Residents of mountain towns and villages in northern Pakistan are suffering under the side effects of pollution caused by the extensive stone-crushing industry. Stone-crushing plants have been operating in the area for almost 40 years – and locals are starting to see the effects, such as asthma, rashes and silicosis among others. Our Observer lives in the area and wants the government to finally step up and do something about the problem.

The Margalla Hills, located just outside the country’s capital Islamabad, are principally composed of limestone, a prime building material that is easy to quarry. Myriad stone-crushing plants dot the countryside, causing noise and air pollution.

In 2010, the federal government imposed a ban on stone-crushing in the Margalla Hills area, declaring it a national park. However, the industry, which is predominantly made up of local Pakistani firms, has continued unabated.

Environmentalists have already voiced concerns that the stone-crushing industry – even if based away from the official perimeter of the Margalla Hills National Park – is impacting the diversity of the wildlife and destroying the natural habitat of the area. 
Photo sent to us by our Observer, showing a stone-crushing plant in the Margalla Hills. Photo: Shaheen Zaidi

Studies have shown that levels of inhalable particulate matter (very fine dust particles, or PM2.5) were particularly high in and around stone-crushing plants. This is bad news for locals, as the finer the particles, the more danger they pose to workers and residents because it is easier for them to be absorbed into the respiratory system, which leads to respiratory illnesses.

There is very little public data available on levels of pollution in Pakistan or on the exact effect that the industry is having on the environment and communities in the surrounding area. For this reason, recent statistics on the prevalence of fine particles near stone-crushing sites is difficult to come by. A 2005 study looked at data collected in 1996 and showed that levels of total suspended particulate matter in Islamabad were two to three times as much as the World Health Organisation’s guidelines stipulate as a recommended maximum. The growth of the construction industry since that time has led to more stone-crushing and construction sites being set up in the foothills of the Himalayas.

A photo showing a cloud of dust after a mountain blast. Photo: Mohammad Zubair Khan

In August 2016, Pakistan’s Supreme Court laid down a ban on stone crushing and quarrying in the Margalla Hills, but residents in the area say that this has not been enforced. This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has tried to overturn the stone crushing industry, but companies have paid no heed. This is due to the fact that the stone in the Margalla Hills area is not only of a higher quality than elsewhere, but is easier to quarry, making the crushed stone from that area pricier and encouraging stone-crushing businesses to set up shop there.

“The plant owners control everything. We are helpless”

Our Observer is a social worker who lives in Islamabad. He lives only two kilometres away from some of the stone crushing plants, and says that the pollution reaches well into the capital city limits. He has become ill as a result of the pollution from the stone crushing plants, suffering from rashes around his eyes.

The plants make both noise and air pollution. When they blast the rocks and then crush them, the dust kicks up and gets into the houses nearby. It’s being inhaled on a daily basis. It has caused eye irritation and diseases like asthma and bronchitis.

The workers work round the clock in shifts, so the sound of the blasts and the crushing sounds are all the time, day and night.

We have gone to talk to the authorities many times, but they don’t do anything. According to EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] rules and regulations, crushers cannot be installed near populated areas. [Editor’s note: an official from the EPA told France 24 that there is an imposed 1km buffer zone separating residential zones from industrial sites.]

We’ve asked them to minimise the health hazards many times, and they say they have reduced it, but they never do. The owners [of the stone-crushing plants] are like the mafia now. They control everything. We are all helpless.

A residential area in the Margalla Hills. Photo: Shaheen Zaidi.

“You can see the layers of dust”

There are at least 13 villages or towns affected, with almost 200,000 people directly impacted by this. The District Health Officer is supposed to carry out periodical medical check-ups to test for negative effects on the residents, but he is silent. Court orders are not being executed. The plants say they will abide by the rules but they don’t.

Ultimately we want the crushers to be shifted away from populated areas. A town that is centuries old and its inhabitants can’t just move because of illegal stone-crushing.

From October to January we had a three-month drought. There was no rain at all. The area was completely covered by dust, you could see a layer of dust visible on the houses, on the trees, on their leaves.

An official from Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who did not want to be named, denied that there was stone-crusher activity within the domain of the Margalla National Park: “More than 17 stone crushers were dismantled after the EPA’s involvement in 2010. Later, in 2015, we found out that illegal stone crushing activities had restarted. We again relaunched an operation and they were again closed down.” The official added that the organisation had been receiving complaints about pollution in the Margalla Hill parks, but since stone-crushing operations were ordered to cease, the complaints had also stopped.

The official also affirmed that “currently, there are no stone crushing activities in this area. Any stone crushing activities going on are illegal”.

A stone-crushing site in northern Pakistan. Photo:
Mohammad Zubair Khan

Pakistan’s rate of population growth, combined with creeping industrialisation and a lack of natural resources are taking their toll on the country’s environment. The country is also urbanising at a rapid rate: in 1960, 22 per cent of the population lived in urban areas. In 2015, that figure was 39 per cent. Consequently, air quality in the country looks set to get even worse – and particularly in urban areas. The unregulated, illegal operation of stone-crushing plants will only add to the problem.

Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist