Thu, Mar 02, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Rural Pakistanis accuse government of dirty tricks in turning to coal for power

As Pakistan seeks to address its power crisis by mining coal, villagers in the Thar desert are fighting to prevent the state from acquiring their ancestral land

By Zofeen Ebrahim  /  The Guardian, KARACHI, Pakistan

Illustration: Mountain People

Amid the din of the excavating machines and the rumble of dumpers removing and hauling tonnes of earth, the voice of indigenous communities in Pakistan’s Sindh Province has been drowned out.

Nabi Bux, a resident of Sehnri Dars in the province’s Thar desert, can attest as much. His village, roughly 400km from the port city of Karachi, has been acquired by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Co and, as a result, he and about 1,800 fellow residents are to be relocated 25km away.

“Engro is making brand new homes for us, but the spiritual attachment we have to our ancestral land is lost to them,” he said. “Nor can you put a price tag to it.”

The Sindh government is backing the project, under which the villagers were coerced into selling their land in the “greater national interest.”

Official estimates suggest that there are 175 billion tonnes of lignite coal reserves beneath the 9,000km2 stretch of land — enough to last “400 years,” according to Pakistani Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal — and the villagers were promised that the sale would bring personal as well as national prosperity.

“Our elders had predicted the day would come when we’d be asked to move out,” Bux said.

Serious power shortages have crippled industry — in summer, Pakistan faces a shortfall of more than 6,000 megawatts — and many see coal as the only resource that can save the country from total darkness.

Last month, during the signing of an agreement with China for a power generation project, the electricity went off twice, plunging the conference hall into darkness for a few minutes. The agreement papers were reviewed using mobile phone flashlights.

However, many are alarmed by Pakistan’s insistence on turning to coal. Among them is Abid Suleri, executive director of the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute, who likens the approach to “investing in an old gramophone.”

Suleri believes coal cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to remain below 2°C.

“Pakistan had signed and ratified climate declarations in Paris and Morocco — what of them?” he asked.

If Pakistan has to invest in coal, it must also invest in renewable energy, Suleri said.

“We should not put ourselves in the absolute either/or situation, but adopt a more flexible one, dabbling in a good mix,” he added.

Suleri feels that, were there a need for Pakistan to stop using coal overnight, the country should be able to cope without difficulty.

Yet, for people living close to the dumping site in Sehnri Dars, it is living with coal rather than living without it that is the problem.

“The entire village — our homes, utensils, clothes, trees, you name it — everything is covered with a thick sheet of dust due to the digging and the dumping of soil,” Bux said. “I shudder to think what will happen in June when strong gusts blow.”

The relocation will not start before next year, Sindh Engro said.

The villagers of Sehnri Dars might have acquiesced, but people in the 12 villages around Gorano have not; they feel cheated. They have held a sit-in outside the press club in Islamkot, an adjoining town, for more than 100 days in protest at the construction of a reservoir in Gorano, which began in May last year.

The reservoir is to store about 850 to 990 liters per second of effluent from the coal mine over the next three years.

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