Changing Planet

Pakistan’s Coal Quandary: Energy, the Environment and Hindu-Muslim Harmony

Guest post by Muhammad Makki

In this guest-post, Muhammad Makki, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland, presents his reflections on a field visit to the remote Tharparkar coal region of Pakistan and the challenges of communal harmony and a diversified approach to addressing Pakistan’s energy crisis. The field visit was supported by the International Mining for Development Centre (an Ausaid initiative)

The current acute energy crisis in Pakistan, certainly the worst of all times is heating up an indigenous extractive resource scramble in a remote part of Pakistan with unusual demographics. The Tharparker District or simply the Thar Desert located in the southeastern province of Sindh is under spot light because of a 175 billion tons of estimated coal reserves lying beneath its surface. These reserves have been known for around two decades, but only recently has development gained momentum to generate power in order to propel the country’s ailing economy. The signs of a resource boom are already animating the dull landscape of the region – roads, airports, site offices, power lines, guest houses and rising real estate price are evident. Near the town of Islamkot, an underground coal gassification pilot project represents the scale of possible change where workers sourced from local communities rest their heads after long-hour shifts.

The Rann of Kutch -- salt marshes -- a view from Tharpar district across towards the Indian border. Photograph by Muhammad Makki
The Rann of Kutch — salt marshes — a view from Tharpar district across towards the Indian border. Photograph by Muhammad Makki

Understanding the quandary faced by the residents of the Thar Desert took me to several villages situated in the vicinity of the coal fields to gather some basic ethnographic data on community perceptions of the project. Tharparker is home to around 1.5 million people stretching its boundaries with Indian Rajasthan and the Great Ran of Kutch salt marsh. The indigenous communities of Menghwar, Kolhi and Bheel make up a large part of the rural human settlement. The land is famous for rippling sand dunes, distinct folklore, rain-starved shrubs,  drying wells, bottomed indicators of health, poverty and education and the most food insecure district in the country. One of the villages Mauakharaj of Tharparker, just beside an airport being built to host coal companies, has abject poverty and deprivation. The whole village is culturally and socially crippled because of fluorosis; a disease caused by consumption of excessive fluoride in groundwater, with no remedy and still people compelled to use it.

Yet the Thari people endure, draped in their dark red textiles ambling across the monotonous desert, with visible hope in their weary eyes that coal development might lift them out of destitution. Certainly, the development of coal reserves will contribute significantly to the economy but will be accompanied by severe environmental and social impacts that need to be adequately addressed. In all my interviews, the people of Thar indicated an indelible attachment to their land even if they were semi-nomadic in their livelihoods. Resettlement of these fragile communities for the development of coal reserves needs to be considered with great care.

In a country where Islamic supremacist ideologies are rife and religious violence is commonplace, Tharparkar is the only district in the country where Hindus make up 70% of the rural population and live in relative peace with their Muslim neighbours.  Development of extractive resources without care for community sensitivities has already led to a violent insurgency in Balochistan province. Although, the residents of Tharparkar do not have the resources nor the proclivity to engage in violent resistance it is incumbent upon development interests to protect the community’s social order. The development of a participatory well-planned resettlement and compensation plan with intensive consultation to mitigate the potential impacts on land connected communities must be a priority for the government.

The Chounra (Cone shaped hut). A village in Tharparker. Photograph by Muhammad Makki
The Chounra (Cone shaped hut). A village in Tharparker. Photograph by Muhammad Makki

Upon completing my research (which will be published later this year), I presented my findings at a seminar hosted by LEAD-Pakistan (Leadership in Environment and Development) in Islamabad. Energy and environmental experts who attended the seminar lamented on the state of the country’s energy crisis and the inability of the country’s ruling elite to find national solutions. Diesel generators and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) batteries provide an illusion of comfort to those who can afford them, oblivious of the inefficiency of their electricity source. A diversification strategy was the mantra offered by the experts: hydropower, gas pipelines, solar, wind and then perhaps coal too. The governance of the energy sector remains elusive in Pakistan and several participants in the roundtable discussion noted that ill-advised “expertise” was being allowed to pass muster with the media because of resource nationalism. Rather than considering conservation of energy or efficient sources, the bravado of showing energy independence was driving the narrative. Though technical challenges would need to be overcome to link grids, there is greater efficiency and promise for Pakistan to consider ways of trading energy with some of its neighbours. The gas pipelines with Iran or with Turkmenistan appear farfetched to some but offer a more versatile source of fuel for both grid power and vehicular transport (Pakistan has one of the highest compressed natural gas usage infrastructure in the world for cars).

Dr. Rajendara Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change joined the discussion via video-link from New Delhi and added a regional perspective to the conversation. He noted the potential for Indo-Pak cooperation on energy and his visit to Pakistan last year when the Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, had expressed keen interest in a joint Indo-Pak solar project as well. Although not adequate in supplying industrial-scale power, such projects could provide the poorest areas of the Punjab on both sides of the border with rural power.

The conversation did not lead to consensus on what approach should be dominant but there was agreement that Thar coal development should not be a first resort but much further down the priority scale for addressing Pakistan’s energy crisis. As Pakistan’s election approaches, energy is a ballot issue and polemics are rife on panacea solutions. It is high time that Pakistanis consider their energy predicament with a multifaceted strategy that transcends petty nationalism so that communal harmony is not compromised for short-term and inefficient power solutions.

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
  • Mahboob Khan

    This is a wonderful piece and such communal cooperation should be encouraged and advertized around Pakistain. Pakistanis need to learn to live in religious harmony the way the Bangladeshis have been living with fellow Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, & other minorities. Religious extremism such as imported Wahhabism, Salafism etc making Pakistan a failed state with violent implosion as we see there nowadays. Look how the Wahabbi Pakistanis are killing Shia Pakistani with complete impunity. A pro-Western , liberal, but not anti-Islam General Ayub Khan was much better a leader for Pakistan. Pakistanis should come to realize that now and ponder on how it went down from that time on because of intolerance to Bangladeshis and fanaticism and should note how India went up with flying colors.

  • Fareeda Shaikh

    Interview with a daring, unafriad Human Rights Defender whose love with Thar and Thari people is uncontional

  • Haseeb Khan

    Mr. Ali Akbar Executive Director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) It is clear to us that being an individual or only AWARE Team cannot change the policies or resolve the issues. It needs much more efforts, lobbying, networking and joint efforts to deal with the situation. In the progress made so far, AWARE is not a single contributor but it all happened in the result of so many people and institution’s support. As AWARE is conscious about exploration and use of natural resources of Thar; coal, granite, china clay, salt and gypsum so always raised the voice and given call to other like minded friends and organizations to play their due role. The exploration and exploitation process is going on different levels/magnitude, so the intensity and types of issues are also different. AWARE had been raising voice on different aspects by keeping in view the rights of indigenous people, environment, climate change and disasters. But it is realized by time that issue in its nature is complex and needs collective efforts, so you are requested to guide and support AWARE Team as rights of indigenous people can secured by highlighting the case timely.
    – Tharparkar District is spread over on 19638 sqkms and there are coal reserves in 9100 sqkms area. There is 175 billion tons lignite coal deposits in Thar.
    – The coal area is divided in blocks and so far 03 Companies have got permission for mining. Only in one block the work is ongoing for underground coal gasification and other one Company has started land acquisition process at initial level.
    – Govt of Sindh and Companies (project proponent) are in process of conducting studies on socioeconomic studies including relocating the people and devising compensation strategy etc. The resettlement policy is the major step in said process. Three public hearings on SEIAs are also held so far.
    – Media is highlighting issues of not hiring local people etc
    – Resettlement Policy Draft is termed flawed by people of Thar because Thari people don’t want to sale but give land on lease. There is no clear critical path for alternate livelihood, mitigation of environmental disaster (which will occur during open pit mining on Thar) whereas Thar is already facing every third year as a drought year.
    – There is more than 0.2 million acres land lying in the name of enemy or evacuee property and land rights are not given to local people, so the inhabitants can’t claim for compensation. Even PPP Govt had not given a single acre of land to landless peasant women in Thar during both tenures of their Govt.
    – The grazing land (Gaucher) and communal land are considered as Govt/state land and there is no mechanism of compensation against that, whereas said land is common property of villagers and that is of villagers not State Land.
    – Coal companies/field needs technical human resources and there is no or very limited such technical and quality manpower is available in Thar, so indigenous people will not be able to get more benefit from projects
    – Open pit as well as underground coal gasification process has direct impacts on environment, land, fauna and flora but not considered/highlighted by media and other stakeholders
    Areas of possible intervention:
    – Critical review of all daft policies; Resettlement Policy Framework, SEIAs (so far conducted as well as upcoming) and Land Grant Policies.
    – Translation of above said policies in local language Sindhi and make available at District HQ at least
    – Raise awareness of primary and secondary level stakeholders on different aspects of upcoming projects, rights of indigenous people, affects on environment/increasing vulnerabilities of drought hit people of Thar.
    – Get know, compile and present “Peoples Perspective” through different means and ways to motivate the responsible segments for addressing timely
    – Capacity building of local journalists and activists Study on land rights issues – evacuee/enemy property – struggle reform in Thar land Grant Policy
    What AWARE has done so far:
    – AWARE and RDF also held a joint policy review workshop cum dialogue on Draft Resettlement Policy Framework for Thar Coal Fields at Hyderbabd on Nov 07, 2013 in which different stakeholders participated and it remained of high importance in terms of eye opener for primary and secondary level stakeholders Brief report is attached herewith for your kind concentration.

    – AWARE Team minutely reviews SEIAs and mobilize community to participate in public hearings called on SEIA by Companies/SEPA and present views/concerns and suggestions on protecting the rights of indigenous people. Videos of couple of such events can be viewed .

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