labels on the bottles advise me to drink at least eight glasses of water every day.

This is our drinking water, our tea-making water, the water we use for cooking, the water we make ice with. Drinking tap water in Pakistan — if you are lucky enough to have a tap with running water — would mean putting your family’s health at some serious risk. For our other water needs — washing ourselves, laundry and house cleaning — we have to buy a tanker that holds 5,000 liters. Deliveries are so unpredictable that the tanker might arrive at 3 a.m. But even then, it’s welcome.

Sometimes I get to travel to Europe, and one of the unapologetic joys of this privilege is to be able to open the tap and gulp down a glass of water or even slurp without fear from a public fountain. That’s the taste of civilization.

Water scarcity is a subject of serious debate in Pakistan, of the occasional riot and sometimes of long queues at rare public wells or sources. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has set up a fund to build two dams and is asking for donations.

Public drinking water here wasn’t always poisonous. Even toward the end of the 1990s, bottled water was reserved for the ultra-elite — for heads of state hosting other heads of states or for posh Pakistanis who vacationed on the French Riviera.

But today, thanks to pollution and a lack of investment in infrastructure, if you don’t drink bottled or filtered water, you are condemning yourself and your little ones to horrible diseases and maybe even to a new form of the ancient affliction called death by contamination. According to one estimate, 53,000 children in Pakistan die of diarrhea every year after drinking water containing dangerous bacteria. According to another estimate, 40 percent of all deaths in Pakistan are caused by water contaminated with sewage, industrial waste, arsenic or diseases.

You would think that those figures alone would be a national health emergency, and that making sure people have access to clean water would be the priority of every single political party. But in any footage of a high-level political or administrative meeting, you see rows and rows of water bottles, one for every official. Our elites have already solved Pakistan’s water problem: Spend 30 rupees (about 20 cents) and pick up a half-liter.

The previous government, which lost the latest general election this summer, takes credit for mega energy projects, shiny airports and new motorways and seaports. But the major water-filtration project it launched turned out to be a scam. When it comes to the basic human need for clean drinking water, we have essentially been told to fend for ourselves.

And people do just that. Those who can’t afford to buy bottled or filtered water drink whatever comes out of the nearest tap, source or pond and leave the rest to the doctor they can’t afford either or to Allah, whom everyone can afford.

Anyway, those of us who can pay for water may only be buying some of the poison that the water we’re paying for was supposed to save us from. Earlier this year, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources announced that at least eight brands of bottled water — brands with fancy names like Aqua Fine, Pure Aqua, Aqua Gold, Pure 18 and Aab-e-Noor (Water of Light) — were contaminated.

Even when that little plastic bottle contains clean water, it isn’t saving us from death or disease so much as condemning us to a future where we can’t even think of public access to drinking water as everyone’s birthright.

Increasingly, both in Pakistan and elsewhere, when you go to a public event as a speaker or a panelist, the first thing that appears in front of you is a bottle of water. Sometimes you hold onto it as if it might save you from the wrath of the audience. I have heard of writers demanding warm raki at their event, but never of a writer saying, “Can you please take this bottle away and give me some tap water instead?” When hotels automatically stock your room with a complimentary bottle and restaurants greet you with “Still or sparkling?” asking for tap water would mean outing yourself as a miser or a fusspot.

I know that people have refined tastes, including for this or that healthy mineral in their water. But the array of bottled waters available on the market is a testament to the fact that humans can be conned into buying anything. And this con may be the most basic one in the world: I steal your water and then I sell it to you. And you’ll buy it because, surely, you don’t want your children to die a painful death.

By now, people who want to help solve this problem seem hopelessly earnest. The Supreme Court’s chief justice has asked banks, the media and the government to help him raise funds for his dams. He has ordered some petitioners in his court to contribute. There are ads on the radio and TV that go “Ao Dams Banain Hum” (Let’s Build a Dam).

Building a big shiny structure that makes a mark on the scenery probably seems like making history. But beyond the inherent absurdity of crowdfunding what should be a public infrastructure project — as one critic has said, “the state cannot be run like a charity” — it would be cheaper than building those dams to make existing water supplies drinkable and disease-free. Yet there’s little discussion about that.

In 2010, I witnessed the devastation caused by floods in Sindh, a southern province. The civic-minded went out there to help the affected, and the first thing they did was to throw truckloads of bottled water at the people who had nothing left — no home, nothing to eat or drink — except the tattered clothes on their bodies. It was a perfect image for a planet in its death throes. And the people fleeing the deluge took the little plastic bottles of water, as much for the bottles as for the water.

November 23rd, 2018 – The New York Times – by Mohammed Hanif