Pakistan: Rescuing quake capital from toxic waste
An estimated 25 million cu metres of rubble lies scattered across it, and, according to city municipal officer Zahid Kashif, just over 2 million cu metres has been removed so far. Atop the debris, deposits of filth lie dumped - and in the scorching heat of May, with temperatures climbing above 30 degrees Celsius - it creates a terrible odour that never quite seems to leave some parts of the city.
A continued shortage of latrines and sanitation facilities means some living in the tents still dotted across the city, including 10,000 people from Muzaffarabad itself who were left homeless by the quake, use open spaces as toilets. They must also survive the hostile weather in canvas tents, which provide almost no protection from the intensity of the sun. Rain, forecast by the end of June, can only add to the squalor.
"Look at how we live. Like animals, among this rubbish. And now we are being told it contains poison that could kill our children," Muhammad Rashid, 28, told IRIN. Rashid's house in Muzaffarabad collapsed during the quake, and he, his wife and two small children have lived in a tent since then.
Beyond appearances, the lingering stench and the mosquitoes that swarm above rubbish heaps, there is something more sinister about the heaps of debris. Local health officials and environmentalists fear that the mountain of waste and rubble contains dangerous heavy metals, including lead.
"The use of lead in paints is common in this part of the world. But now this lead, and the iron and zinc contained in the rubble, are leaching into the soil," said Ali Hussain, an environmental scientist working in Muzaffarabad.
His views have been endorsed by government officials, including Babar Minhas, an environmental officer who has described the situation as "disastrous". At a workshop in Islamabad on 27 April, Minister of State for the Environment in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, Mufti Mansoor, stated that toxic materials contained in debris were a cause for concern regarding health.
Across Muzaffarabad, small children, many barefoot and thinly clad, climb and tumble across the rubble. Experts fear these children are at risk of lead poisoning - which, especially in children, can cause brain damage and also lead to anaemia, kidney problems and harm to the nervous system.
"We need to test these children to determine if they have absorbed lead, and take steps to avert further exposure," Dr Atif Tanvir, a Muzaffarabad paediatrician told IRIN.
Still more worrying are the reports that rubble is being thrown directly into the waters of the Jehlum and Neelum rivers, which meet in Muzaffarabad. Their banks are now stacked with debris, and experts warn that the many tons thrown into them may have lead to water contamination.
"This could pose a threat to aquatic life, and also to the many people who use water for drinking or irrigation purposes," Ali Hussain explained.
The situation points to the perils posed by both the scale of the quake disaster, and the failure, some NGOs have said, to fully streamline and manage the aftermath. The fear now is that the effects of toxins spread across Muzaffarabad could leave a still longer-term and more devastating impact on the people who live there, with the full health consequences still far from clear.
The UN Resident Coordinator, Jan Vandermoortele, has already said that, according to estimates, at least 100,000 people will have to continue to live in tents until next winter. Some 10 camps, based in Pakistani- administered Kashmir and in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), will house these people.
The offical has said that people are continuing to live in tents mainly because their "lands have been washed away or the area where they live faces a risk of further earthquakes."
Meanwhile, in Muzaffarabad, amid increasing media attention, there is an attempt to clear away the rubbish. But the efforts are slow, handicapped by a lack of equipment, and, victims claim, a lack of governmental will. There is, however, hopeful news from other cities. Early in May, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and its implementing partner, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), said that a rubble removal exercise had been completed in Bagh, Battagram and Garhi Hbaibullah districts.
"I am very pleased with the success of the project. We have succeeded in clearing 300,000 cu ft of rubble," said UNOPS Project Manager Geoff Hourn. A US $1.5 million International Organization of Migration (IOM) project to clear rubble in Muzzafarbad began in April.
The teams hope to complete the gigantic task over the next nine months, despite the problems. Project Coordinator David Savard told IRIN: "The task is huge and quite tough with narrow lanes making it sometimes impossible for the dump trucks to access the rubble sites."
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