THARPARKAR DISTRICT, Pakistan, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters
Foundation) - A line of trucks weaves in and out of the open
coal pit that has been dug in the Thar Desert in Pakistan's
southern Sindh province.
Below the massive hole lies one of the world's largest coal
reserves, untapped until now.
For years Pakistan used its Thar coal reserves as a
bargaining chip in global climate negotiations. Since it was not
mining the coal, it argued, it should receive easier access to
international climate finance and to clean technology to help it
grow in a cleaner and more sustainable way.
But as part of its attempt to end the country's energy
crisis which has caused frequent power cuts for years, the
government is encouraging mining companies to the area.
Traditionally Pakistan has had relatively low emissions of
climate changing gases. But under the global Paris Agreement to
address climate change, the country has admitted it is likely to
see a four-fold increase in emissions by 2030.
The coal mine is set to become Pakistan's biggest industrial
site, said Shamsuddin Shaikh, head of the Sindh Engro Coal
Mining Company (SECMC), a joint venture between the Sindh
government and Engro Powergen.
The company is mining 1 percent of the deposits in one of 13
Coal is "the worst fossil fuel there is", he told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation. But "Pakistan needs electricity –
its GDP is currently affected by the lack of power", he said.
The estimated 175 billion tonnes of watery, low energy coal
was first discovered in 1992 but because of its poor quality,
most companies found it too costly to mine.
In 2012, SECMC, took up the challenge, convincing eight
companies to join them, two of them Chinese.
They are also now building a 660 megawatt coal power plant
nearby – which the company wants to increase to 3,300 MW by 2022
– and the Sindh government has improved roads and built an
airport in the desert for the project.
The government has promised to end Pakistan's crippling
power outages in time for the 2018 elections, embarking on
construction of new hydropower dams, coal-fired power plants and
renewable energy projects.
Pakistani climate expert Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, currently
advising the Asian Development Bank, said he has told the
government "not to lock the country for the next 25 to 30 years
into coal technology".
"Our role as a responsible member of the global community in
combating climate change needs to be fully taken into
consideration," he said.
Most of the world, including China, is moving away from
coal-based power generation, Chaudhry said.
Under the Paris climate agreement, countries are meant to be
shifting to clean, sustainable energy as part of global attempts
to curb greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the worst impacts
of climate change, from worsening droughts and floods to
accelerating sea level rise.
"Surely the indications are that the time may not be far
when ... countries not following the green energy path would be
penalised. Our long term planning should not be focused on
coal," Chaudhry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Pakistan is not the only country using coal - one of the
cheapest but also most polluting forms of energy - to help plug
its growing energy needs.
Most new demand for coal-fired power stations is in
Southeast Asia, although other countries including Bangladesh
are also building new stations.
WATER POLLUTION, NEW HOMES
For the past three months villagers near the mine have been
protesting SECMC's mining plans, saying the project will pollute
their water and threaten their ancestral lands.
The company plans to transport effluents from the watery
mine via a pipeline into a reservoir which will cover at least
1,500 acres (600 hectares) of land once it is built.
This will be done for the next two and a half years to dry
the mine, and then the water will be treated and re-used in the
coal power plant. The pipeline, linking the reservoir to the
coal mines 26 km away, is almost complete.
"They will pump dirty water from the mine to store in the
(reservoir) and that will pollute the sweet water in our wells.
Engro is willing to give us money but we don't want it. This is
our ancestral land and we won't leave," said Padma Bai, one of
the villagers protesting the project.
Leela Ram, whose large home lies close to the reservoir,
said it should be built nearer the coal mine.
"Why can't they dump the water where there are no people?"
The villagers have filed a case in the Sindh High Court and
applied for a stay order to block the reservoir's construction.
The court hearings are underway but construction goes on.
"I will go all the way to the Supreme Court if need be,"
said Ram, who is leading the protest.
The company said the site originally planned for the
effluents was the nearby Rann of Kutch salt marshes but since
they are a Ramsar Site for migratory birds the natural
depression of Gorrano was selected instead.
The company is providing alternative pasture for villagers
living near the Gorrano reservoir, and building new homes,
schools and healthcare facilities for two villages being
relocated to make way for the mine and power plant, said Mohsin
Babbar, the company's media manager.
"This will be a benchmark project - and will set the
standard for others," said Shaikh, referring to the new homes, a
planned 70 bed hospital and a training centre for the local
"Of course if they (villagers) are not happy, this project
will not work," he added.
(Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan; editing by Alex Whiting.; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.