The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

In Pakistan’s Thar Desert, Opposition to New Coal Projects Grows

“Pakistan’s future cannot be coal.”

By Rabiya Jaffery for
In Pakistan’s Thar Desert, Opposition to New Coal Projects Grows

Pakistani Ghull Mohammed, 69, breaks coal as part of his daily work in a brick factory, during May Day, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

While much of the world has been shifting away from coal, Pakistan, one of the smallest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions historically, is intending to burn a lot more of it in the coming years.

Currently less than 1 percent of global emissions come from Pakistan — but this number is likely to increase four-fold in the next decade due to its growing portfolio of coal-fueled plants.

Until three years ago, the South Asian country had just one active coal-fired plant. Today, it has nine — with more in the pipeline.

One such coal project at present is a mile-wide pit that runs nearly 500 feet deep in the heart of the Thar Desert. Hundreds of workers are digging at the pit in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh. The project is on its way to becoming Pakistan’s biggest industrial site — a $1.6 billion power project by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Co (SEMC), backed by a combination of Chinese and Pakistani companies.

This is why, despite the world’s push to move toward renewables in accordance to the 2015 Paris agreement that aims to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the increasing number of coal-fueled projects in Pakistan do not concern many of its citizens too much.

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The project promises to bring 3,960MW of electricity to a country that is currently facing a crippling energy crisis — nearly 25 percent of Pakistan’s 197 million people still lack access to grid electricity and this cost the country billions per year, according to a World Bank report.

“We just need electricity — cheap electricity, it doesn’t matter from where,” says Imran Farooq, a resident of Karachi, the capital of the province of Sindh and the premier industrial and financial centre of the country. Karachi is also one of the world’s most polluted cities in the world. “The air is already bad, how much worse can it get? At least we can have air-conditioning we can afford during the heatwaves.”

Thar’s coal was first discovered in 1992 but because of its poor quality, it was considered too expensive to be mined. The prospect of mining became less likely as environmental awareness rose globally. But China has recently shown interest.

“Finding international financing for coal had been difficult, with China the only country willing to invest,” said Shahzad Qasim, the prime minister’s special assistant on the power sector, to The Third Pole, a publication reporting on South Asia’s climate conditions.

Even though China is, at home, moving away from coal in an attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions and confront climate change, many activists have criticized the country for promoting dependence on fossil fuels in many developing countries by actively investing in nonrenewable projects. 

Currently, China has invested in 21 energy projects under the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — an economic “zone” between the two countries that started in 2015 and on its eventual completion will connect a number of countries in South and Central Asia for trade and industrial purposes. Although a number of the projects are wind, solar, and hydropower focused, at least 70 percent of the nearly 14GW of power projects will be coal-fired.

Asad Jatoi, an activist and environmental lawyer based in Pakistan, says that the reason there isn’t a louder national outcry about projects like the coal-fired plant in Thar, is because of a lack of awareness. “[Also], people who are most vulnerable to and most directly impacted by the project have already been voicing their complaints against the project but are completely ignored,” he says.

The past two years have seen several cases of opposition from local residents of Thar over concerns of land seizures, air pollution, ash contamination in wells, and displacement of communities.

Once construction is complete, the mine’s wastewater will be regularly transported into a reservoir nearly 30 km away.

Several villagers nearby have protested the construction and the potential pollutants in their sweet water wells.

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While SEMC has provided alternative pastures for villagers, new houses to relocate to, and a training center for labor jobs needed for the construction project, many villagers still protest the damages done to their ancestral land. The villages of Senhri Dars and Thareo Halepoto, for example, have been completely relocated. 

“We don’t want their money, we want to keep our ancestral land,” says one of the residents from Senhri Dars.

Several grassroots activists in Sindh have also called for the complete shutdown of the mining project because of how detrimental it will prove to be to the region’s ecosystem and for Pakistan’s emission rates.

Although Pakistan has one of the smallest contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change and also lacks the technical and economical capacity to mitigate its worst impacts.

“Pakistan is going to face the brunt of climate change and it should be prioritizing adapting to changing climate conditions,” says Mohammed Khan, a member of Pakistan’s Anti-Coal Alliance, an emerging grassroots civil society. “Coal is disastrous to the climate and it is tragic that, as the world moves away from it, Pakistan is moving towards it.”

The Anti-Coal Alliance, in collaboration with locally affected people, plans to continue protesting against the construction of coal-fired plant projects in Thar as well as others.

Khan explains that Sindh province is more prone to climate change due to its geographic location. Coal projects will not just impact emissions, but could result in additional displacement of many of the 1.6 million people who call the desert home. Furthermore, such projects also negatively impact the ecosystem of the region.

“We have been protesting for two years and we will continue to protest until our voices our heard by someone,” Khan adds. “Pakistan’s future cannot be coal and it is only a matter of bringing enough awareness about it to people before there is a loud enough public outcry about it.”

Rabiya Jaffery is a freelance journalist and multimedia producer covering stories from Middle East and South Asia. She reports on climate, culture, and conflicts for regional and international publications. She tweets at @rabiyasdfghjkl