Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Ravi: From River to Sewer

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There are folks in the walled city of Lahore who remember the time when most of the rahu they purchased in the nearby fish market came from the Ravi. They remember, too, the refreshing swim one could take in the brown waters of the river always associated with their city. And they remember the annual ‘paar vala mela’ — the carnival on the far bank, held at Shahdara. Just for the fun of it, Lahoris would ride boats across rather than take the tonga over the bridge.

Around the early 1970s, the fish began to dwindle. Then the dip in the river was no longer what it used to be: every time they indulged themselves, folks experienced skin rashes, even eczema. By the early 1980s, the carnival failed to attract Lahori visitors. The river had effectively turned into a sewer. Several channels — some natural, others created by the municipality — were dumping thousands of cusecs of untreated effluent, domestic and industrial, into a once pristine, living river.

Sewage is delivered into the river from north Lahore all the way beyond the southern municipal limits of the city. Not one channel has any sewage treatment facility. While domestic effluent is one thing, the matter of industrial waste is lethal. Laced with deadly chemicals and heavy metals from all shades of industry, this rubbish eventually ends up in agricultural fields south of Lahore where it is soaked up by farm produce.

In India, a train passing through Bhatinda and terminating at Bikaner is known as the ‘cancer train’. The name comes from its regular manifest of cancer patients heading for the medical facility at Bikaner. It is also known to everyone that the disease is on the rise because the poison-laced waters of the Sutlej irrigate farmlands in Haryana and Punjab. It is also common knowledge that the poison comes from the industries of Ludhiana town.

But we in Pakistan will not learn a lesson from our neighbours. The Ravi will continue to be toxified so that it keeps poisoning us until we have cancer buses (having effectively killed the railways we have only buses) running to Lahore on full manifests.Over the years, we have heard repeated affirmations by different governments that the Ravi will be redeemed. Environmental NGOs are also guilty of expending only hot air on the subject. It seems that either the high cost of treating sewage deters action, or that there’s simply no political will to implement a project that will not entail showing off flashy infrastructure.

In 2009, the Parks and Horticulture Authority of Lahore was given a thinking chief. Raheal Siddiqui devised a massive rehabilitation plan for the Ravi, entailing the setting up of sewage treatment plants on the two major effluent-bearing channels: the one emptying the waste of north Lahore near Mahmood Booti and the Outfall Drain from the central part of the city.

With sewage treatment in place, dredging of the riverbed as well as raising an embankment to create depth was part of the project. Thereafter a weir was to be constructed upstream of the M-2 bridge to create a lake extending upward to the old railway bridge. Kamran Mirza’s Baradari would thus have turned into a lovely sylvan island. The lake was to be populated with ducks, fish and other aquatic life.

However, before the plan reached Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, meddlers en route added to it in their own harebrained way. It now included the construction of broad blacktop avenues on either bank with shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas. In the end, there were so many constraints that the project was shot down.

The Ravi continues to roll on, a foul-smelling sewer, even as Lahore’s groundwater falls to a depth of 400 metres. The cleansed river and projected lake could have recharged the aquifer, as envisaged by a World Bank report of the early 1990s.

Lack of political will and acumen has not permitted a good thing. Given our extravagant and mindless use of water, one day, in the not very distant future, Lahore will be starved of groundwater. Then it might be a trifle late to start planning for the rehabilitation of the river of Lahore.

Yesterday was when we should have begun.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:37,


At 19 January 2014 at 14:21, Blogger Asim Hafeezullah said...

Thank you Salman sb for your courage to speak out for the good of many.

At 19 January 2014 at 14:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone seen army of young boys selling meat and blood in polethine bags on the Ravi Bridge and people buying to throw the rubbish in the river? Can we stop that? Save Ravi please...

At 19 January 2014 at 18:35, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Asim, I think this is not enough. Someone should organise some sort of activity to shake them awake.

At 20 January 2014 at 08:38, Anonymous Nayyar Julian said...

Save Ravi, in turn Ravi may save Lahore


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days