Gorano reservoir: Jeopardy for humans or sanctuary for wildlife?

Residents of Thar say water in wells across Gorano has turned "poisonous" ever since the reservoir was constructed.
Published March 18, 2024

Nestled deep within the Tharparkar district, a peculiar sight greets the eye — the Gorano reservoir, an artificial water body shrouded in controversy and neglect. Its existence, born of industrial ambition, stands as a stark testament to the uneven exchange between human development and environmental damage.

Located around 30 kilometers from the town of Islamkot, the waters of the Gorano reservoir are stretched over approximately 500 acres of land acquired by the Sindh government from farmers living in nearby villages. Confined between two parallel dune ranges, this man-made wetland was created in 2016.

Gorano reservoir gives off a putrid and sulphuric smell. Even a brief exposure to it leaves a burning sensation in one’s throat and nostrils. Its dark, leaden water has stained the ground, tracing the boundary with dark marks while hundreds of wilting trees dot its surface with their bare, leafless stems. A swarm of mosquitoes hover over the water, extending as far as the eye can see.

The Gorano reservoir contains water generated by coal mining in Thar Coalfield Block II, located several kilometers to the north. The mines in this block are depleted of subsoil and saline water to extract dry coal. This water is transported to the reservoir via a pipeline. The reservoir’s site was chosen for its natural depression, facilitating the direct extraction of water from the mines without the need for pumping or motoring.

The controversy

The reservoir was originally planned to be built in Tisingri, several kilometers down south of Gorano, says Leela Ram — a lawyer and resident of the Gorano village.

“Even environmental assessment reports were made to house the reservoir in Tisinri,” he recalls.

Ram claims that the firm involved in coal mining, Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), altered this plan and initiated preparations to position the reservoir adjacent to Gorano without conducting any environmental assessment or obtaining consent from local communities.

These communities have been protesting against the reservoir since 2016 in Islamkot, Hyderabad, and even Karachi. They held long sit-ins, observed hunger strikes, and performed a long march from Islamkot to Karachi. Some protesters, including Ram, also filed a petition at the Hyderabad bench of the Sindh High Court (SHC) which initially set up a commission to investigate its alleged negative impacts.

A man stands near a clean water RO Plant constructed by SECMC. — photo by Usama Irfan
A man stands near a clean water RO Plant constructed by SECMC. — photo by Usama Irfan

“Though this commission did contradict some of the claims made by the SECMC, it did not come up with any clear findings and specific recommendations,” says Zain Moulvi, a Lahore-based lawyer who has been following the case closely for the past three years.

“The commission also seems to have found out that the SECMC did not obtain the approval of the forest and wildlife department before dumping water into the Gorano reservoir,” he highlights.

The IUCN report

But despite several judicial rounds, the SHC dismissed the petition in 2022, allowing the SECMC to continue using the Gorano reservoir for dumping the water extracted from coal mines. One of the documents that the court seems to have relied on to arrive at this conclusion has been prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global non-governmental watchdog on wildlife.

Reports published in several news outlets in early February 2019 contain key points of this IUCN document. Express Tribune, for instance, wrote: “A brief ecological survey conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) over Gorano reservoir being filled with saline water pumped out from Thar’s coalfield, has reflected positively on the pond. The report finds that Gorano, a wetland of subsoil saline water, is attracting various birds which feed on fish.”

Meanwhile, Business Recorder, provided a brief history of the reservoir citing the IUCN survey: “…in the year 2017, various kinds of farm fish were introduced in the pond by… SECMC… which has started giving yield. The fish species were also certified as fit for human consumption by independent, competent laboratories.”

The report further mentioned that the presence of small fish has drawn a variety of striking fish-eating birds such as Little Grebes, Cormorants, Pelicans, and White-breasted Kingfishers to the reservoir. Observations have also confirmed the presence of these birds at the Gorano reservoir.

A spokesperson of the SECMC reiterated the same information in an email response to some questions sent to him. “Gorano has also become a critical habitat for more than 30 migratory birds,” he wrote.

Bio-saline fish farming at Gorano Lake supports over 10 fish species — Morakhi, Rohu, Theli, Kuriro, Gulfam, African Catfish, and Dangri — that contribute to local nutritional needs,” he added.

According to him, the SECMC has also “distributed over 70,000kg of fish and provided vital fodder to more than 14,500 families during severe drought”.

Other side of the story

While the numerous videos and news reports supported by the SECMC depict Gorano as a fish-catching site, the residents of Thar have a different story to tell.

Punhoon, a 52-year-old physically challenged resident, says locals have not seen any fish in the pond.

Lakshaman, 38, another villager, reports that the water in wells across Gorano and its neighbouring villages has turned “poisonous since the reservoir was constructed”.

These wells previously served as the primary source of water for locals and their livestock, but now, he claims, none of them contain water suitable for consumption.

The issue stems from water stored in the reservoir seeping into the underground water table that replenishes these wells. “The tree cover in the area is shrinking and our animals are dying — all because of the harmful effects of the reservoir’s water,” Lakshaman laments.

A man stands outside a mud house in the Gorano village. — Photo by Usama Irfan
A man stands outside a mud house in the Gorano village. — Photo by Usama Irfan

These concerns were also discussed in a webinar on March 26, 2022. “Percolation of toxic water from Gorana has been posing a serious threat to the ecosystem and public health,” one of the speakers had said.

“Sweet water from the wells surrounding the wastewater reservoir is getting toxic. Cases of malaria and livestock casualties have significantly increased in the area,” he added.

IUCN report versus everyone else

These allegations were endorsed by a study conducted by Mark Churnaik, an American expert on environmental laws. The study was based on nine water samples collected from villages located in Thar Coalfield Block II by researchers associated with Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro, in 2022.

The findings of this study, released in 2023, indicate that all these samples “were unfit for human consumption as they contain a high level of toxic metals (Selenium, Arsenic, Mercury, lead, and Chromium)”.

The SECMC typically addresses such allegations by citing the IUCN survey.

After the 2022 webinar’s insights, the SECMC issued a clarification on its website: “The Gorano reservoir is declared a unique wetland by the globally renowned IUCN, and is serving as a habitat ecosystem for various species of fish and birds in the region.”

The SECMC spokesman in his email response claimed that regular water monitoring by an independent environment monitoring consultant and tests by SGS Pakistan confirm the absence of any toxic pollutant concentration and dispel contamination concerns in the Gorano reservoir as per environment quality standards defined by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency.

The grey area

However, Dr Z.B. Mirza, a conservationist and lead author of the said IUCN report, contends that it should not be deemed as a blanket approval of the quality of water being stored at Gorano. “Its main objective was to suggest rather than prove anything,” he says.

The recommendations put forth by Mirza included initiatives aimed at ecologically enhancing this newly formed wetland, exploring the feasibility of attracting a variety of water birds migrating to southern Sindh and neighbouring regions during winters, and fostering ecotourism for the welfare of local communities.

He also asserts that the survey was limited in both scope and duration. “It was conducted only to study biodiversity, especially bird diversity that exists in the area. And, it was carried out in only two days — between December 7-9, 2018.

“Its findings are limited to 2018 when the reservoir was newly formed and may have temporarily attracted some birds,” he adds. “Considering it has been five years since the report was published, the water in the reservoir is likely to have become contaminated over time.”

The fact that Mirza’s report includes these limitations is significant, particularly since the SECMC has never mentioned them in its statements.

For instance, citing Express Tribune, he pointed out that the “salinity level of Gorano’s water is very high and… it will gradually increase with a high rate of evaporation, particularly in dry and hot seasons of the year”.

In a similar vein, his report also noted that 4,199 local desert trees were found on 834 acres of land that became a part of the Gorano reservoir. “These trees are still alive but have been submerged in the pond and will not live for long,” it stated.

Mirza also denies being aware of the fact that the SECMC has presented any evidence to the SHC to have the petition against the Gorano reservoir dismissed. He argues that the four-year-old report alone “cannot be used for challenging the point of view of the local communities”.

A tale of contradictions

Despite these clarifications, IUCN has provided a favourable assessment of Gorano on multiple occasions. As recently as November 17 last year, it published a story on its website stating: “Gorano wetland at Thar coal mines site was found to have the potential for attracting bird populations since there was a significant number of 425 vultures of White-backed, Red-headed, and Egyptian species spotted.”

This claim was made at the launch of a joint IUCN-SECMC study on the biodiversity of Tharparkar. According to the story, the study was conducted over two and a half years “by a team of experts from Sindh Wildlife Department, Zoological Society of Pakistan, Baanhn Beli — an NGO working in Tharparkar — and distinguished academic institutions”.

This study was carried out under a collaborative arrangement signed between IUCN, SECMC and Thar Foundation (the corporate social responsibility arm of SECMC) in December 2018 in Karachi. The SECMC spokesman acknowledged in his email that its funding came from SECMC and Thar Foundation.

An earlier study conducted in 2019 under the same arrangement and with the financial support of the SECMC contended: “It can be assumed that Garano wetland has emerged as the most populated habitat of vultures in Pakistan.”

However, Dr Ahsan Kamal, an assistant professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, and an activist for climate justice, points to the contradictions between what Mirza says and the contents found on the IUCN website.

“These contradictory positions suggest that IUCN could be greenwashing the anti-environmental activities of SECMC by collaborating with it closely and by issuing positive reports about the quality of water in the Gorano reservoir,” he says.

“If that is not the case, then IUCN should carry out a detailed study of Gorano without any financial support and collaboration of SECMC and it should also include the point of view of local communities in all its future reports about it,” Kamal concluded.

Header image: A family carried gallons of water on a donkey cart near Gorano reservoir. — photo by Usama Irfan