Over 40% of peri-urban households are not connected to tap water supply, and use pumps to draw water from shallow groundwater sources.
As the sun sets over an impoverished household in Soling, located off Raiwind Road on the outskirts of Lahore, Rukhsana Bibi, 36, a housewife and mother of four, begins preparing the evening meal. She covers her face as smoke billows from burning firewood, which she uses as fuel for cooking. Her husband, 41-year-old Kareem Bakhsh, has just returned home from an industrial estate a few kilometres from their home where he works. Near the mud stove, their youngest son plays in the dirt, alarmingly close to a leaking drainpipe installed to expel household waste from the house into the street outside.
Rukhsana’s family is one of thousands of others in Pakistan who live in similar unplanned and un-regularised semi-urban settlements – known in academia as peri-urban areas – on the peripheries of large metropolitan cities like Lahore.
Peri-urban areas are defined in simple terms as areas directly adjoining urban areas, between the suburbs and the countryside. They exhibit traits of both urban and rural areas, but are actually undergoing a transition between the two. In the case of Lahore – a city district having a population exceeding 12 million – around 28% of its population, or 3.36 million people, are estimated to live in peri-urban areas.
A study carried out by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) captures a comprehensive picture of the state of affairs concerning three essential issues: governance, health and environment. According to the study, the dilemma of peri-urban areas is that they do not have certain or legal land tenures; moreover, they do not fall into a purely rural or purely urban classification.
Most of these areas have not been formally zoned for housing by the government, nor urbanised with infrastructure. These settlements often eventuate as illegal land invasions, which are, therefore, disconnected from municipal service networks.
The lack of planned land use policies, basic services delivery, waste management and adequate water and sanitation services gives rise to a number of environmental and health risks. Diseases like diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, malaria and jaundice are stated as the most commonly occurring diseases year-round, especially during summers, and cases of influenza and throat and chest infections were mostly reported during winters. In addition, a large number of skin and other allergies are also very commonly reported in peri-urban areas. Health experts state that a significant number of diseases were caused by the use of unsafe, polluted or contaminated water sources in cooking, drinking or bathing etc.
Over 40% of peri-urban households are not connected to tap water supply, and use pumps to draw water from shallow groundwater sources which also seem to be heavily contaminated with pathogens and pollutants. An alarming concern is that wastewater and sewage from industrial and residential areas flows into such water bodies near informal settlements. Similarly, the inadequate and poor sewerage system, common in such areas, gives rise to cholera, typhoid and other health implications.
Due to the unavailability of kitchens in homes, residents of such areas cook food in the open, rendering food items and utensils vulnerable to environmental contamination and contact with disease causing pathogens. Most households on the fringes of Lahore use biomass (eg wood) as fuel due to low or no access to cleaner energy services like natural gas. This cooking practice leads to acute respiratory infections, particularly in women and children. Additionally, some residents keep livestock indoors, which increases risk of spoilage and contamination of stored food, and increases health risks to residents.
Environmental issues related to unplanned urbanisation include soil erosion, destruction of vegetation, siltation and depletion of water bodies and pollution of resources such as soil, air and water.
The SDPI study proposes a number of recommendations to address the issues of peri-urban areas, including adequate land policies and official control procedures; decentralised approaches to basic service provision; greater collaboration between rural and urban authorities; wider integrated water management interventions and decentralized waste water management techniques; need for project planners to encourage involvement of all relevant entities in development consultations; and intensive educational initiatives for occupational activities as well as awareness related to basic health and hygiene, waste management, and water and sanitation issues.
As night falls over peri-urban neighbourhoods and mothers lull their children to sleep, one can only hope that adequate attention to policy by decision-makers leads to the dawn of better days for the millions who dwell in such deprived areas in Pakistan.
THE WRITER IS A RESEARCHER ASSOCIATED WITH THE SDPI WHO WORKS ON GOVERNANCE AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC ISSUES
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2013.