THARPARKAR is not like the Sahara Desert. In the valleys between its sand dunes there are millions of trees (that nature has created and sustained over centuries) and rain-fed agriculture. After the rains its rangeland, which is known locally as gowcher, supports a variety of grasses on which its 6.3 million animals graze.
The area of the Tharparkar District is 19,000 square kilometres of which 9,000 has been marked for the coal project. Under the project, different companies will extract coal and turn it into energy. At present the work of Engro is the most advanced.
Land for the project and its various components has to be acquired under the Land Acquisition Act for which only formal land owners can receive compensation and not haris and landless labour. The application of the Land Acquisition Act means that the land owners and local communities lose all future claims to the land.
The extraction of coal is through ‘pit mining’. Pits of over one square kilometre are being excavated to a depth of 120 metres, for that is where the coal lies. The excavated earth is being converted into mounds that can be higher than 40m.
To access the coal, water from the aquifers has to be drained out.
During excavation three water aquifers are encountered. One is the rainwater aquifer at a depth of around 50m, which is in most cases potable. Much of the population of Thar has access to it through family or communal dug wells. The second aquifer is saline and is encountered at a depth of around 120m. The third aquifer is the deep aquifer which has been created over millions of years and is normally conserved as an asset.
To access the coal, water from these aquifers has to be drained out. At present, 27 wells are operative, 24 hours of the day, to pump out 30 to 35 million cubic metres of water of the Engro site. Since the water of the potable and saline aquifers is mixed, it is no longer suitable for drinking or agriculture. As a cure, the project proposes the introduction of crops that can be cultivated using saline water. However, this can only benefit the displaced population and its animals if a major land reform granting them land ownership is implemented. Managing this would take decades, and also there is no political will nor wish for it.
Space for the disposal of the pumped water has also to be found. At present, the water from the Engro site alone is being drained to a 1,500-acre depression near the village of Gorono, whose residents have been protesting for the last many months against their land being used as storage for what they consider to be poisoned and, as such, unsafe and unusable water.
It is generally agreed that the pit mining process will create air pollution, destroy all trees in the area of the coal project and will also reduce an already overgrazed gowcher substantially. To counter this, the project has an ambitious tree plantation programme. However, to rejuvenate so thoroughly a devastated region and make it available for productive purposes is next to impossible. In the case of the US and China, only 10 to 12 per cent of trees planted under their coal projects have survived and nine million hectares of land have been turned into unproductive deserts.
The loss of potable water means that the population will have to be dependent on other sources. The project proposes that osmosis plants be set up to provide water to a thirsty human and animal population. In February this year, there were over 800 reverse osmosis (RO) plants in Thar of which only around 140 were in working condition. A 10 cubic metre plant maintenance and operation costs about Rs4m per year. Given the subsidies involved, this proposal will not be sustainable.
Engro has helped in creating the Thar Development Foundation which is going to provide schools, healthcare and skills for the population of Thar. This is welcome. However, this cannot overcome the environmental and socioeconomic repercussions that are in the process of taking place in Thar, where a rapidly increasing and externally controlled real estate and services sector is leading to massive unplanned urbanisation whose main victims are the landless communities, flora and fauna.
What Thar needs today is an integrated vision for the future of both its 9,000 sq km of the coal mines and of the remaining 10,000 sq km. A beginning can be made by working on a mitigation plan that deals with the larger socioeconomic- and environment-related issues. However, such a plan can only be useful if respect and affection for the Thari population and its culture and history are an integral part of it, and if it does not seek to gloss over the negative aspects of the coal project or seek to justify them.
The writer is an architect.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2017