The districts of Sahiwal and Okara are known for fertile land that produces a huge harvest of grain, potato, sugarcane and fodder. They are also home to precious livestock, such as the Sahiwal cow and the Neeli-Ravi Buffalo. The Royal Veterinary Corps have set up a major breeding and dairy farm near Okara. In Pattoki, there is a buffalo research centre.
The narrow belt of these districts has helped Pakistan become the third largest milk producer in the world. This has led to many companies setting up milk plants and collection points, uplifting the economy of the region. Apart from its economic value, milk is a major source of nutrition, particularly for children in the area.
Sahiwal and Okara have been blessed with many natural gifts. The one gift that the area does not have is a coal mine. Unfortunately, our government does not seem aware of this fact and has decided to build a 1,200 megawatt (MW) coal-fired electrical power station in the Sahiwal-Okara area, which will burn more than a thousand tonnes of imported coal every day.
Coal power plants are an environmental disaster. In one hour, a 1200 MW coal power plant typically emits over 1,200 kilogrammes (kg) of carbon dioxide gas, nine kg of nitrous oxide and five kg of sulphur dioxide. All of these pollutants fall back to earth in the form of acid rain. Twenty years of research has concluded that most of the anthropogenic (human caused) mercury contamination in water bodies is due to coal power plant emissions.
Coal emissions and ash are responsible for arsenic and lead permeating into groundwater, seriously damaging the quality of aquifers that supply drinking and irrigation water. These toxic metals and residues eventually enter the food chain, contaminating food crops, livestock and milk. A particularly pernicious emission is PM10, which enters the respiratory systems of humans and animals and causes infectious diseases. A perfunctory environmental impact assessment was carried out and an NoC was issued by the Punjab government.
A 1,200 MW power plant will consume approximately 10 million cubic feet of water per day – equivalent to a canal carrying 115 cusecs of water – which could have provided a livelihood to a population of 57,500 farmers. Where will the extra water supply in the Lower Bari Doab system come from?
Furthermore, Sahiwal is approximately 1,000 km from the nearest port. Although we have large coal deposits in Tharparkar, due to a high water content and a lower flash point, Sindh’s coal is not suitable for transport and we will have to import coal from Indonesia and South Africa.
A 1,200 MW power station will burn 600 tonnes of coal per hour, approximately 14,000 tonnes per day and 3.5 million tonnes per year. It will require approximately three train-loads per day, and a turnaround rate (from Karachi to Sahiwal) of five days per train to fulfil this demand. According to Coal India, which has many years of experience, the transportation of coal is the most critical issue in the smooth functioning of coal power plants. Pakistan railways have imported locomotives and wagons worth $500 million to haul this coal.
The right location for any coal-fired plant in Pakistan is Tharparkar, even if we must rely on imported coal for the short term. The power plant boilers should be designed to run on local lignite, as well as high calorific imported coal, so that they can be switched to indigenous coal once the mining has progressed. Seawater can be used for cooling in a plant located in Sindh, making the entire countryside environmentally safe.
A 150 MW coal power plant in Lakhra is lying shut and there are no attempts to restart it. Why are we are focusing on new construction? Another coal power plant is planned to be constructed near Hub. This would be an environmental disaster, as the prevailing winds in Karachi are primarily from west to east. Karachi is already the fifth most polluted city in the world. For this very reason, Z A Bhutto’s government ordered the relocation of the Pakistan Steel Mills from Hub to its current location.
The price tariff for the Sahiwal plant is 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. If the government is foolishly bent on importing fuel, then a gas pipeline from Iran would be the most cost-effective solution. At present, Iranian gas in Gwadar would cost approximately $3 per mmbtu. A gas-fired power plant would have a tariff of 4.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, including transmission losses. As the government intends to set up 4,000 MW worth of coal-fired plants, the total extra cost Pakistan must pay for coal-based electricity would be $1 billion per year or $25 billion over the life of the project. Are we really that rich?
Pakistan has hundreds of legislators and dozens of talk show hosts. Perhaps one of them should ask these three simple questions:
Given the ample coal reserves in Sindh, the difficulty of transporting this coal upcountry and the risk of devaluing the rupee, why are we importing coal on a long-term basis? Why is Pakistan paying more than $25 billion over the fair value market price for this imported fuel-based electricity? Why are we poisoning the milk that our children drink and ruining our environment in the bargain, especially when the whole world has progressed beyond coal-fired plants?
The author is a civil engineer based in the Gulf. Email: ab.hasangmail.com