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Converting Garbage into Dreams

One of the perennial problems facing the Third World is lack of energy. This translates into FORCE-MULTIPLIER effect down the line contributing to the many miseries of hapless, burgeoning populations. The primary cause of the acute paucity of energy is the absence of durable energy resources, high price of fuel and the determination of western countries to avoid nuclear proliferation by refusing nuclear technology to developing countries. Even if Less Developed Countries (LDC) have energy sources, they may lack the economic resources, the skill and/or the expertise to convert those sources of energy to useful use. The shrinkage of arable land, increasing birth rate and heightened expectations with respect to creature comforts makes it imperative to have enough energy means to maintain the status quo — sound economic progress remaining in the realm of possibilities only because energy is the locomotive of economics. Our leaders may be well meaning but in the absence of fuel and power, the populist slogans promising the people everything except the moon, remain what they are, figments of imagination meant for vote-getting and are fulfilled partly by well-publicised show-piece efforts designed to dazzle the populace. Without adequate energy there can be no question of translating promises into reality. As industrial output remains below capacity, workers remain idle, their purchasing power going into a flat spin, depressing the whole spectrum of the economy.

To the lack of energy add the absence of potable water. In this world and age, a substantial segment of our population remains bereft of this, the most basic of all human needs. Turbid vector-ridden water causes more disease and death in the Third World than any other deciding factor. In some major urban cities, it is common to see long lines of womenfolk waiting anxiously near the single community tap for some water. Tempers are not in short supply as water is and a fracas a day is not unusual, water riots not being an extraordinary happening. Whatever water is available is distributed through a system which is as intermittent as it is useless, an amazing come down for a civilization that 5,000 years ago boasted a water and sewerage system non-dependant on energy (in Moenjodaro). A Catch-22 cycle is omni-present because of frequent power breakdowns.

In urban cities the existing facilities are incapable of coping with the volume of garbage and without modern methods, the under-strength sanitation staff is fighting a losing battle. In South Asian countries household garbage surpasses unit averages of western homes. The usual practice is to tip the garbage over the wall and it is a normal sight to see birds and animals (and sad to say, sometimes poor people) scavenging through the debris littering the streets and unused plots. Other than the horrible ambience created of the neighbourhood, this generates the spread of disease. In some areas, the black garbage bag is becoming common but there is no real system and in the absence of this, garbage is like a ticking bomb waiting to go off in the centre of a crowd. Garbage needs to be put in adequate containers or bags, collected periodically and then properly disposed in a manner that frees the environment from pollution.

The availability of water and electricity is now among the many desires of the impoverished masses and when you add freedom from garbage to an area it reaches into the realm of dreams. The many reasons for breakdown of law and order cannot compete with these three for the effect they have for fostering anarchy. In order to arrest the deteriorating situation in our cities, we have to find comprehensive civic solutions and strange as it may seem, for a country full of innovative people, the simple methods sometimes escape attention.

We do not have exclusive proven oil reserves and our gas fields will last us only uptill the beginning or so of the 21st century. Because of adverse international attention, our efforts in the nuclear field are hampered by our incapability of tapping onto western know-how and technology. Any attempt by our scientists to explore the efficacies of nuclear energy is viewed with deep suspicion, evoking visions of the Islamic Bomb. Without adequate coal reserves (or the means to exploit them), with hydraulic power the cause of inter-provincial contention, we have to turn to innovative means to foster energy — or go back to the caves — which, given the atrocities witnessed in Karachi and Hyderabad, we are well on our way to doing anyway.

One of the recent innovations has been to use garbage as a means of fuel. This accomplishes a number of things inasfar as you have a regular source of fuel, the garbage is disposed of systematically and above all it is an extremely economical way of producing energy. At the same time there are downstream residuals like composite fertiliser and ash available for various uses. Since the energy is produced by the running of boilers on the heat generated by burning garbage, one can also put up a Desalinization Plant based on the latest technology.

Either from sea water or brackish ground water one may obtain substantial quantities of potable water for domestic and industrial use. If one takes Karachi as a role model, one finds perennial shortages of electricity and water while accumulated garbage makes it one of the dirtiest cities of the world. Because of shortages of the aforementioned, housing starts have come to stop, making another shortage acute, accommodation for the burgeoning population. The failure to construct houses results in economic stagnation as cement, steel, wood, etc are not being used but above all the migrant labour that does the work is now mostly unemployed. This not only creates an adverse economic cycle but is directly responsible for their involvement in drugs and gun-running. As the economic cake becomes smaller, the pressure becomes more acute to sustain society and normal mores begin to breakdown, spiralling into economic apocalypse.

On the other hand, three or more plants in Karachi would fulfill the following (1) generate electricity for domestic and industrial use (2) industrial utility would mean more jobs (3) make potable water available lessening dependance upon long pipelines and inadequate sources (4) remove garbage by hygienic means which are not detrimental to the environment (5) while using it as a cheap fuel (6) encourage housing starts regenerating the economy by utilising cement, steel, wood, etc (7) while providing employment which will (8) obviate the necessity of labour to indulge in drug dealing and gun-running bringing (9) peace to Karachi, at least relatively. There are more deep-rooted reasons for the Karachi problems but the basic amenities of water, electricity, housing, garbage tops the list.

The government has encouraged private sector enterprise to come forward and take part in electricity generation. While the whole process needs proper feasibility and analysis in depth as to cost-effectiveness, the socio-economic benefits of such projects cannot be over-emphasized. We desperately need to break this cycle of doom engulfing our urban cities and it behoves us to come up with innovative ideas to hasten the process to accomplish economic emancipation.

It is upto either us to consign such ideas into the dustbin of history (or bureaucracy) or take them up for good economic use for the nation. We must turn garbage into dream for our masses.

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