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Pakistan-US Science and Technology Cooperation Program
Phase 7 (2017 Deadline)

Endocrine disrupting chemicals in Kabul and Swat rivers and their impact on fish populations and rural community livelihoods
US Partner: Linda Lee, Purdue University
Pakistan Partner: Bushra Khan, University of Peshawar
Project summary
The presence of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) in surface waters from industrial and municipal wastewater discharge has emerged as a serious issue globally. EDCs interfere with hormone systems in humans and animals, causing serious health and environmental problems. This project will evaluate the EDC types and concentrations in the Kabul and Swat Rivers; identify factors impacting EDC loads in this watershed; evaluate aquatic ecosystem health; assess local communities’ perceptions of water quality and river ecosystem health, their relationships to their lives and livelihoods, and their willingness to engage in conservation practices; and provide recommendations to reduce the impact of EDCs on river health for use by policymakers, researchers and regulatory agencies.

Progress Reports

2018: Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, which is likely to worsen due to high population growth. River Kabul and its tributaries including River Swat are major freshwater sources in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province of Pakistan that serve the water needs of most of the Northern mountain and Northwestern plain areas of the province. These rivers also serve as a rich source of various fish species, which local populations depend on for their livelihood as well as for the tourism industry. Untreated effluent discharges of more than 100 small and large-scale industrial units enter the Kabul and Swat rivers directly or indirectly. For more than a decade, there have been complaints about the declining water quality of these rivers and reduced crop production. There has also been a substantial decline in fish numbers as well as reports of mysterious fish kills, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of rural communities.

The presence of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) in surface waters from discharges from industrial and municipal wastewater has emerged as a serious issue globally. These chemicals interfere with the hormone system in humans and animals. Exposure to these chemicals even at low concentrations has been linked to numerous human health and ecosystem health problems including birth defects and other various developmental disorders. A United Nations report declared such compounds to be a ‘global threat’ to wildlife and humans, particularly infants and children. Nearly 1300 chemicals are known or suspected to be EDCs.

To our knowledge, ours is the first study targeted at determining the levels of EDCs in surface waters of Pakistan, assessing their relationship with native fish biodiversity and the subsequent impact on the socioeconomic conditions of rural populations. This project is highly collaborative with each project aim involving collaboration and mentoring between the US and Pakistani teams including PIs, co-PIs, and four Pakistani and three USA graduate student research scholars. Although our work focuses mostly on the Swat and Kabul Rivers in the KP province, results from this study will be helpful in conducting other such studies on other Pakistani Rivers in the Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. The ultimate long-term goal of this study is to aid in the design of a National River cleaning strategy for Pakistan and to identify future research priorities.
Our activities during our first project year focused on accomplishments under 1-3 and 5 of our 6 following project objectives:

1) Evaluate the EDC types and concentrations in the Kabul and Swat Rivers
2) Identify factors impacting EDC loads in this watershed
3) Evaluate aquatic ecosystem health with a focus on fish diversity and selected reproductive endpoints
4) Correlate fish diversity and health with contaminant concentrations
5) Assess local communities’ perceptions of water quality and river ecosystem health, their relationships to their lives and livelihoods, and their willing to engage in conservation practices, and
6) Provide recommendations to reduce the impact of EDCs on river health for use by policy makers, researchers and regulatory agencies

In evaluating our progress, we have met and exceeded our proposed Year 1 Milestones for these objectives, which were facilitated by having an extremely collaborative research team and a revision on the method used to sample the river water. We collaboratively prepared maps of the area around the Swat and Kabul rivers annotated with discharges and activities in the region that affect water quality and quantity. Pakistan colleagues surveyed the rivers to facilitate identifying key sources of discharge points and input prior to the USA team visit. Pakistan colleagues also helped the teams access other types of data such as river discharge data, land use data and soil maps, which are needed for use in an assessment tool to quantify the impact of land management practices in large complex watersheds.

In January 2018, the Pakistan team sampled river samples from the Swat River (two sites) and the Kabul river (four sites), which were processed and sent to Purdue for analysis to begin to identify the type of EDCs present in the rivers. Several pharmaceuticals and compounds released from personal care products along with a few hormones and pesticides were found. This was followed up with more extensive sampling of both rivers (10 samples from Swat River and nine from Kabul River) by the USA and Pakistani team together in June 2018 using a solar-powered battery-operated metering pump on-site that allowed the capture of chemicals from a large volume of water within one hour. At each sampling point, general and specific environmental conditions as well as parameters regarding the discharge of rivers were also measured. During the sampling process, training of Pakistani students and faculty on sampling procedures and collection of ancillary data occurred. Samples are currently being analyzed at Purdue University.

During the USA’s June 2018 trip to Pakistan, seven sites from the Swat and Kabul Rivers were sampled for fish health. From each site, we processed ~30 individual fish. For the Swat River, Swati was the fish selected, as it is common in this area and an important fish for human consumption. For the Kabul River, common carp was sampled, as Swati fish are not present in this area. Carp are also an important fish for locals and are abundant and easy to capture. Dr. Sepúlveda trained PhD student Saba Shoukat, Peshawar University, on how to assess fish health, including how to bleed, necropsy, age and collect tissues for different analyses. Several different health measurements were made on approximately 200 fish during the USA team’s trip.

The first phase of assessing local communities’ perceptions of water quality and river ecosystem health, their relationships to their livelihoods and their willingness to engage in conservation practices to improve the situation was completed. This consisted of 13 interviews on Swat river and 12 interviews on Kabul river with informal and formal community leaders, farmers, and fishermen. The interview effort was led by a Purdue PhD student and supported by three University of Peshawar graduate students. Translations of the first few recorded interviews began while still in Pakistan. While in the field, we also observed relevant sites along the rivers including fisheries businesses, hydropower and industrial development areas, and waste dumping sites.

Also, while in Pakistan, the USA team was able to have numerous discussions, visit other Pakistan faculty outside the project team, and enjoy the culture unique to the area. Prior to the USA team trip, the Pakistan team put on a two-day workshop on “Status of River Swat water quality and threats to native fish species” in March 2018, which helped plan and facilitate the USA team’s visit. The workshop was attended by students, technicians, faculty members, and members of the business community, political leadership, and local administration with participants from Pakistan, Canada, and the USA. The workshop was organized in collaboration with the following organizations: Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, Canadian High Commission, World Community Services, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Peshawar, and University of Agriculture Peshawar. In addition to the US team visit to Pakistan in June 2018, the Pakistan principle investigator (PI) spent a month in July-August 2017 at Purdue University with the USA PI.