Life in Karachi has been tough lately.
The monsoon rains washed garbage and sewage onto the streets of Pakistan's largest city.
There was a late summer plague of flies and mosquitoes. "They're so scary, they're hounding people," Dr. Seemin Jamali of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center told the New York Times in August.
And then came reports of hazardous medical waste – syringes and blood vials – washed up on Sea View Beach, also known as Clifton Beach.
Shaniera Akram, the Australian-born wife of famed Pakistani cricketer Wasim Akram, took to Twitter to report seeing "4 dozen open syringes" during a walk on the beach.
There is kilometres of medical waste including hundreds of open needle syringes amongst other things, that has come in from the ocean. Clifton beach, at this moment, is extremely dangerous and needs to be shut down #CliftonBeach #MedicalWaste #BeachShutDown #ImSoSorryKarachi pic.twitter.com/VEDZUdauNe— Shaniera Akram (@iamShaniera) September 3, 2019
To the authorities of Karachi,if you or your child stood on this this morning what would you do?? Now I want you to treat the people of Karachi exactly like your family & do the right thing and issue a Public Service Warning across all media now until we know the beach is safe! pic.twitter.com/4AIVlaMD4x— Shaniera Akram (@iamShaniera) September 5, 2019
Her tweets started a public debate – and brought action as well.
After the tweets were posted, Murtaza Wahab, the Sindh Chief Minister's adviser on environment, at first characterized her tweet as "negative." But any initial tensions soon eased: "I visited the beach to oversee the clean-up, and I also thanked Shaniera for pointing this out," he told NPR. "It's true that medical waste was being seen. There were a couple of dozen syringes and seven to eight vials."
Visited Clifton beach earlier today to oversee the cleanup of the beach with the assistance of Secretary Environment, DC South & Cantonment Board. The area is 80% clear now. Thank u @iamShaniera for highlighting the issue & CBC staff for cleaning it up pic.twitter.com/tb2qU2Ifdm— SenatorMurtaza Wahab (@murtazawahab1) September 3, 2019
But he does think Akram went too far in describing the problem: "Saying that medical waste was spread over kilometers was incorrect. It was at one portion of the beach, not the entire beach. Saying that medical waste was spread over kilometers could create panic among people."
On September 3, the Sindh Police, the law enforcement agency in Karachi, reported that it "cordoned off the affected area." And on September 5 the government appointed a commissioner to investigate, calling for a report within seven days.
Sindh Govt has appointed Salahuddin Ahmed, Deputy Commissioner South to investigate about the illegal disposal of medical waste found at Clifton Beach, Karachi & submit a report within 7 days pic.twitter.com/ordC9StMLR— SenatorMurtaza Wahab (@murtazawahab1) September 5, 2019
Dr. Jehanzeb Mughal, a surgeon who runs a clinic in Karachi, has theories about what might have happened – and to him it wasn't a matter of quantity but rather figuring out the back story: "The question is, how did it get there?"
His theory is that "someone has all the plastic stuff in his clinical waste ready to be shipped off to some buyer, who will then make a plastic product out of it." Along the way, he suggests, "there wasn't a proper disposal system" for hazardous waste, "so it got picked up and obviously got dumped into the sea and then ended up on the shore" when the tide came in.
Akram, who says she's walked that beach every day for four years and never seen syringes before, is happy with the outcome. She told NPR: "Karachi has experienced a major wake-up call this week. The people of Karachi have had enough, and that is why the reaction was so good – a full investigation into dumping and disposal of medical waste is underway."
Her fans on Twitter agree:
We need Shaniera Akram to start visiting the other areas of Karachi as well and start tweeting. Seems to be the only thing that makes authorities act. https://t.co/7WH7NCTUxM— Nida Kirmani (@nidkirm) September 4, 2019
And one tweet urges her to enter the political arena:
Benazir Samad is a journalist from Pakistan currently in the U.S. as part of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, a Fulbright program that is sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She tweets @benazirmirsamad.