SINDH’S Thar region is one of the least developed parts of Pakistan, known both for its stunning desert beauty and its people’s struggles with drought and malnutrition. Over the past few years, Thar has also been associated with coal projects, which have been touted as a major remedy for Pakistan’s energy woes. However, while Thar’s coal deposits are considerable, controversy has continued to dog the mining process, with activists and locals blaming mining firms for not adhering to environmental standards, and polluting the area’s natural resources. On Tuesday, activists from Thar held a press conference in Karachi claiming that as per a recent study, excessive levels of toxic metals linked to coal-mining activity had been found in drinking water, resulting in the ‘poisoning’ of water sources. They claimed that due to high levels of arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic substances, local people were suffering from health problems, while ‘toxic’ water was not being properly treated. This is not the first time such claims have emerged. In the past, too, there have been major protests linked to the Gorano reservoir, with claims that a mining firm was dumping poisonous water into it, while activists have also alleged that mining activity has negatively affected air quality levels in Thar. The mining firm has said claims about the Gorano issue are “incorrect and misleading”.
The fact is that when the health of hundreds of thousands of people is in question, claims about grave environmental pollution cannot be brushed aside. One extreme suggestion is that all development activity be ceased, while the other completely ignores the legitimate concerns of the local people. Local communities’ concerns must be adequately addressed by independent environmental experts. The Sindh government, which itself is involved in coal extraction there, must take the lead and look into the concerns. While mining is important for the national economy, environmental safeguards are needed to protect natural resources, particularly drinking water.
Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2023
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