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LIFE UNDER THE SHADOW OF A COAL-FIRED POWER PLANT

The Sahiwal Coal Power Project transformed the agricultural heartland of Punjab, and the lives of those living around it
Updated Dec 22, 2019 08:04am

During the groundbreaking of the Sahiwal Coal Power Project in 2014, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told locals they were being “rewarded for standing by the PML-N.” Five years later, the farmers of the region tell a different story. As the world reconsiders its dependence on environmentally hazardous coal-fired power will Pakistan follow suit?

Composed and animated by Leea Contractor
Composed and animated by Leea Contractor

Not too long ago, the residents of Qadirabad, a small town in Sahiwal, lived in blissful obscurity. Muhammad Siddique owned 148 kanals (over 75,000 square metres) of agricultural land in the area and enjoyed a peaceful life away from the perils of industrialisation. All this changed in 2014, when then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the Sahiwal Coal Power Project.

Today Siddique leads a very different life. He has great difficulty in walking and struggles with performing everyday tasks. In 2017, the 43-year-old learnt that his liver has been damaged and his spleen has enlarged. “The doctor informed me that this was caused by drinking polluted water,” he tells Eos. Siddique blames the coal power plant for contaminating the groundwater resources of his village. He has now stopped drinking tap water and instead gets drinking water from the water supply scheme in Qadirabad.

“I was advised complete [bed] rest along with heavy medication for six months,” he says. “I also had difficulty in breathing and constant headache during this time.”

Siddique says polluted water has affected other villagers as well. His brother Umer Hayat’s liver was also severely damaged and the doctors gave him the same reason for his illness — consuming polluted groundwater. Doctors have advised him to take medication for the rest of his life.

Villagers say the power plant has impacted not only their health, but uprooted the life they once knew. They remember the time when they were surrounded by green fields as far as the eye could see. They remember what it felt like to breathe fresh air. And they remember the sense of ownership they felt towards their land. For residents like Siddique this loss of ownership was literal. One day, government officials approached him with an offer to acquire his agricultural land to build the power plant. Soon he learnt that refusing this offer was not an option.

Muhammad Siddique (right) says drinking polluted water has impacted his health | Photos by the writer
Muhammad Siddique (right) says drinking polluted water has impacted his health | Photos by the writer

The coal power plant stands in the middle of Sahiwal's agricultural land
The coal power plant stands in the middle of Sahiwal's agricultural land

LOST LAND

Siddique was livid when government officers approached him to buy his land. “It was our bread and butter. Where would we go after selling our land?” he asks.

Siddique did not think he would ever consider the offer. He claims he tore the property documents in front of the officials. He also started collecting copies of other villagers’ national identity cards and worked towards stopping the transfer of land for the construction of the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant. His efforts were quickly found out. Siddique claims a First Information Report (FIR) with terrorism clauses was moved against him as a scare tactic. He also says he was approached by a high-ranking district government officer for “mediation.”

Siddique says the officer made it clear to him that the government will acquire the land “no matter what.” The stakes, after all, were very high with this project. Sahiwal had been carefully selected as the home for the coal-fired plant after many other sites including Sheikhupura, Muzaffargarh, Bhikki, Jhang and Rahim Yar Khan had been considered.

Sahiwal had been given priority due to the presence of a transmission line, railway track and irrigation system nearby. The 1,320 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant would eventually cost 1.8 billon US dollars. Today, the project stands tall with two 660 MW plants and is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The government buys electricity from the power plant at 8.3601 US cents/kilowatt hour and touts the project as a major success.

Aerial view of Sahiwal before the construction of the power plant
Aerial view of Sahiwal before the construction of the power plant

Aerial view of Sahiwal in February 2019
Aerial view of Sahiwal in February 2019

Officers allegedly made the magnitude of the project clear to Siddique years ago. The farm owner felt dwarfed in comparison. Lacking the resources or time to fight for his legitimate rights, he eventually gave in.

He still felt that being the “main affectees”, the villagers of Qadirabad were in a position to bargain. “We demanded access to clean drinking water, free electricity, a small hospital and Sui gas and a functioning sewerage system,” he says. Siddique claims the officers assured the villagers that these demands would be met. But years later, none of the facilities have been provided to them.

It is difficult to cross-check these details with the police. Many of the officers who the villagers speak of no longer work in the region. But Zeeshan Javed, deputy commissioner Sahiwal, tells Eos, “The district administration refuted the allegation regarding adoptive coercive measures to acquire land.” In fact, he says, “generous” compensations were paid to all landholders. “Landholders were also given enough time to harvest,” he says.

Zaman Rasheed Wattu, who is the station house officer of the Noor Shah Police Station, located at about a 26-minute drive from the power plant, cautions that the villagers’ claims may be exaggerated. “This is not possible as the people having land rights can go to courts and get a stay order,” he says.

Sahiwal had been given priority due to the presence of a transmission line, railway track and irrigation system nearby. The 1,320 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant would eventually cost 1.8 billon US dollars. Today, the project stands tall with two 660 MW plants and is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

Wattu says, however, that he was posted to Noor Shah just this year and does not have complete details regarding the matter. The villagers, on the other hand, claim to remember the details vividly.

Rana Ali Hassan is another villager from Chak 76/5R who says his luck ran out in 2014 when police marked his land with red flags, warning that no one should enter it. The police specified the area to mark down the boundaries of the coal-fired power plant in Qadirabad. However, Hassan, along with his fellow villagers, mustered the strength to remove those flags.

They thought the police would not resist their move. They were wrong.

“The same night, at around 11pm, a heavy contingent of police raided our village and unlawfully entered the homes of some people,” he claims. “The police misbehaved with those who resisted.”

“We didn’t want to give away our ancestral land but we had no other option.” Hassan adds, “We had [42 acres]… which we had to sell at the rate of 2,070,000 rupees per acre.” The farmers allege they weren’t even given time to wait for the harvesting season to end. “I had to harvest the pre-mature crop,” complains Hassan.

UNHEALTHY DEVELOPMENTS

A medical camp was set up in the region in October this year. The doctors at the camp report a significant increase in people suffering from breathing problems.

Like Siddique and Hayat, Israr Khan, from Chak 76/5R, says the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant has been very detrimental for villagers’ health. “My mother is asthmatic now due to increasing air pollution caused by the plant,” says Israr Khan, whose house is located a few metres away from the power plant.

Dr Abdul Rauf, a senior doctor working in Lahore, confirms that coal-fired power plants can lead to lung diseases, especially asthma, pneumonitis (inflammation of lung tissue) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “The poiso­nous fumes and particulate matter emitted from a coal power plant can cause different skin diseases, photosensitivity and allergic reaction to the face,” he adds.

Communities living near the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant should be relocated, he believes. “Higher pollution levels will reduce the amount of oxygen in the local environment and reduce oxygen supply to the brain,” he says. “It’s actually slow poisoning.”

The adviser to the prime minister on climate change, Malik Amin Aslam, terms the construction of the Sahiwal coal-fired power in the agricultural heartland of Punjab as “criminal neglect.”

“This not only affects the agricultural lands around the project,” he says, “but also creates issues of long-distance transport of coal [from Karachi to Sahiwal].”

“The Environment Protection Department [EPD] Punjab is responsible for and mandated to monitor the situation, and ensure that the project not only abides strictly with its Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] but also with the National Environmental Quality Standards [NEQS] for all emissions and effluents,” adds the minister.

But Naseem-ur-Rehman, director EIA, maintains that air pollution caused by the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant is “well within the limits.” While commenting upon the efficiency of the power plant, he says, “The Sahiwal Coal Power Project ... uses the highly efficient electrostatic precipitator to control emissions. EPD Punjab is ensuring that all the parameters are adhered. We never found emissions to be increasing,” adds Rehman.

WATER WOES

Residents of Qadirabad say the groundwater table has decreased by up to 15 feet over the last three to four years. “This could be the result of over-pumping of groundwater for utilisation by the coal power [plant],” says Dr Nabeel Khan Niazi, a research scientist at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. “The maximum groundwater abstraction for the coal power plant happens during the winter season, when canal water is not available from January to March,” he adds.

Dr Niazi, is an expert on arsenic dynamics in water. He has been investigating the impacts of groundwater abstraction and the rising arsenic levels in Sahiwal, including nearby villages, because of the coal-fired power plant.

The doctor and his team collected up to 220 water samples from electric pumps and hand pumps around villages which were close to the power plant. Analysis of the samples showed that arsenic concentrations in 45 percent of the samples were above the World Health Organization’s safe limits in drinking water (10 micrograms per litre). Worse still, 30 percent of the well water samples contained arsenic levels above the Pakistan-EPA safe limit, which is set at 50 micrograms per litre.

“Other water quality parameters that include sulphate, chloride and sodium were also higher in 30 to 40 percent of the samples,” Dr Niazi adds. He says that while the information collected from the survey is preliminary, it clearly indicates that there is a potential threat to groundwater quantity and quality in the vicinity of the Sahiwal Coal Power Plant, which is posing a health risk to the people living there.

Hammad Naqi Khan, the director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan), was disappointed that the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant was constructed in the heart of Punjab’s prime agricultural land. “It’s an environmental disaster as coal has negative consequences on air quality, is a water-intensive technology and it could affect the fertility of agriculture plains, and most importantly, exacerbate climate change,” he says.

The adviser to the prime minister on climate change, Malik Amin Aslam, terms the construction of the Sahiwal coal-fired power in the agricultural heartland of Punjab as “criminal neglect.”

He insists the project makes little business sense. “How could you allow a coal power plant to be constructed in an agriculture zone, where there are no coal reserves?” he questions. “Such projects need to be investigated as these so-called ‘assets’ will become liabilities due to high operational, maintenance and environmental costs and must not be allowed in the future.”

Aslam agrees. “Punjab EPD should ensure compliance for all parameters by the Sahiwal Coal Power Project, and also investigate and duly address any unanticipated issues being faced by the locals including water depletion…” Aslam stresses. “This project has unfortunately locked us into a long-term and self-inflicted ecological challenge,” he says. “At the moment, we would like to ensure that the environmental impact assessment of the project would be strictly adhered to along with meeting the NEQS on emissions and effluents of the plant.”

Rehman maintains that the environmental impact assessment of the project was conducted beforehand and says his department is ensuring that it has minimum impact on the environment. “The Sahiwal coal-fired power plant never violated the national environmental standards,” says the EIA director.

Regardless of the results of official assessments, there is little denying the project’s environmental impact. With Pakistan being ranked among the most water-stressed countries in the world, the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant, that requires 60,000 cubic metres of water daily, is not a healthy development.

THE FUTURE IS RENEWABLES

A dry guava tree near the coal power plant
A dry guava tree near the coal power plant

Coal-fired power plants contribute up to 38 percent of global electricity, according to the World Coal Association. However, after increasing awareness about the environmental impacts of coal, investments in new coal-fired power plants have reduced by 75 percent globally, ushering in a new era in the energy paradigm.

According to a March 2019 ‘Energy Innovation’ report, in the United States, solar and wind energy can replace 74 percent of its coal fleet. By 2025, renewable energy would replace 86 percent of the country’s coal energy. Renewables can provide the same amount of electricity more cheaply, says the report. Plummeting cost of electricity generation from wind and solar has led clean energy to become a low-cost option in many countries worldwide. During May this year, the United Kingdom enjoyed its first week of not using electricity from coal-fired power plants.

This seems to be the new normal, or at least the future most of the world is aspiring towards. In September this year, when thousands marched around the world during the ‘Global Climate Strike’, one of their top demands was “100 percent renewable energy generation and exports.” Protesters called for an end to coal dependency in Australia, Chile, Germany, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Kosovo and even Pakistan.

It’s not just activists who are demanding change.

A new coalition of governments and businesses has formed to protect the planet from the impacts of climate change by phasing out coal. The Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) as 91 members, including 32 national governments, 25 subnational governments and 34 businesses.

Curiously, at a time when most of the developed world is moving towards renewable energy, Pakistan seems to be relying more heavily on coal-powered energy. According to the Pakistan Economy Survey 2018-2019, the share of coal in the energy mix — which remained stable in single-digit percentages over the last two decades — climbed to 12.7 percent in the 2018.

The PPCA was launched by the UK and Canada in 2017 and aspires to achieve a transition from coal to renewable energy. The coalition believes that a shift from coal power generation to a clean energy mix is vital to limit global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. This will further contribute to sustainable economic growth and a safer climate.

The PPCA aims to phase out unabated coal-fired electricity generation for the European Union (EU) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries by 2030, and for the rest of the world by 2050.

Curiously, at a time when most of the developed world is moving towards renewable energy, Pakistan seems to be relying more heavily on coal-powered energy. According to the Pakistan Economy Survey 2018-2019, the share of coal in the energy mix — which remained stable in single-digit percentages over the last two decades — climbed to 12.7 percent in the 2018.

Vaqar Zakaria, an environmental expert provides one possible explanation. “It’s a 30-year agreement and Pakistan is obliged to pay capacity charges to the power plant, even if it doesn’t produce electricity. It’s a two-part tariff, with a capacity charge and an operating charge.”

On the subject of air pollution and emissions from power plants, Zakaria adds that there are control mechanisms, but in Pakistan “the data on air emissions is not made public.”

While Pakistan’s reliance on coal increased, the share of renewables in the country’s energy mix — which was at 0.3 percent in 2015 — rose to mere 1.1 percent in 2018. Encouragingly, however, five wind energy projects of 246.6 MW capacity were completed in 2018-2019. All the plants are operational now.

WHAT HAPPENS IN PARIS...

In 2015, when construction on the Sahiwal Coal Power Project began, the drafting of the Paris Climate Agreement finished. The agreement aimed to strengthen climate action by limiting global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to make efforts to limit temperature rise further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Pakistan ratified the agreement on November 11, 2016.

The Paris Agreement was signed by 197 countries and it required every country to submit a plan of action, also known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that entailed how every country planned to limit its carbon emissions and fight climate change.

Science is clear on the fact that coal is exacerbating climate change which leads to catastrophic weather events such as glacial lake outburst floods, cyclones and sea intrusion. Why then is the Government of Pakistan venturing into coal?

Pakistan’s NDC stated that the country’s emissions are going to increase four-fold by 2030. The document said that a reduction of up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s projected emissions by 2030 is subject to international support amounting to 40 billion US dollars. This support would be in the form of financial grants, technical assistance, technology development and transfer and capacity building. Similarly, the NDC document mentioned that Pakistan needs approximately seven to 14 billion US dollars annually to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The document further stated that Pakistan needs to “exploit all its domestic sources of energy, including coal, hydro, wind and solar,” and that exploring nuclear and local coal-based energy in the power sector would be “inevitable” in the future.

GROUND REALITIES

Nazir (second from right) from Chak 76-5R along with other locals standing in front of a guava orchard getting dry due to the power plant
Nazir (second from right) from Chak 76-5R along with other locals standing in front of a guava orchard getting dry due to the power plant

Far from the world of international agreements and policymaking, residents of Qadirabad continue to struggle. Nazir, a 65-year-old villager from Chak 76/5R, says his maize yield has been impacted because of the coal power plant.

Nazir, whose agricultural land is right next to the power plant, says that the floodlights that turn on at night at the plant destroy his crops. These lights have been installed after every few yards along the walls of the power plant for security purposes. Along the boundaries of the power plant one can find different crops, including maize, wheat and rice.

The floodlights from the power plant affect the productivity of the crops
The floodlights from the power plant affect the productivity of the crops

“The patches that come under the direct contact of flood lights don’t give corn,” Nazir says. “It’s a complete loss for us,” complains the farmer.

Dr Abid Mehmood, director general at the Agriculture Department of Punjab, says that the high beams may be increasing the heat as well. “It is possible that the floodlights are leading to an increase in temperature in the area, which is preventing the vegetative phase from occurring.”

Nazir further says that his guava orchard is getting dry. The farmer is convinced that air pollutants emitted from the coal power plant are responsible for this. Tajdin, another farmer in the area is facing the same problem. “80 percent of guava trees in my orchard are getting dry due to the coal-fired power plant,” he says. “The ash dumped in the power plant spreads to nearby areas with the wind and settles on guava trees.”

Some of these claims are difficult to verify. But they indicate how the residents view the power plant: it is the source of most of their troubles.

Science is clear on the fact that coal is exacerbating climate change which leads to catastrophic weather events such as glacial lake outburst floods, cyclones and sea intrusion. Why then is the Government of Pakistan venturing into coal?

Contrary to the findings of the Punjab EPD, the locals of Qadirabad complain of bad air quality, depleting and deteriorating groundwater and impacts on agriculture. It is now up to the government to investigate the matter and address the environmental concerns that the local communities have been raising for years.


With additional reporting by Shafiq Butt

The writer is a Chevening scholar and an international award-winning environmental journalist. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 15th, 2019