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June 11, 2016

Protecting the Khewra springs


June 11, 2016

Natural water springs and lakes in Punjab are suffering from environmental degradation due to human activity and and neglect. While government departments are sleeping over the issue, the Supreme Court has recently taken a step to save the natural water springs of the Khewra Range near Chakwal by prohibiting coalmining in the area.

In May, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court ordered the authorities not to grant any fresh lease and licence permission to carry out coalmining work and also to not renew the existing lease of the miners near the water storage and other water sources at the Khewra Range, near Jhelum.

Khewra is widely known for its salt mines but it is also home to coal deposits. And mining has been going on for long in what was declared a water catchment area way back in 1911. This mining has led to pollution of the water springs, which are a source of drinking water to the locals and provide habitat to a variety of flora and fauna.

In 1911, an area measuring 4,161 acres was declared the Khewra Water Catchment Area and all sort of mining was prohibited there in order to protect the drinking water source from pollution. In 1994, an official commission recommended that this restricted area be reduced to 1,842 acres. However, thanks to the greed and avarice of coalminers, it practically dwindled to merely 545 acres.

There are a total of 17 coal mines in Khewra out of which three are operational. At Khewra, coalmining has been carried out through traditional techniques in which after blasting, coal is dug out by manual labour.

Coalmining adversely impacts the environment of the area being mined as huge amounts of the rock and waste are brought to the surface. The mining waste often becomes toxic when it comes into contact with air and water. Coalmining also changes the flow of groundwater and streams and thus lowers the water table.

Coalmining produces greenhouse gases. The orphan coalmines, if not closed down in an environmentally safe manner, remain a source of contamination.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Punjab (EPA), there is no wastewater treatment and disposal facility in the area and sewage is disposed of in unhygienic manner.

The major spring located in this area is called Mitha Pattan which has an average flow of about 200,000 gallons per day. It is formed by the merger of many smaller springs until it is diverted and made to flow into the Khewra’s water supply reservoir comprising three contiguous and open water reservoirs.

The bank of the stream, from the mouth of the main spring onward, is at places lined with black deposits, clear evidence that the coal-mining debris was finding its way into the water flowing along the stream.

The presence of coal debris at the mouth and surrounding of the closed mine in the area means that rains wash mine debris down into Khewra water catchment area and into the stream carrying water to the Khewra water supply reservoir.

It is strange that some so-called environment experts are favouring coalmining at Khewra, arguing that new technologies have been developed for making the saline groundwater potable and thus coalmining no longer affects supply of potable water to locals.

No artificial method of potable water could be a good alternative to natural springs. It is a strange logic that on the one hand we allow natural springs to be turned into ponds of polluted water while on the other, we install expensive systems to turn saline water into drinkable water.

The SC order is a step towards saving Khewra’s natural water resources, but the authorities also need to take other necessary measures. For example, a separate channel should be built for carrying the liquid effluents discharged from various mines, though they are located outside the prohibited area, to a primary treatment facility.

The Salt-Range coalfields are spread over an area of about 260 square km – between Khushab, Dandot, and Khewra in Chakwal and Jhelum districts. The reserves of the Salt-Range coal are nearly 213 million tonnes, of which 30 million tonnes are mineable. A law needs to be framed to restrict coalmining to only those areas where precious natural endowments like springs and lakes are not located.

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