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.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.