‘Thar Coal project will make the region’s aquifer run dry’

* Experts dismiss the project as exclusionary and lacking adequate planning for socioeconomic and ecological impacts

KARACHI: Urban planner Arif Hasan has expressed his grave concerns over the impact of the Thar Coal project on the ecology of the region.

Speaking at a talk on Friday, he said it was a human engineering project of an enormous scale, and the government or the private sector alone couldn’t be trusted to handle a project of such a massive scale on their own.

Expressing his disagreement with the project’s management, he said that he saw no positive outcome of the project. He explained that he got an opportunity to observe the project in depth when he was initially offered to undertake a consultancy and he along with Dr Nauman Ahmed of NED University undertook a field study of the project.

“It [Thar Coal project] has completely changed the land ownership dynamics at the local level. In the absence of a land acquisition plan, the company is acquiring locals’ land under the Sindh Land Acquisition Act on ownership basis. According to statistics, half of Thar’s land will be acquired by the mining company. What does it say about the future of the local population?” he asked.

He said that human displacement was a very important aspect, but it was just one of the multiple factors involved in the project. “Thar region is home to over 6.5 million animals, who depend on the collective grazing pastures, locally called ‘Gaochar, for sustenance. We don’t know where such a large number of animals will go,” he remarked. “I asked this from the representatives of the mining company, but they did not have any reply,” he said.

According to statistics, half of Thar’s land will be acquired by the mining company. What does it say about the future of the local population? – Arif Hasan

Hasan observed that the mining companies would drain out all water from three levels of the aquifer, which would destroy the entire ground water source. “Many engineering experts have pointed out that the project is seeking to extract water from a water starved region.”

Citing facts and figures from other countries, he said many countries across the globe were switching towards renewable energy generation options. Argentina is the largest producer of gas and oil and its government has decided not to use these non-renewable sources anymore and instead switch to renewable energy, he noted.

Similarly, he said, China is also switching to renewable sources as around 37 percent increase has been reported in solar power generation while coal power generation has been slashed.

“Engro’s project documents suggest that Engro itself is pursuing solar power, admitting that such a technology is cheaper and environment friendly,” he said.

PPP senator Taj Haider later presented his viewpoint as a PPP representative as well as the party’s focal person deputed in Tharparkar during the time of a drought in the region in 2014. He gave details of development initiatives undertaken, including installation of Reverse Osmosis water filtration plants, relocation of local population, bio-saline agriculture among other steps taken for the community. He also addressed queries regarding ownership of the project. He, however, shared the concern that the project was raising discontent at the local level, most of all from the population being displaced by the Gorrano Reservoir. Importantly, he agreed that good quality ‘goachar’ land was being wasted because of the establishment of the reservoir.

Taj Haider shared the concern that the project was raising discontent at the local level, most of all from the populaXtion being displaced by the Gorrano Reservoir

Activists and journalists working on the issue also expressed their concerns over the project. They pointed out how the local population had been sidelined in consultation, how the fast changing socio-economic landscape was impacting the populace and how fears of an impending ecological disaster were leading to emergence of psychological diseases in the region. They also emphasised that there was no transparency in the execution of the project, particularly with regards to the environmental and ecological changes it was bringing about in the region.

“We are already seeing deterioration of water quality, impact on health of the local population, and a sharp rise in land prices,” he said.

National Commission of Human Rights member for Sindh, Anis Haroon, shared that the commission had been following the project and engaging all stakeholders, as they see the project’s impact having human rights repercussions.

She also said that the commission would continue to pursue debate on the issue. “Past practices and international experiences suggest that in cases of mega projects, citizen’s rights are violated and governments are unable to mitigate the negative impacts,” she noted, stressing the need for greater transparency in the project and asking the government to share all details of the project with the public, including long-term socio economic and ecological impacts.

The talk titled ‘Understanding Development in Thar’ was organised by the NCHR.

Published in Daily Times, March 4th   2018.