Self-help sewers save lives

Posted: 17 August 2000

Author: Anita Nasar

Author Info: Anita D. Nasar is Editor of The Way Ahead, Pakistan's Environment and Development Quarterly published by the Communications Unit, IUCN Pakistan.

The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi is one of the world's best known community efforts to provide sanitation and waste-water management. Anita Nasar revisited Orangi for People & the Planet to see how this revolutionary project is progressing.

In 1980 Mr Agha Hasan Abedi, the President of the now infamous BCCI and Mr I. H.Burney of the BCCI Foundation approached Dr Akhter Hameed Khan with a suggestion to consider undertaking some "welfare work" in Orangi, Karachi's biggest informal housing settlement. In response to this request, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan a guru for many of Pakistan's development professionals, set up the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). Since then Dr Sahib, Orangi and the OPP, now one of the world's best known projects in the provision of sanitation and waste-water management, have never looked back.

Once mired in filth, wracked with disease, high infant mortality rates and burdened with the countless other miseries, typical of urban slums, today Orangi is an economically vibrant and thriving settlement of over one million residents, with health and education indicators far higher than the rest of Karachi's.Why has OPP been so successful? A large part of OPP's success lies in its uncompromising commitment to work only with the agenda of the people whose lives it has set out to improve. "We watch to see what people are doing, identify the problems they have in their own efforts and then work to resolve these problems," explains Perween Rahman, the Director of OPP's Low Cost Sanitation Programme. This is, however, far easier said than done.

In the early 1980s after much painstaking research, OPP was finally able to identify poor health as Orangi's key problem. Most of the residents ­ recent immigrants to Karachi ­ had been able to construct their own houses in the settlement but the technicalities and the cost of installing sanitary latrines and underground sewer lines were understandably beyond them.

As was the case in many other urban informal settlements, Orangi's residents had attempted to solve this problem as best they could. Apart from incessant lobbying to have local government address the issue, soakpits had been established and makeshift channels for sewage dug up in the lanes outside their houses. Without technical guidance there was little else that could be done and in the absence of strong social institutions, there were limits to what the collective efforts of people could accomplish. (Interestingly, OPP's own research has shown that it is often the lack of technical expertise needed to address the problem at hand that frustrates efforts at social organization.)The lack of a sanitation system and proper latrines coupled with the continuous influx of immigrants to the area proved devastating to health in the settlement. Illnesses were a norm and many of Orangi's low income residents struggled almost constantly under the burdens of insurmountable medical bills.

It was evident that the government was unable to deliver the required sanitation system and so the OPP proposed the installation of a self-financed and self-managed sewage system, offering their technical support and guidance. Cutting out middlemen and contractors and simplifying the system design, OPP's team of architects and engineers were able to put together a low-cost alternative to a government-installed and maintained sewage system.

If people were willing to finance the scheme, each lane could build their own sewer line and connect their houses to it at a fraction of the cost. This line would then connect up with the trunk sewers that the government had installed. OPP was proposing that the established ethos of self-help be collectively organized around a technical solution rather than remain ad hoc. It didn¹t take long for the people of Orangi to appreciate the wisdom of this. The red tape involved in connecting up to the trunk sewage lines was finally cut through and the first resident-financed sewers were laid in 1982.

OPP began a number of other programmes many of which reinforced the sanitation programme, particularly in the field of health and family planning. In addition, they began programmes to support work in Orangi on education, housing, social forestry, family enterprises and most recently rural development. But it is its sanitation programme where it has achieved the greatest international recognition.

Today 84 per cent of Orangi is covered by resident-financed and managed sewer lines "it should be 100 per cent, but Orangi is still growing," explains Perween. Collectively, the residents of this low-income area have been able to raise more than US$1.7million to finance the building of what now amounts to over almost 1.5 million rft (running feet) of sewer pipelines, almost 400 section drains and over 85,000 latrines.

Coupled with the emphasis put by OPP on preventive health-care, the impact on the health of Orangi's residents has been phenomenal. In a recent survey comparing Orangi to Thikri, another Karachi settlement with a similar socio-economic profile but next to no sanitation system, it was found that infant mortality was five times higher in Thikri than in Orangi, with most infants dying of diarrhoea and dehydration.

The awareness of health related issues that developed alongside the installation of the settlement's sanitation system has led to over 85 per cent of Orangi's housewives being fully conversant with the causes and prevention's of some of the more common illnesses, such as malaria, typhoid, scabies and diarrhoea. In comparison, fewer than 20 per cent of Thikri's housewives were aware of these.

These achievements are even more impressive when viewed against the backdrop of a roughly 75 per cent increase in the population of the area since 1980.With the pressure of medical bills easing off in Orangi, income has been freed up to pay for school fees ­ private schools are abundant in Orangi where the literacy rate is now well over 70 per cent compared to Pakistan's overall literacy rate of around 35 per cent ­ and to finance the small enterprises that have contributed greatly to the economic prosperity of the area.Since 1989, OPP stepped in, on request, with technical support in setting up sanitation programmes in over 45 informal urban settlements in the country.Today it is working with people in over 35 informal settlements in six cities in Pakistan where it is assisting in laying almost 190,000 rft of sewer pipes and installing over 10,000 latrines all at a cost of just over US$300,000 ­ about how much a moderately successful Wall Street banker > might expect to earn every year. More recently the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board have requested OPP to act as its consultant for the plan to upgrade and improve the sanitation system for Karachi city.

The development of a cadre of skilled personnel in Orangi around the area's sanitation programme has been a vital factor in the outreach and extension of the pilot project in Orangi. Approximately 75 per cent of OPP's total staff and 70 per cent of its sanitation programme staff are residents of Orangi. Once shunned by the development and municipal agencies of Karachi, ironically, it is now Orangi that is in the forefront of assisting these same agencies in coping with the mammoth task of managing a megacity's municipal services.