CPEC’s Thar Coal: Undermining the environment and unsewing the social fabric in Sindh


The Thar Coal Power Plant, located in Sindh's Tharparkar district in Pakistan, is a significant energy project that aims to harness the vast coal reserves in the Thar Desert region to generate electricity. The groundbreaking ceremony for the initial Thar Coal Power Plant, referred to as Thar Block II, took place in January 2014, and was commissioned on April 10th, 2019. Since then, various phases and additional power plants have been planned and implemented as part of the broader Thar Coal Energy Project.

However, the region of Sindh, particularly known for its abundant lignite Thar coal reserves, is currently grappling with a growing environmental crisis. Despite coal mining contributing to economic growth and energy production, it has also unleashed a spectrum of environmental issues, posing a significant threat to the local ecosystem, as well as the health and livelihoods of its residents. This complex situation raises pertinent questions, especially as the global trend shifts towards cleaner energy sources, while Pakistan continues to heavily rely on coal mining in Thar.

One noteworthy aspect is the involvement of China in sponsoring the Thar coal blocks and power plants under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) management in Sindh's Tharparkar. This is surprising given that China is in the process of shutting down coal-backed power plants within its own borders. Nevertheless, this collaboration is causing severe environmental damage to the region and its communities.
Coal mining in Thar has far-reaching negative impacts on the environment. An urgent concern is the release of pyrite during mining, which, when exposed to air and water, forms sulfuric acid. This acid infiltrates groundwater and water sources, posing significant health risks to humans and animals. It also corrodes industrial metals and exacerbates soil erosion, harming local wildlife. Contamination has made the groundwater and well water brackish and salty, adding to the hardships faced by nearby communities. Surprisingly, despite warnings from Pakistani researchers, coal mining in Sindh continues unchecked.

Beyond water pollution, coal mining contributes to air pollution. Fine coal dust particles become airborne during mining and transportation, causing respiratory problems like asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer. Miners themselves face multiple health risks due to exposure to toxic fumes, mercury, UV radiation, and high noise levels. Consequently, the region has become nearly uninhabitable for both humans and animals.

The environmental issues do not end with coal mining; burning coal in power plants introduces more challenges. Lignite coal from Thar produces less energy due to its lower heating value. Additionally, coal combustion releases toxic substances, including sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, mercury, and other particulate matter. Additionally, Coal-based energy projects in Thar require significant water resources, worsening the existing drought problem and leading to groundwater depletion.

Fly ash and bottom ash pose additional environmental concerns from coal burning. Fly ash contains high levels of mercury, arsenic, and lead, impacting agriculture, water supplies, and causing health issues. Being light weighted, it can get carried away the wind, disrupting agriculture, polluting water supplies and causing various skin and respiratory diseases. Bottom ash contains toxic heavy metal particulates like arsenic, nickel, copper, and mercury, which are not easily recyclable.

Apart from the environmental and health hazards, local communities in Tharparkar, Sindh, have strongly protested against the power plant, citing socio-economic challenges. These include forced displacement from ancestral lands, cultural disruption, and lack of employment opportunities. While the government's plans involve relocating these communities to different areas, villagers have reported instances of harassment and derogatory name-calling, such as being labeled 'Muhajirs', a slang term for immigrants.

Another significant challenge faced by the Thari people is the lack of employment opportunities. As an agricultural community, they often lack the necessary skills to secure positions in professional workplaces. Despite assurances from the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) that they have provided employment to locals in various roles, the reality is that many are only able to secure low-paying jobs in factories and the power plant, making it difficult to meet their basic needs. Adding to their frustration is the fact that top positions within the company are predominantly held by Chinese citizens, leaving Pakistanis relegated to lower positions.

The influx of outsiders has also disrupted traditional social norms, particularly affecting women's freedom of movement, who observed ‘purdah’ which involves veiling women and keeping them shielded from outsiders. They find it increasingly challenging to perform daily tasks such as fetching water from community wells, gathering firewood, tending to farms, and grazing domestic animals. Alarmingly, there has been a noticeable rise in crimes against women and children since the inception of the project in 2015, adding to the distress faced by the Thari communities. The nature of crimes range from beatings, sexual abuse and rapes, to abductions, human trafficking and forced religious conversions.

In conclusion, the situation in the Thar region is nothing short of an urgent call to action, demanding our immediate attention and heartfelt concern. While coal mining and power projects may have momentarily boosted economic growth, they have unleashed a devastating environmental and human catastrophe that cannot be ignored any longer. Balancing the economic benefits with environmental concerns becomes a pressing challenge in the ongoing development of the Thar Coal Power Plant and related projects.

The Thar region's once-thriving ecosystem is now on the brink of collapse, ravaged by relentless pollution, toxic water, and foul air. The health and livelihoods of its residents hang in the balance, as they suffer the consequences of forced displacement, cultural upheaval, and a dearth of meaningful job opportunities.

As the rest of the world strides forward towards cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives, it's disheartening to see Pakistan entrenched in practices of the past, sacrificing its precious natural heritage and the well-being of its own people. The stark contrast of China, a nation phasing out coal on its own soil, backing coal projects in Thar raises questions, which demand answers.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye any longer. The Thar region's plight is a poignant reminder of the urgency of transitioning to cleaner energy sources and embracing sustainable development practices. It's a plea to safeguard not just a unique ecosystem but also the very lives and traditions of those who call it home.

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