The canal is one of 11 major waterways that carry industrial waste and sewage from Lahore into the River Ravi. Waste from 16,000 factories and the city's 10 million residents flows directly into the river - entirely untreated, and entirely illegally.
The World Bank estimates the Pakistani economy loses US$4.9 billion a year - 3.4 percent of its GDP - because of productivity losses and treatment costs from water-borne diseases.
According to studies by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, up to 40 percent of all patients in Pakistani hospitals are suffering from water-borne diseases due to unsafe drinking water.
More than 250,000 Pakistani children are killed annually by typhoid, dysentery, cholera and hepatitis.
“When there is untreated sewage, it results in the groundwater being polluted,” said Lubna Bukhari, a director at the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a government body that monitors the safety of the country's water supply.
Leaking underground pipes allow contaminants to enter the groundwater. Cities like Lahore already face an acute water shortage, so residents looking for their own potable water must dig deeper and deeper, lowering the water table, and helping concentrate the contaminants.
In 2007, PCRWR released a five-year study of the water supply in 23 major cities in Pakistan.
The study monitored 16 types of water supplies in Lahore - including tap water, ground water in tube wells, and surface water - and found that every single source in the city had unsafe levels of arsenic, and more than half had unsafe levels of fluoride and bacteriological contaminants.
“Cholera, dysentery, hepatitis spread from bacteriological contaminants,” said Bukhari.
Tough environmental laws - on paper
The River Ravi is a striking reminder of the difficulty of enforcing Pakistan's environmental protection laws.
The factories dumping their waste into the river are required by law to first treat it, and the Lahore Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA), which manages the city's sewage, is supposed to treat waste water before it enters the river.
Political pressure to prioritize industrial development, and the inability of enforcement agencies to punish polluters, means that even with what on paper are some of the developing world's strictest environmental laws, people in Pakistan’s cities struggle to get water and air that meets even basic safety requirements.
A 1997 law established a Pakistani Environmental Protection Department (EPD), which now operates in each province independently. Every planned development must be approved by the EPD, to ensure it does not have an adverse impact on the environment.
But in practice, violators rarely face legal consequences.
In Punjab, thousands of cases against industrial polluters - some more than a decade old - are pending in special environmental courts.
Last year, the Supreme Court set up dedicated “green benches” to expedite hearings, but only 15 percent of the cases were heard, and only 20 percent of those found to be violating the law actually paid fines.
Lack of funds
One problem is that public works agencies do not have the budget for the kinds of infrastructure improvements needed to meet the government's own standards.
Akhtar Awan is an environmental attorney who filed a lawsuit against the government of Punjab about the pollution in the River Ravi in 2005. Two years into the case, Lahore's WASA agreed to develop a wastewater treatment plant. Six years later, construction has not begun.
Established in 2006, the system of monitoring stations collected real time data on air pollution levels in half a dozen cities, including Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad.
In 2009, when the monitoring stations were still in use, the concentration of very fine particulate matter in Lahore's air was found to be three times higher than the safe level of 35 micro-grams/m3.
Steel furnaces, brick kilns, stone and marble crushing plants, and vehicular pollution were the major contributors. All of these should technically be regulated under Pakistan’s environmental laws.
Without a baseline for the air quality in Pakistan's cities, environmental agencies cannot even begin to assess what impact, for instance, a new factory might have on an area.
The Punjab EPD, by far the most active in Pakistan, is also severely under-staffed, said Nasim-ur-Rehman Shah, the agency's Environmental Approval Department's deputy director. “There is a need for capacity. We need more staff. It's not like we are not trying,” he said.
Development the priority?
But perhaps the greatest hurdle to enforcing Pakistan's environmental laws is cultural - the perception that development should be prioritized in the short run over environmental protection.
“We are exactly where Europe was [in the Industrial Revolution],” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist who has sued to force the Punjab government to clean up the River Ravi. “All of our future development is contingent on getting people clean water.”
Alam's case for cleaning up the River Ravi was the first to be heard directly by the Supreme Court, soon after the establishment of the “green benches” there. He chose to completely bypass the EPD, petitioning the country's top court.
“Too many people think this [pollution] is the cost of development,” Alam said.
Instead of trying to force the Punjab government's hand, Alam said he asked the judge hearing his case to set up a new body that would work towards coming up with a balanced solution to the crisis.
Ravi River Commission
The Ravi River Commission was setup last year to bring together legal and environmental experts, industrialists, politicians, and public works agencies. “We wanted consensus-based decisions made with an enforceable legal order,” Alam explains.
The Commission first identified where the pollutants in the river were coming from. Just north and south of the city of Lahore, thousands of industrial projects sit along the River Ravi.
“Most are small and medium size enterprises,” Alam said. “Too small to have a wastewater treatment plant on site... Shutting them all down would be a big problem, [there are] thousands of these industries, tens of thousands of jobs on the line.”
The Commission instead approached about 30 large factories that could install treatment facilities, and is asking them to be good water stewards, setting an example for other large enterprises down the line. “We want to get them to be like champions to the rest of industry,” Alam said.
Wherever future drainage might go into the river, the Commission is pushing to cut down on waste. In new residential areas - often home to Lahore's most affluent citizens - the Commission is asking for the installation of septic tanks in homes, to deal with some raw sewage on site.
And WASA has recently agreed to build an experimental bioremediation facility just down river from the city. The planned bioremediation site will pass contaminated water through several stages of small, natural wetland, returning the clean water to the river later.
It is a small step - the plant would only process a fraction of the river's flow - but if successful, it would provide a cheap, sustainable solution that could be scaled up for the whole river.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions