Thar Coal power projects pose serious financial, environmental risks: study

Published August 9, 2020
DEVELOPMENT work at a water reservoir in Thar Coal project’s block-II under way.—Dawn
DEVELOPMENT work at a water reservoir in Thar Coal project’s block-II under way.—Dawn

KARACHI: Coal power projects in Thar present “substantial risks of significant water conflict” in Sindh, warns a study launched recently.

The study titled Thar Coalfield Water Impacts: Financial and Social Risks is conducted by Paul Winn, international energy campaigner working with Hydrocology Consulting, a global strategic engineering and environmental consultancy.

It says that intensive extraction of groundwater for open-pit mining of lignite coal for power production will deprive many Thari people of their local groundwater reserves for generations.

“Mine dewatering is likely to affect the water supplies of 1.65 million Thari, removing the sole permanent water supply for many, leaving them reliant on treated water supplied by mining and power companies,” said Mr Winn while sharing the findings of his study at an online launching ceremony organised by the Alliance for Climate Justice and Clean Energy (ACJCE), according to a press release issued here.

‘Tharis may lose groundwater reserves for generations’

He also pointed out that the diversion of canal water for running cooling systems in coal-fired power plants would not only deprive farmers of the irrigation water they now have, but it would also create a drought-like situation in Sindh’s already dry eastern regions. Large surface water diversion from the Indus Basin Irrigation Systems would be necessary to supply huge volumes of water needed to keep the power stations cool, he said and added that no assessment of the environmental, social and economic impacts of these water diversions had been ever undertaken.

According to Mr Winn, water extraction and water diversion schemes required for mining and power generation might cause severe water shortages, livestock losses and crop failures which could lead to increase in malnutrition in an area which already suffers from high levels of poverty.

Water scarcity, he said, could ultimately lead to a closure of power plants since running them without cooling them regularly is technologically impossible. If and when such closure takes place, he argued, the government would still have to pay capacity charges to power producers which, in turn, could push Pakistan further into the trap of its already massive circular debt.

Commenting on the study, Dr Mark Chernaik, staff scientist for Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), said: “The [study] will make an important contribution to [the ongoing] debate on building coal-fired power plants in the middle of a scorching desert”. He argued that a dry air cooling system was impractical for coal-fired plants located in a hot desert like Thar. So, he said, the only option available for these plants was to have a water-based cooling system.

Citing figures from the study, he said the government’s proposed water diversion scheme would create an evaporation pond because of the high levels of water evaporation in the desert. According to him, starting with 0.1 per cent salinity of the source of water, salinity of the reservoir would soon exceed levels that farmlands could safely use without damaging crops.

Advocate Naveed Mari, associate of the Alternative Law Collective, criticised the “faulty” process adopted during a public hearing over the water diversion scheme.

The hearing, he said, was held during the height of coronavirus pandemic when people wishing to participate in it faced many restrictions in their mobility due to government-imposed lockdown. As a result, he said, public participation in the hearing was far from satisfactory which meant that the hearing process was neither participatory nor transparent.

He also highlighted the errors of omission and commission in the facts and figures given in the government’s Environmental Impact Assessment of the water diversion scheme.

Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, said it was quite ironical that “we were building coal-fired power plants at a time when the world was abandoning them due to their high economic and environmental costs”.

He said the local people of Thar were already experiencing displacement, livelihood losses, water shortage, water contamination and other environmental problems due to the government’s “inappropriate” energy choices and priorities in their regions.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2020

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