What’s in the waste? Plastics threaten Pakistan's mighty Indus

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Plastic waste dumped on the banks of Indus River. Photo: World Bank  Plastic waste dumped on the banks of Indus River. Photo: World Bank

“Guddu barrage is full of poisonous waste that kills our fish. Some species swim further down into clean waters. Our nets overflow with trash from the upstream city dwellers and it takes days to catch a substantial amount of fish to earn a livelihood,” a local fisherman from Sukkur Barrage in Sind Province, Pakistan, expressed his plight on dumping of plastic waste in the Indus, the main source of water for the community.

The mighty Indus, spanning 3,200 kilometers in length and crucial for the economy, is facing the brunt of plastic pollution. The aquatic ecosystems and nearby habitats are being severely harmed by lagging plastic and solid waste management, inadequate legal framework, lax enforcement of environmental laws, and rise in single-use plastics (SUP) —like straws, plastic bags, water bottles that are thrown after a single use and often dumped into the river bodies.

Rural communities dependent on the Indus waters are direct victims of this pollution causing severe health impacts. The Indus has received notoriety for being the second most polluted river in terms of plastic concentration, which is an overwhelming 40 percent of the total solid waste found in the river and along its banks. 

The World Bank pioneered the study to track the quantity and varieties of plastic waste in Indus to push for prompt action for sustainability of the river and its tributaries. Using a combination of active sampling via litter booms (samples collected using a floating barrier created to stop waste from moving further downstream) and passive sampling (foot survey collection around sampling site along the riverbanks), fieldwork was administered across nine hotspots spanning 2,032 kilometers across Pakistan. The results are astounding.

A helpline officer working from home
Litter boom installed at Hyderabad, Pakistan. Photo: World Bank

More than 90 percent of plastic waste from the sample sites in Upper Indus Basin ends up in the river, wreaking havoc on the aquatic life and surrounding communities.  Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), sanitary products, and multi-layered packaging are the top three types of plastics, accounting for a staggering 75 percent of all plastics in the river. LDPE, the most common SUP which is used to make bottles, grocery bags, and disposable containers, constitutes 43 percent of all plastics found in the river. Only 6 percent of the detected plastic waste is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which incidentally has higher recycling cash value for local waste-pickers.

Moreover, accumulated plastic waste at the barrages redistributes further into adjoining canals. With continued exposure to sunlight and mechanical factors, macroplastics, degrade into tiny microplastics and nanoplastics, resulting in additives and toxins that harm the environment, natural habitats, and upset the food chain. Through leaching, these toxins can potentially contaminate other freshwater reservoirs and groundwater. The diminishing water quality in turn increases the treatment costs for drinking water.

The City Resilience Program incorporates nighttime light data in its City Scan product to highlight where hotspots of economic activity may be developing in flood-prone areas
Passive sampling at Balloki, Punjab. Photo: World Bank

Marine and aquatic life is also not spared. A large part of the plastic waste from the Indus travels downstream through the Kotri Barrage to the Arabian Sea. As a result, out of over 11,977 tonnes per annum of plastic reaching the mouth of the Indus, nearly 10,000 tonnes makes its way to harm coastal and marine life. Frequent dumping of municipal waste into adjacent water bodies (including Malir and Lyari rivers, small nullahs, gullies, and open drains) further exacerbates the situation converting the Arabian Sea into a hotbed for municipal debris.

The microplastics disposed of in water bodies can end up bioaccumulating (pollutants building up in a single organism’s body over time) in any particular species or can cause biomagnification (increase in the concentration of the toxins as they move up the food chain) as they become part of the food chain. Consequent to high levels of such pollutants, significant reductions in fish species’ diversity and abundance are putting stress on the critically endangered Indus River Dolphin, whereas mangroves have nearly vanished in some areas of the lower Indus River in the past.

A polluted riverbank. Photo: World Bank.
A polluted riverbank. Photo: World Bank.

Deputy Commissioner, Kashmore, Sindh, explained the issue, “Waste mostly ends up in water channels due to lack of necessary equipment and machinery to collect solid waste, and rural areas are devoid of any such system of waste management.”

A three-tiered strategy for integrated land-water plastic waste management is the way forward. This includes i) a comprehensive policy with proper planning and legal frameworks to leverage the government’s obligation in resolving overlaps, outlining institutional responsibilities, and improving coordination; ii) adequate waste management systems to establish waste collection, treatment, and disposal mechanisms inclusive of informal sector contribution; and iii) integrated data monitoring and reporting platforms to inform urgent action.

Plastic waste generation is on the rise and continues to be a concern for the Indus River and those dependent on it. Designing the right programs to address the issue calls for a much deeper understanding of the type of plastics involved, and dire commitment from relevant institutions. Conserving the mighty Indus should be an utmost priority for Pakistan.


This report, Plastic Waste: A Journey Down the Indus River Basin in Pakistan, was supported by South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI), a multi-donor trust fund financed by the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway, and administered by the World Bank.  SAWI closed in June 2021. Check out this infographic for more. 


Rahat Jabeen

Senior Environmental Specialist

Mahwish Bukhari

Consultant, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice

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