Thar’s Changing Hydrology: Adverse Impacts of Coal Mining and Coal-based Power Generation on Local Water Resources

  • File ACJCE
  • File Sep 30, 2022

Executive Summary

Groundwater is the most precious resource in Pakistan’s Thar Desert, a water-scarce region spread over 19,638 square kilometers in Sindh province’s District Tharparkar. Thar has one of the largest coal deposits in the world — estimated to be 176 billion tonnes.

The Thar coalfield is one of the biggest coal extraction operations in the whole world. Two out of a total of 13 Thar Coalfield Blocks — TCB I and TCB II — have seen considerable activity in terms of coal mining operations, development of coal-fired thermal power plants and coal-based power generation in the last few years.

Hundreds of residents faced forceful displacement from their ancestral homes and villages to make room for coalmines and thermal power plants since the start of the coal power development in the two Thar coal blocks. Apart from that, coal power projects boil water to produce steam that in turn runs their turbines. Their water requirements, therefore, have been posing serious quantitative and qualitative threat to the area’s water resources.

On the other hand, groundwater is the only source of water available in Thar. An overwhelming majority of the local population depends on dug wells for drinking water and to meet their domestic needs. This groundwater is not sufficient to meet the water requirements of coalmines and thermal power plants in the area. Therefore, an auxiliary project of providing water from the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) to Thar coalfield has been undertaken.

Companies doing coal mining and power generation are also discharging their wastewater in the lands adjacent to them, thus contaminating nearby water bodies and aquifers. They have also constructed boundary walls around croplands and pastures that were once traversed freely by the desert’s inhabitants. Instead of offering them alternative sources of income, these companies have prohibited them and their cattle from entering the area within those boundaries.

Such problems, coupled with a decreased access that the Tharis have to groundwater, are posing a serious threats to public health and the survival of local flora and fauna. For instance, coal-burning in power plants leaves behind a brown or black powder-like substance, known as coal ash, which contains concentrated amounts of toxic elements such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, boron and lead — each of which has been associated with cancer. Exposure to coal ash also increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, neurological disorders, reproductive problems and other critical medical problems.

But coal-mining is impacting the groundwater quality and water table not just in TCB-I and TCB-II but also in their nearby areas. Exploring the gravity of the situation, this study offers important insight into the detrimental effects of coal mining and thermal power generation on water resources in Thar.

Read the complete study here.