Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
Plans announced by the Pakistani government to more than double the country’s power output by building upwards of 15 coal-based power plants have drawn strong criticism from environmentalists who fear the consequences for the environment and the health of the country’s population.
The government plans to generate around 15,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from coal-powered plants over the next few years, according to the federal water and power ministry, in response to a chronic energy shortfall.
“At present, urban and rural areas are facing intermittent power disruptions totalling 10 and 15 hours every day, respectively,” said Arshad Abbasi, water and power policy expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an Islamabad-based independent think tank.
The energy crisis becomes graver during the scorching summer months of June to September, when temperatures soar beyond 50 degree Celsius across most of the country and the demand for electricity shoots up as people turn on air conditioners and room coolers.
But environmentalists say that while the new power plants may boost electricity generation in the short term and provide relief to the public from power cuts, the cost to the environment is too great.
They point out that coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and say the government’s plans could increase the country’s carbon footprint many times over from its current level of 0.8 percent of total global carbon emissions.
“Pushing ahead with plans of increasing power generation from coal-reliant power plants instead of other abundantly available sources of energy, which are clean and sustainable, shows the present government’s utter disregard for environment and public health,” said Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, a former federal environment minister.
Pakistan currently generates some 13,000 MW against a demand of 16,000 MW which rises to more than 20,000 MW in the peak of summer.
Hydropower accounts for one-third of the country’s total power generation, while solar and wind provide less than 8 MW.
Perhaps in response to countrywide public protests about the crisis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has stepped up efforts to reduce the energy shortfall as much and as quickly as possible.
On January 31 this year, Sharif inaugurated the construction of a $1.6 billion coal-based power generation project in southern Tharparkar district, despite strong resistance by civil society organisations to the initiative.
Due to be operational by mid-2017, the project involves six coal-fired power plants, each of which will generate 660 MW.
The Thar coal field has estimated reserves of 175 billion tonnes of lignite (brown coal), equivalent in energy potentialto the total oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Iran combined, and could be used to produce 100,000 MW of electricity for 200 years, according to reports by the Geological Survey of Pakistan.
“Undoubtedly, the power project will play havoc with (the) desert ecosystem of Tharparkar, particularly (by contaminating) the existing underground aquifers, which are fast shrinking and not getting recharged due to erratic rainfall patterns,” said Ali Akbar Rahimoo, a desert ecology expert and head of the Tharparkar-based Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy.
“(With) increased mining of underground water to meet needs of coal power plants, the depleting aquifers will come under pressure, putting the local people and livelihood sources at stake,” he added.
In April this year, Sharif also gave the go-ahead for another 600 MW plant in Jamshoro, a district in Sindh province, in the country’s south. And in May, the government approved two further coal-fired power plants in the Gadani Power Park in Gadani, a coastal town in the south-western province of Balochistan.
Abid Sher Ali, Pakistan’s state minister for water and power, said in a telephone interview that as many as 10 coal-power plants will be built at Gadani, with a capacity totalling 6,600 MW, with technical and financial assistance from abroad.
“China has consented to invest in six coal power plants, two projects (will) be constructed by ANC Dubai and one project has been initiated by the government of Pakistan,” said Ali, adding that the Ciner Group of Turkey had also agreed to start work immediately on a 660 MW coal-powered plant at Gadani.
Meanwhile, in March of this year, Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, finalised a separate plan to generate 7,800 MW of energy by building six coal-fired power plants in the province.
During a meeting with Pakistan’s finance minister, Ishaq Dar, in Islamabad on March 25, the chief minister said that his provincial government would complete two power plants, generating 1,320 MW each, by 2017, with the remaining four due to be finished the following year.
At a post-budget press conference on June 4, Dar described Pakistan’s reliance on oil imports to fuel power plants as “unaffordable”, blaming spiking oil prices as well as the tight foreign account situation.
Confronted with a growing oil import bill, currently $14 billion annually, the country’s private and public oil plants are switching over to coal.
“This is a major and historic fuel-switching plan, as we generate zero percent from coal in contrast with neighbouring India, which generates nearly 70 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants,” Khwaja Asif, federal minister for water and power, was reported as saying to AFP.
According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, coal accounts for 6 percent of the country’s total energy output.
But environmentalists say they are flabbergasted that Prime Minister Sharif, who is also minister-in-charge of the Federal Climate Change Division, is boosting power generation from coal.
They point out that Pakistan could generate 100,000 MW of clean power from rivers alone, and that the country’s estimated solar energy production potential is 2.9 million MW per annum.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science correspondents based in Islamabad, Pakistan.