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DAWN - Editorial; July 24, 2006

Published Jul 24, 2006 12:00am

If a disaster is to be averted

AIR pollution in Karachi is fast approaching calamitous levels. Conducted by Suparco for the city government, a six-month study on the environmental impact of vehicular traffic reveals a shocking picture of the health hazards faced by the residents of Karachi. In a damning indictment, the study warns that “a mere one microgram per cubic metre” increase in the existing concentration of air pollutants “is likely to be catastrophic”. Tests on volunteers showed that they suffered from low blood haemoglobin counts, possibly the result of high concentrations of carbon monoxide in ambient (outdoor) air. Levels of carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and suspended particulate matter (SPM) are also well in excess of internationally accepted limits. The same is true of noise levels at busy traffic intersections. Short-term exposure to these pollutants may lead to ailments of the ear, nose and throat, upper respiratory infections, headaches, nausea, allergies, hearing impairment, heightened irritability and sudden rage. These are all symptoms that residents of Karachi have either suffered themselves or can recognise in others. Long-term effects include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, brain and nerve damage, and impaired liver and kidney function. The city’s health, in short, hangs precariously in the balance.

With earlier studies pointing to a grim scenario in some other major cities as well, it is clear that the country now stands at an environmental crossroads: the choice between collective well-being and self-inflicted disaster can no longer be delayed. The argument that environmental concerns are a western concept is inherently flawed. If anything, it is the developing countries that can least afford any further damage to their environment. Human misery aside, environmental damage comes at a significant economic cost in terms of health-related expenditure and reduced productivity in factories, offices and schools because of long spells of illnesses. It increases the burden on a fragile healthcare system that is already struggling to keep pace with a burgeoning population. Poor environmental awareness and failure to tackle root causes also mean that precious resources are consumed by damage control in the wake of natural disasters such as landslides and floods, which are caused in part by deforestation.

It is not too late, however, to reverse the process. Nor is there a need to look far for inspiration, at least in the context of the battle against air pollution. Across the border, New Delhi presents a remarkable success story that is worthy of emulation. Less than 10 years ago, the Indian capital was rated as one of the most polluted cities in the world. All that began to change when the country’s supreme court ruled that public transport vehicles must switch over to compressed natural gas (CNG) and ordered the closure of smoke-belching factories. With the right political will, such measures are not difficult to replicate here. Karachi has already made moves towards CNG conversion and the abolition of two-stroke rickshaws. It is now imperative that these initiatives are followed through to their logical conclusion and adopted by other towns and cities as well. The development of a metropolitan mass transit system also calls for urgent attention. Tighter fuel quality and emission controls should become a priority, coupled with a crackdown on noise-making and smoke-emitting vehicles. Industries guilty of air, soil and water pollution ought to be taken to task, particularly chemical and fertiliser factories, tanneries and textile units. A balance must be found between development and conservation.

Lahore street crime

THE crime situation in the Punjab capital remains precarious, with the provincial government rightly worried about the image of Lahore as a business/tourist-friendly city. Cellular phone and purse snatchings at gunpoint have become quite common; dacoits strike with impunity a dozen times a day on average; vehicle theft, too, continues despite the many police pickets that have been set up recently along all major thoroughfares and on the roads leading out of the city. A recent measure to curb street crime has been the introduction of policing on motorcycles. The Muhafiz squad, as it is called, is supposedly better trained to combat street crime, but it, too, has failed to bring down the incidence of looting and theft. Instead, complaints abound as to the highhanded bike-riding police holding up largely law-abiding youngsters for extortion. The chief minister has invited suggestions from the general public so as to better the working of the police and that of the citizens-police liaison committees.

A mounting sense of cynicism, however, prevails among the residents of Lahore, with many feeling that they have been left to fend for themselves, as reports of daytime robberies and armed hold-ups keep appearing in the press day after day. The police refuse to register FIRs for most incidents of street crime, dismissing purse and phone snatchings at gunpoint as ‘petty’ crime, for instance. A measure of the prevailing sense of insecurity came recently when a number of the city’s town nazims requested the government to provide them with police security squads for them to go about their daily business. From this, one can well imagine the sense of insecurity felt by ordinary citizens under the circumstances. We have time and again argued in this space for the setting up of a better trained, educated and a more humane metropolitan police force for the big cities, as is the practice in many other countries. Only a dedicated and specialised urban police force can help get a grip on the spiralling crime rates, particularly in cities like Lahore and Karachi which have a very high rate of street crime.

Rehabilitating quake victims

ALTHOUGH Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz believes that the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority has made considerable progress, reports suggest otherwise. Erra claims that it has distributed Rs45 billion to earthquake victims but scores of people complain of not having received even the first instalment of payment. The reconstruction process, which began in April, aimed at completing 600,000 houses before the onset of winter, but there was no word on progress in this regard at the fifth Erra meeting in Islamabad on Friday, other than claiming that rebuilding may take three to five years to complete. How are the victims to rebuild their lives in the meantime? The closure of relief camps at the end of March was strongly criticised by civic groups because people were forced to return to their villages whose infrastructures had virtually been destroyed. How they were expected to cope in places where there are no roads, no sanitation, no electricity, no clean water, not to mention schools, hospitals and means to livelihood is anyone’s guess. Muzzafarabad in particular has seen many protesters take to the streets against what they say is Erra’s discrimination in payment of compensation. Such problems need to be constantly monitored to alleviate peoples’ suffering and ensure quick attention to their grievances.

The reconstruction process itself has come under fire for being dependent on foreign, unworkable strategies. It is not too late to formulate indigenous strategies that would involve using local material and workmanship to build quake-proof houses as it would reduce the cost of construction and generate local employment. Rehabilitating victims must indeed be the government’s top priority. Farmers have been badly affected and have not been able to harvest anything this year because they do not have access to irrigation systems for their lands. All these issues need to be addressed in a transparent manner so as to avoid prolonged human suffering.

Power vision for Pakistan

By Dr Javaid Laghari

WATER and power are no more synonymous. However, Wapda makes us believe that water and power are inseparable and that the present energy crisis in the country is because we have failed to build large dams. Wapda and the proponents of big dams use this argument in favour of building Kalabagh and other large dams.

We need to look at the larger picture and think out of the box. Pakistan produces about 19,500 MW of electric power; Wapda provides about 11,363 MW, or 58 per cent of this. The remaining power is supplied by the KESC, nuclear and IPPs. There is currently loadshedding of up to 700 MW a day because of shortage and poor transmission capabilities. Electricity demand is expected to grow by eight per cent a year during the period 2005 — 2015, requiring an annual installation capacity of about 2000 MW for the next 10 years.

The worldwide electricity production, as per the World Bank, is as follows: coal: 40 per cent; gas 19 per cent; nuclear 16 per cent; hydro 16 per cent; oil seven per cent. Pakistan’s power production is gas 48 per cent; hydro 33 per cent; oil 16 per cent; nuclear two per cent, and coal 0.2 per cent.

There has been a global trend to shift away from oil because of its rising price expected to reach $100 a barrel by the end of this year depending on the international geopolitical situation. Despite the lowest cost of hydroelectric power, there have been environmental, ecological and geopolitical concerns over the building of large dams.

The supply of natural gas in Pakistan has been depleting over the years, and the country is now looking at the option of importing gas from Qatar and Central Asia. This leaves the possibility of exploring nuclear, coal and other alternative energy sources.

Nuclear energy and coal form the lowest source of power production in Pakistan. On the other hand, the world average for nuclear energy is 16 per cent and for coal 40 per cent.

Let us first consider these two potential sources of electric power production for Pakistan. The US obtains 20 per cent of its electric power from nuclear energy with 104 reactors; France 78 per cent with 59 reactors, Japan 24 per cent with 54 reactors, the UK 23 per cent with 31 reactors, and so on. Even India has signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States to develop its nuclear capability for power generation and economic development. It has currently six reactors in operation with a capacity of 3750 MW, and another six with a capacity of 3,340 MW are under construction and should be completed by 2007.

The new agreement will further boost the nuclear power generating capacity of India. Today, nuclear power plants have average capacities of 600 — 1,000 MW.

Pakistan only produces two per cent of its power through two reactors (Karachi and Chashma at 137 MW and 300 MW respectively). Pakistan is a nuclear technologically advanced country with capabilities to produce fuel, yet falls behind most other countries, including India, in terms of nuclear power production.

Regarding coal power generation, the US produces 51 per cent of its power using coal, Poland 96 per cent, South Africa 94 per cent, India 68 per cent, Australia 77 per cent, China 79 per cent, Israel 77 per cent, UK 35 per cent, Japan 28 per cent, while Pakistan produces only 0.2 per cent of its power through coal.

Pakistan has the world’s seventh largest reserves of coal, after the recent discoveries in Thar. The total coal reserve in Pakistan is about 175 billion tons.

The current coal production is only 3.5 million tons per year, which is mostly used for the brick and cement industry. Coal has typical problems, such as a high sulphur content (it produces sulphur dioxide, the source of acid rain), mineral matter content (leading to ash and pollution problems), carbon dioxide emission (contributing to global warming) and high moisture content.

However, technologies are available to minimise all of these. Conversion technologies are currently under development to convert coal into environmentally-friendly methanol and hydrogen gas to be used as clean fuel. The US is working on a major initiative called future gen to produce “zero emission” power plants of the future.

There is large-scale application of coal for power generation around the world. The largest coal-fired plant in the world today is at Nanticoke, Canada, with a capacity of 3900 MW. In the US, which is the largest consumer of coal-generated power the power plant at Coal Creek has a capacity of 1,100 MW. Coal-fired power plants of 500 MW are the norm today and many are currently under construction around the world. In Pakistan, there are plans to build only two 300 MW coal-fired plants at Thar.

In addition to the option of using nuclear plants and coal for power production, alternative energy sources are also available, including wind and solar. Wind energy is the fastest growing energy source in the world. It grew at an astonishing 43 per cent in the last one year alone. Total installed capacity worldwide is 60,000 MW. Technologies have greatly improved in the last two decades, making wind energy very feasible as compared to other sources of power. In the 1980s, the cost of wind energy production was 40 c/kwh; today it is only four c/kwh (Rs 2.40 per unit as compared to Rs. 4.00 for fossil fuel) and therefore it is growing very rapidly. Ecological issues continue to be addressed for large wind farms.

The world’s two largest growing economies — China and India — are capitalising on wind capability. By 2010, China will set up plants of over 5,000 MW of wind power. India last year alone set up 1,430 MW of wind power plants and is expected to add another 5,000 MW by 2012. The world’s largest producers of wind energy today are Germany at 18,440 MW (equal to Pakistan’s total power output), Spain 10,000 MW, the US 9,150 MW and India 4,430 MW (at number four). The Indian government is envisaging a capacity addition of 5,000 MW of wind power by 2012 by extending major financial incentives to the wind energy sector.

Denmark is obtaining 15 per cent of its electric power needs from windmills and it is expected to grow to 50 per cent by 2012; Britain, France, Ireland and Canada are countries which are rapidly expanding their wind energy potential. Large-scale wind farms today include a 300 MW plant in Oregon-Washington, while an under-construction 520 MW capacity in Ireland will be the world’s largest. China has announced that it plans to build a 1000 MW wind farm in Hebi by 2012.

Smaller windmills are also very feasible for remote villages, and in desert, mountainous and coastal regions, cutting down on the cost of power transmission and distribution networks. In remote farmlands, they have been successfully used for decades in the United States and Europe.

In Pakistan, smaller windmills are now visible, such as the ones at Gharo, where SZABIST set up an experimental research station many years ago. The Sindh government has recently announced plans to build a 50 MW wind farm in the vicinity in the coastal region at Gharo.

Solar power (photovoltaic or thermal) is another alternative energy source option that is generally considered feasible for tropical and equatorial countries. Even though the accepted standard is 1,000 W/m2 of peak power at sea level, an average solar panel (or photovoltaic — PV — panel), delivers an average of only 19-56W/m2. Solar plants are generally used in cases where smaller amounts of power are required at remote locations. PV is also the most expensive of all options making it less attractive.

However, costs have halved in the last five years because of better production technology and growing demand. A typical solar power plant today will pay for itself in five to 10 years.

Japan is the leader in solar PV power plants with over 1,200 MW of installed capacity, followed by Germany (794 MW), the US (365 MW) and India (86 MW). Typical solar (PV) power generating stations are in the 300 — 600 KW capacity. The world’s largest PV solar power plants are in Germany and Portugal with a capacity of 10 MW and spread over 62 acres. In 2005, Israel announced the building of a 100 MW solar power plant.

Thermal-based solar power plants using reflectors are also in use today, the largest of these in California with a capacity of 350 MW. These are, however, not very popular, like other types of solar power options.

It is, therefore, very clear from the above that Pakistan needs to aggressively pursue ways to increase its power-generating capacity. The best options available today are nuclear and coal, followed by wind and solar. Hydroelectricity can only be pursued after all environmental, ecological and geopolitical issues are settled with a consensus among all four provinces.

Pakistan needs to set up at least a dozen nuclear power plants, large coal fired plants, wind farms and solar plants in the next 10 years to generate about 20,000 MW of electricity. We need to invest at least a billion dollars a year in developing the infrastructure and establishing power plants using nuclear, coal, wind and solar technology. We need to cut back on non-development expenditures by at least one billion dollars a year to invest in energy needs.

Industrialisation around the world has taken place because of the abundance of reliable and cheap electrical power (infrastructure, human resource and government incentives follow). Reliable and cheap availability of electric power in Pakistan will lead to large-scale investment in industry, creation of jobs, elimination of unemployment and poverty, greater manufacturing and exports, trade surplus and the reduction of deficits. It will lead to a prosperous Pakistan.

The writer, a senator, is a member of Senate Standing Committee on Water and Power.