This used to be my playgroundLahore, Pakistan: Rabia's parents were delighted when she was born thirteen years ago - a normal robust 8-pound child born in the small village of Chah Kallan Wallah, near Manga Mandi and about 40 km from Lahore, Pakistan. She was brought up like any normal child in a farmer's family, helping her mother with domestic chores and playing with her friends in the lush green fields.
Unfortunately Rabia is now among dozens of children suffering from a crippling bone deforming disease that has swept across her village. But she is suffering even more than the others as she is also virtually blind and has stomach ailments.
At first the villagers thought that this was the work of some supernatural force or bad spirits. However they grew more alarmed, and began to look for other explanations when they saw similar symptoms appearing in other children in the village.
Although they noticed that the taste of water from hand pumps installed in their compounds had gradually changed, they did not have a basic health unit or a government dispensary where they could seek advice.
But they guessed that their health problems were linked to the deterioration in the quality of groundwater that was their only source of drinking water. Women and children started walking a couple of kilometers, crossing a busy main road, to fetch water from a deep well turbine installed in an orchard.
The residents still don't have proof about what caused pollution of their water, but point their fingers to a couple of industrial units established in the vicinity of their village during the last decade.
Agricultural land in the Manga area was developed into an industrial estate in 1995 due to its close proximity to Lahore. In response to the incentives and subsidies offered by the government, many industrial units were established.
Accommodating bureaucrats and lax environmental regulations meant that almost all the industrial plants were established without provision for any waste minimization or management facilities.
With the compliance of certain government departments, they started dumping waste in the most convenient manner; either putting it into a nearby water body or dumping it in large pits dug for this purpose within their boundary walls. Toxic chemicals from the waste percolated through the soil and contaminated the groundwater.
There are different theories about exactly how the water is polluted. One group believes that water is contaminated by highly acidic effluent discharges from the nearby wire factory. They claim that these acids have caused chemical reactions in the soil, converting initially dormant fluoride into an active and harmful state.
However, other people put forward the view that the natural fluoride content of the soil in the area has, over time, become harmful. They make no links between industrial discharge and the Manga Mandi catastrophe.
Yet another group says that the children are being crippled by malnutrition, as the presence of bone deformity is not observed in the relatively better off families in the area.
Until a thorough investigation has been completed and the results are made public, the industries remain subject to the criminal charge of crippling children, contaminating water, and causing distress to the residents of Manga villages.
Sadly the story of Rabia and many other children in the villages of Manga Mandi is tragic, but not unique. Other Manga Mandis exist in the outskirts of all major cities, where children are still being given water unfit for drinking. Like the villagers of Kallan Walla, their parents do not know who to blame, where to go, or what to do.
Regretfully, corrective surgery has been performed on only a few children from Manga Mandi, while hundreds of others await rescue from their limping gaits. Those who are fortunate enough to have the operation still have to fight a new battle with pain and medication.
The children's deformed bones are evidence of a futile and unrestrained attack on nature, and their playgrounds are now only a sad reminder of the blighted futures of the happy children who used to play in them. Rabia and her playmates are the innocent victims of the pursuit of economic gain, regardless of the cost to the environment and to people.
Their tragedy highlights the current imbalance between economic development and environmental sustainability. Economic growth will not be sustainable if the trend towards environmental degradation continues, and if the wealth earned is spent in providing crutches for limping children, performing their surgery and dragging industrialists to court.
Blaming industry will not relieve the hapless villagers of their pain or help Rabia and her playmates. However, had a comprehensive Environmental Examination or Environmental Impact Assessment been conducted, and proper systems of waste management adopted, the money now being spent on surgery and medicines would have brought development and prosperity to the villages.
We know that unplanned and uncontrolled economic development will not provide us with a sustainable future, so we have two choices. We can ignore the lessons of Manga Mandi, and leave it as a reminder to the next generation of our thoughtless and greedy behaviour towards them and their planet.
Or we can learn from the experience and take action to make sure that this type of situation never happens again. Leaving a living planet to the next generation is not just doing them a favour, it is their right to grow up unharmed by our activities, and to live in a healthy environment.
*Hammad Naqi Khan is Director, Environmental Pollution Unit, WWF-Pakistan.