Fossil fuel free economy: a mirage in the desert

Sadly, the dream of a fossil fuel free economy has been pushed behind for decades and its concept has been distorted into a mirage-unworkable, unattainable and untouchable

When Pakistan made a safe bet on cheap coal in the Thar Desert to resolve its energy crisis, Thari people welcomed the move. They saw a spark in the darkness. But the former Chief Executive Officer of the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), Shamsuddin Ahmed Shaikh’s allegation that the Sindh government was not sincere to the people of Thar has come as a shocking surprise to the Tharis.  Their ancestral lands were put at stake in the hope of being rich. But the flicker of hope has gone.

For years, the lignite mine of Tharparkar has been a case for the courts. Interestingly, the villagers did not move to the court of law against the energy project. They sought constitutional rights to protect human and animal lives and the environment that the controversial Ghorano reservoir could otherwise destroy. The Ghorano water reservoir of Thar built by the SECMC is being used for storing highly saline subsoil water pumped out from the mine benches to reach the coal layer. Although the Supreme Court strengthened the rights of the plaintiffs and sought explanations over ineligible appointments of experts for the project, their civic rights had indeed been breached as reservoir issue hangs unresolved.

Thar coal power plant is potentially one of the world’s worst “climate killers.” Lignite coal releases more carbon dioxide than any other energy source, but much of Pakistan will be depending on it

Gluttonous giants

The fossil fuel lignite, or popularly known as coal rock stretched under the earth’s surface, and is removed by giant excavators. Chunks are transported to a dumping area. Once there is a yard, a conveyor belt can be used as per international standards for removing coal from the minefield to the store; which can later be burned in power plants and converted into electricity.

Machines replace muscle

“Elbow grease” no longer suffices to extract the enormous quantities of coal from benches. Instead, machines carry out the work – with the help of just a handful of workers. These excavators cut through the geological strata, remove soil and other crusts to reach the coal bed while wide bodied dump trucks are used to transport excavation waste to a specified area on the mining field. Considerable soil water is pumped out to reach the coal bed.

Climate killer     

Thar coal power plant is potentially one of the world’s worst “climate killers.” Lignite coal releases more carbon dioxide than any other energy source, but much of Pakistan will be depending on it. Coal is a rock formed when dead plants and animals decompose and solidify underground over the centuries. The fossil fuel acquired significance in the global arena during the Industrial Revolution when it was used to power steam engines and produce electricity. By 2013, it was providing over 40 per cent of the world’s electricity needs. However, burning coal releases carbon dioxide – a vital yet heat-trapping gas – into the atmosphere and makes the planet warmer than ‘normal’. In 2016, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide crossed the dangerous 400 parts-per-million threshold and scientists warned that the increased use of coal is driving the planet towards a serious climate catastrophe, which will be irreversible.

Fruitless protests

People here depend on rain water due to brackish soil water. Water extracted from coal mine has intensified the soil’s salinity and endangered the greens, livestock and the total environment that has created a backlash. Villagers continue a sit-in at a temporary camp set up in front of the Islam Kot press club for nearly 750 days. Yet, as passionate as their protests are, they have achieved nothing so far.

Disappointment:

The energy giant plans to complete pulling out coal by 2019. Those affected remain skeptical. They doubt that their demand for relocation of the reservoir will be heard. Years of fruitless demonstrations have contributed to the sense of resignation. Moreover, the former CEO’s revelation that no effort has been made so far to provide electricity to the villagers living in the coal project’s block-II is also upsetting.

New rumors

Lately, there have been rumors that the natives have been relocated by the energy giant SECMC to a new property scheme constructed for them. While some say no relocation has occurred so far as the work on the scheme is still underway.

Still not ghost towns

An abandoned township dies slowly. One house after the other will be discarded soon.  The psychological pressure on the last remaining inhabitants has simply become too much to bear. Though locals are waiting for a resettling, no house can replace a home.

Children won’t play here anymore

The sign is deceptive: few villages will be evacuated for a better property facility and the sound of children playing will not exist here anymore.

A depressing outlook

The real situation is sad and depressing. Only those with nerves of steel will consider visiting the land of “choownros” or choonwra in plural calling them “ghost houses” is something of a euphemism. Choonwra is Thar’s traditional thatched roof mud hut. Roofs are made of dried native plants with such a fine skill that it protects from adverse weather while one can look at the sky from inside. Mud walls give the inhabitants a cool environment, and are maintained by regular polishing.

Picturesque gloom

For a moment, nature holds the energy concern at bay. Not for long, though, with mining going on and “resettling” yet not finished, the huts create a picturesque scene for photographers – or for those on the lookout for morbid place settings. If scraped clean and not protected, the legacy of a culture will be buried forever.

Tortured landscape

The rush for coal doesn’t just drive people away – it also drives away other life forms, like in the vicinity of theThar mine, and it will take decades to make it livable again.

Looking ahead

Visualizing Pakistan without fossil fuel in the absence of viable renewable energy solutions is an unfeasible dream at the moment. Coal energy is important to address the need for meeting the electricity demand. Our energy system is undergoing an unstoppable transformation where every single home is likely to have electricity no matter how far it is from the grid. It may bring power to millions of Pakistanis, who are currently inexcusably without it. Whether or not coal’s days are numbered here along Thar, nature and local residents will feel its effects for a long time to come. Sadly, the dream of a fossil fuel free economy has been pushed behind for decades and its concept has been distorted into a mirage-unworkable, unattainable and untouchable.

The writer is a Karachi based multimedia journalist can be reached @tasneemshazia or shaziatasneemf@yahoo.com

Published in Daily Times, December 13th 2018.