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RO plants in Thar: a political adventure or a practical necessity?

By Ebad Ahmed
June 03, 2016


Home to a population of around 1.2 million people and considered to be one of the poorest of country's 120 districts due to a drought prevailing for the past three years, water in Tharparkar district, situated south-east of the Sindh province, is — least to say — a precious commodity.

In view of the acute water scarcity and also to attract foreign investment by fast-tracking the excavation of coal, the Sindh government in an ambitious move invested heavily in the Sindh Coal Project that included setting up 750 water purification plants to help bring clean drinking water to the region.

The $33 million project aspired to install 750 water purification plants in villages across the desert region by desalinating underground saline water, through Reverse Osmosis (RO).

According to Irshad Hussain, the chief operating officer of PakOasis, the company responsible for installing the 750 reverse osmosis plants across Thar, so far 700 plants have been installed out of which 450 are functional while 250 are “under maintenance”.

Irshad Hussain, added, “The RO plants are supplying 800,000 gallons of water per day to the residents of Tharparker district.”

However, the report of a four-member commission formed by the provincial government to conduct a survey of the drought-hit parts of the Thar and detect reasons for the high number of deaths of children in the area, raised grave concerns over the efficacy of these RO plants.  

“The RO plants being installed in Thar are mostly of no use and more such plants will only cause more devastation in the area,” the report warned while strongly recommending carrying out feasibility surveys before indulging in such “adventures” in the future.

One of the four members of the commission, Dr Sonu Khanghrani, dilated on the observations of the report while talking to The News. According to him, the objections on the installation of RO plants were multi-faceted. But the prime reservation of commission members was the lack of any feasibility study or even a survey before spending $33 million on installing 750 RO plants across the desert region and their impact on the local ecosystem.

“Several RO plants were installed in places that actually had sweet water 20 to 40 feet below ground, but vested interests of the political leadership has a lot to do with the project,” said Dr Sonu Khanghrani. “The RO plants were set up at specific locations under this project by politicians to strengthen their respective constituencies.”

This claim of Khanghrani’s was also seconded by Sardar Khoso, the elected chairman of Nangarparker town.

Khanghrani believes that setting up RO plants is only a temporary solution to the prevailing water crisis since it would further deplete ground water. He called for diverting river water through the canal system with the help of pumping stations and pipelines.

On the other hand, PakOasis chief operating officer, Irshad Hussain, debunked this suggestion saying that the pipeline idea was outdated.   

“There are pumping stations in Naukot and pipelines are present in Chachro and Pipro. The infrastructure was already there but still the execution failed. Why? Because a pipeline running from Naukot to Islamkot requires 900 kilowatts to transport 50,000 gallons of water. With the persisting electricity crisis, it is just not possible,” he said. “The best available solution to the persisting water crisis is to pull water up from 300 feet down a well and make it drinkable.”

For Hussain, the primary issue being faced was the distribution of purified ground water. He claimed the Tehsil Municipal Administration was is responsible for the distribution of water, under the supervision of provincial government.

“The authorities must check why a tanker filled at an RO plant does not reach its destination. If the water turns brackish, then where was it being stored in the mean time? Under our contract, we are only mandated for producing purified water. The rest of the responsibility lies with the government’s own distribution mechanism,” said Hussain.

The PakOasis official claimed that a fact-finding committee of the Pakistan Army had surveyed as many as 400 RO plants and found 70 percent of them to be functional, 30 percent under maintenance and 10 percent to be construction.

Referring to the report of Thar drought commission, Hussain shared his reservations. “The army has endorsed and appreciated us on our work and transparency but the commission set up by the government has raised objections and that too based on a limited sample and of course malafide intent.”

The matter of “malafide intent” is also rather dubious because the commission’s report and its recommendations have already been presented before the province’s top authority, the chief minister.

According to Dr Khanghrani, a meeting was held at the Chief Minister’s House on April 27 during which all the recommendations of the commission were presented to the chief minister who had then directed the chief secretary to formulate a policy roadmap in light of the commission’s recommendations and also take other departmental secretaries on board.  “We were not informed or called for any follow up after that meeting,” Dr Khangharani said.