Environmental impact of the Sahiwal Coal Power Plant

Sahiwal Coal Power plant project is in Qadirabad, Sahiwal, Punjab. This is a mega coal power project which is a part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) program. It was initiated to help overcome the electricity shortage in Pakistan. China invested $1.8 billion on this particular project in collaboration with the Pakistani Government.

The question arises, what its social and environmental impacton the people residing in the vicinity of this plant? The project has caused raging temperatures and flooding as well as agricultural, environmental and economic losses. The government has witnessed these damaging impacts on the environment, people and agriculture but ignored it all just to gain foreign investment.

In the past years, air contamination in China through coal power plants caused the deaths of 750,000 people, as indicated by an examination by the World Bank. In September 2013, State Council’s Action Plan emphasised prevention and control of air pollution. So, there was a need to diminish the coal energy which was being used in China.

Tim Flannery in Atmosphere of hope (2015) said, “In northern China, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, principally coal, is causing people to die on an average of 5.5 years sooner than they otherwise might.”

China, with the help of the Pakistani government, constructed the Sahiwal coal power plant in Pakistan without any concern for the local people. Even the environmental departments were not in favourof establishing these plants on fertile lands in populated areas. The Chinese people who were working in Sahiwal coal power plant, said “they were using latest technology in coal power plant which is is called Super Critical technology”. They were importing coal from South Africa, because the burning quality of Pakistani coal is not good. So, this coal first landed by ships on Karachi port and a special rail lane used to transport this coal to Sahiwal coal power plant.

The plant discharges roughly 20 harmful toxic elements, including arsenic, mercury and lead which are hazardous if discharged into the soil or water systems

The coal power plant is not super critical, as the coal quality is very bad. It is using a very old technology called ‘sub critical’ which most of the countries have banned. The coal is the worst in quality, known as ‘lignite-based coal’ with a calorific value of less than 3000 kcal. It will take 1 kg of coal to make 1 unit of electricity while normal coal, as imported and used in Sahiwal power plant, used just 0.4 kg per unit of electricity. That means that the amount of smoke produced by coal power plant will be 2.5 times of Sahiwal coal power plant for each unit. Hence the output is not satisfactory and hence leaves very little for labour economical share.

The environmental impact of Sahiwal coal power plant includes issues such as damage to agricultural fertile land, pollution of canal water and air pollution. In addition to climatic contamination, coal consumption produces a huge amounts of toxic waste every year, including fly ash, land ash, and pipe gas desulfurisation slop. Coal and coal squander items (counting fly and bottom ash and evaporator slag) discharge roughly 20 harmful toxic elements, including arsenic, mercury and lead which are hazardous if discharged into the soil or water systems.

A local person of the village Mr Abdullah said, “we are not aware about the scientific damages of the coal power plant. But when we hang white cloth with a rope, it become black in few hours. So, how can they say they are using super critical technology”.

After the construction of this plant, the summer season has become hotter than before, and some people have become victims of allergy problems. The plant became operational in May 2017. Many harmful effects have been observed since then, in just a little time. Therefore in the long-term, the situation will become much worse.

According to data, 80 percent of the population of the locality is supposed to utilise the agricultural resources — which have been damaged by the plant — for their survival and living activities. The other harmful impacts are related to agricultural fertile lands. Half of the agricultural land has been used in the construction of coal power plants and the rest is expected to lose its fertility over time. Additionally, farmers cannot use canal water for irrigation because all the canal water is being used in the power plant and contaminated with toxic substances; the dirty water is being discharged on the agricultural lands, so it will damage the soil and cause potential contamination of food crops in coming years as well.

Shafiq Butt, a journalist who published an article in 2014 in Dawn, revealed his concerns about the environmental effects of Sahiwal coal power plant. He expressed the ideas of native people and an environmentalist’s views, but no one paid attention and the plant began operating in May 2017.

Dr. Nabeel Khan Niazi who is an environmentalist and recently published a paper in Science on coal power plants’ impacts indicating also the deleterious effects of Sahiwal coal power plant on environment and agriculture due to the presence of toxic chemicals in coal and emitted smoke and particulate matter. Dr Niazi said, “the coal power plant installation in Sahiwal has many environmental, agricultural and human health issues because Sahiwal is a rich agricultural land. The soils of this region are highly fertile, and groundwater is drinkable, and this region is famous for its cattle breed, Sahiwal. We have observed in our research-based surveys that the health problems related to skin, respiration and eyes have increased in last 2 to 3 years after installation of the coal power plant. In addition, the groundwater table has also declined (up to 15 ft) possibly due to the over pumping of groundwater for utilisation of coal power for electricity generation. The health issues are associated with emission of fine particulate matter which contains toxic elements like arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel present in coal inherently. In addition, the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) itself can cause many respiratory and skin problems in humans and animals. We have a view that high groundwater depletion due to coal power over pumping may cause an increase in aquifer contamination with geogenic arsenic levels which is present geogenically in underground sediments of the Ravi Flood plain — and it is being released due to groundwater over pumping induced changes in below ground sediments.

Pakistan’s new government should pay attention to this environmental issue. Government is requested to prepare people friendly policies. Government policy makers should be aware of the people priorities and their needs before initiation of new projects. They should pay attention in formulating of micro policies as well as macro.

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