Toxins from tanneries endanger Kasur's residents

For most of his adult life, Muhammad Rauf, 38, has worked at a hide-tanning factory in the Pakistani border town of Kasur. He applies large quantities of water and chemicals to raw animal skins as part of the laborious process that turns them into finished leather.

"I know my work well. It supports my family and two years ago I was made a supervisor," Rauf told IRIN in Kasur.

But at the same time, he is increasingly worried about the acute pollution problems caused by tannery waste, which has badly polluted ground water, impacted on the health of local residents and has also affected crops grown in the area.

"What is the point of such work when it is making our children ill?" asked Rauf, whose own sons, aged nine, six and two, frequently suffer diarrhoea and rashes, attributed by doctors to the water they use for drinking and bathing.

The tanning industry is a major foreign exchange earner for Pakistan, with jackets, sports goods, handbags, footwear and other items manufactured from leather originating in the country and sold across the world. One of the places where the leather tanning industry is concentrated is Kasur, 55 km south-east of the Punjab capital, Lahore, near the border with India.

As the industry has grown, with at least 230 tanneries operating in the town, it has become a means of livelihood for most of Kasur’s 350,000 residents.

There is no immediate indication of the problems this has caused. In the congested main bazaar of the bustling town, the sweetmeats and colourful, wooden toys and furniture for which the area is well known are on display in many places, and the variety of goods available in stores indicate a new prosperity over the past few decades.

Yet while the tanneries have brought jobs, they have also taken a heavy toll.

Tanneries discharging waste

As a result of the tanning industry, about 9,000 cubic metres of waste is being discharged on a daily basis in Kasur. Much of it enters existing waterways, such as the canals criss-crossing agricultural land in the Punjab province, say specialists. The rest forms pools of stagnant water, from which an odour rises and hangs over the town.

The tanneries also produce thousands of tons of solid waste each day as well as air emissions containing ammonia or hydrogen sulphide.

"People are now aware that this water, laced with toxic substances including mercury, lead and chromium, is unsafe. But they often have to use it. And also, the toxins are seeping into crops grown on land watered by polluted supplies," Anwar Syed, an environmental activist based in Kasur, said.

The World Health Organization sets the standard permissible level of toxins in water at 0.05 parts per million (PPM). Levels of over 2 ppm have been recorded in Kasur. The result is diarrhoea, dysentery, respiratory disorders and skin diseases, officials say.

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
Many canals in Pakistan are heavily polluted

"People here know the dangers, but they do not have access to any other water," Dr Malik Afzal at the Kasur Government Hospital said.

A spokesman for the Environment Protection Department in Punjab said "untreated waste water presents a grave health hazard across the province". However, he said that as awareness had increased, measures had been taken.

A 2005 report published in Kasur Nama, a newsletter by the Civil Society Network (CSN) Kasur, said that Kasur’s hospitals and clinics were full of patients with diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis and stomach-related diseases, with children, women and elderly people among patients. At the time of the report, about 10 percent of Kasur’s population was infected with hepatitis, 20 percent of the town’s children had diarrhoea, and 70 percent of diseases were due to contaminated water, it said.

UN-government pollution control project

In 1996, the Pakistan government signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme and the UN Industrial Development Organization to launch the Kasur Tannery Pollution Control Project. The project, based in a large building set amid tannery clusters, has established an effluent treatment plant, chromium plant and solid waste disposal site. It intends to serve as a model to be replicated in other places.

Efforts since the 1990s to raise awareness about the environmental and health impact of tanneries have also made some difference.

''At my tannery, we try and recycle water, we’ve replaced the most toxic chemicals with safe ones and we treat effluents released from the plant.''

"At my tannery, we try and recycle water, we’ve replaced the most toxic chemicals with safe ones and we treat effluents released from the plant," Muhammad Asif, a Lahore-based tannery owner, said. He added that the measures had been "appreciated" by buyers based in Germany and other countries.

But while there have been some improvements, they are mere drops in the ocean, specialists say. An increase in the global demand for leather from Pakistan, in part because of strict regulations in Europe and the Far East, has led to more and more tanneries opening up in Kasur and other Pakistani locations.

"I have seen at least five or six more go up within the last two or three years," said Rauf.

Inevitably, this will cause an increase in discharged effluents and further poisoning of existing water supplies.

Children, women and tannery workers come to local hospitals and clinics on a daily basis with ailments stemming from tannery waste. And it could get worse. There are fears that chromium-laced waste turned into poultry feed is introducing toxins bringing cancerous diseases into the human food chain.

And with laws regarding the dumping of effluents extremely poorly implemented across the South Asian nation, it seems that the problems seen in Kasur will not be overcome easily or quickly.


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