Red Earth

April 22, 2019 Asia , Environment , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , Pakistan

Rajarshi Mitra photo



Zeeshan A. Shah



Pakistan is one of the most volatile nations in Asia. Not just politics, the human development index has crossed critical lines in the past. By 2025, the country is on course to become an endangered nation when it comes to water. Governance remains a dream in the making while politics for power dominates the masses. As we celebrate earth month, we must also pledge to fight for mother earth which is sacred to all of us united or otherwise. Dangers lurk around us and for our people. The earth is Green not Red. Yet we see red- we see death. Blood runs cold as death arrives faster for the poor inhabitants on this earth. Suddenly, their lives are at stake. They are an endangered species on their own soil, within their own boundaries, over their own lands.


Somewhere deep in rural Pakistan, in the desert plains of Sindh is the desert of Thar. Far from the commercial world, this ancient remote place is home to one of the poorest populations on the planet, where there is little food, hardly any water, no hospitals, no health care and no education. The children of Thar die of starvation, lack of care, infant mortality, famine and disease. Little has been done here by the government, except to make fake promises that were later abandoned.


The region is a vast desert, where people rely on rainfall and monsoons to cultivate food as cattle and livestock contribute 60% of their livelihood. In good rainy years, lentils, melons and sesame are also grown. Handicrafts, cloth embroidery and carpet weaving are the other sources of income. Between vast sand dunes, the flat plain offers a chance to cultivate and live, in an arid zone hit by drought in the last 6 to 7 years. Thar Desert in the past has been low on political priority, hence the area’s communication levels are not up to the mark while education has been neglected. That is now a bigger problem- the fight between the oppressors and the oppressed.


In the past, the World Bank’s largest ever assistance to Pakistan has been for the Thar Coal project. The institution has invested a massive $8 billion out of the $13 billion required to kick off the project, but corruption ate away what was to be one of the biggest coal mining projects in the country. Beneath the desert lies one of the biggest finds – one of the largest coal deposits on the planet. A lot needs to be cleared about the untapped natural resource. At 380 kilometers from the city of Karachi, the massive natural resource is spread over 4,719,025 acres in Thar, bound on the eastern side of the border with India. Despite the discovery of this massive treasure, there has been little relief for the people of the community, as lives become harder to live and survival declines.


Fighting for a healthy environment in Pakistan has always been a perilous challenge. The people of this mining community have been promised the world while they have gotten little in return over the past decade full of promises. Many have been threatened to silence and many have been asked to vacate their land. There has been a complete media blackout so far in the area after an incident that shocked the world a few years ago, where lots of children died there during one of the worst heatwaves, as the provincial government was celebrating their vast corruption not that far from that place of death.


Coal seems to be the prime candidate as it caters to over 40% of the world’s power generation and is increasing day by day, specifically in developing countries. WEO (World Energy Outlook) forecasts future energy demand in emerging Asian countries increasing to 60% by 2020, increasing massively from 26% in 1980. fossil fuel will remain the primary source of energy through 2030 with demand peaking to 90%, with markets like India, China and Pakistan using coal as the dominant fuel. Plus, coal is the most vital, abundant, cost-effective and secure fossil fuel. Coal is also the safest fossil fuel for storage and transportation.


We all know fossil fuels are killers. But what will happen to those people of Thar is what no one seems to be talking about. It’s an environmental disaster and a lot of blood work.


Coal deposits in Thar are spread over 9,000 kilometers and add up to around 176, 506 billion tons of coal, making it one of the largest coalfields worldwide, according to a research by the Geographical Survey of Pakistan. The field can meet Pakistan’s energy requirements easily for the next 100 years. In a breakdown of the estimated value of energy resources in Pakistan, oil values at $6 billion while coal values at $5.54 billion dollars. Countries like China, UK, USA, Russia, Germany and Australia have shown a keen interest to partner and make use of the coal. The estimated inferred coal resources are between 1.2 km to 4.8 km below earth’s surface and indicated coal resources between 400 meters and 1.2 km below the ground.


It’s a big business. But at what cost? Globally, people are dying inside coal mines due to no accidental coverage and outside people are dying of the air they breathe – diseases that cannot be cured and generations that are being slowly crushed to death. Inside Pakistan, this is one of the most ignored pieces of land where it is feared that the remaining human population stands to suffer due to the mining operations that are starting to become a reality.


The international community has highlighted the inherent risks of coal mining with India and China suffering thousands of casualties due to failure to adhere to the health and environment laws and regulations. In India, there are 70,000 premature deaths annually due to coal pollution. Even in developed countries like the United States, coal burning is responsible for approximately 13,200 deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks annually. The KYOTO protocol, Toronto declaration, the World Summit on sustainable development has taken up this serious matter to protect people worldwide and ensure project and people safety simultaneously. But how many countries are bound to follow the KYOTO protocol as the USA recently broke the same protocol under the Trump administration.


Will Pakistan keep its promise to the people and protect them?



What changes for a community once a mine starts operating?


Most mining takes place in rural areas, where people live off the land and their livestock. Mining often forces people to leave the land they use for farming and grazing. Mining companies by law are required to make binding commitments for projects that will benefit a community that will be affected by mining. Our experience, however, is that the communities are rarely consultant. In the end, we don’t believe that the plans prioritize the needs of the community and often although local residents were promised employment, it goes instead to people from outside who have the required skills. Few people from the community in practice land a job with the mine.


Recently around the world, the government has allowed mines to operate on lands governed by customary or traditional laws without consulting with or seeking the consent of the communities living on them. In fact, the government has used mining laws to override legal protections for informal land rights. And although people have a right to be compensated for the loss of land even in the absence of formal land titles, we know of several cases in which no compensation was paid. When this is the law of the land in bigger nations, what are the chances that a poor nation like Pakistan with the need for speed and efficiency towards self reliance will be able to fight the corporate greed for profit over everything else?


In a desert land, one of the major concerns is water scarcity. Mines need millions of liters of water to wash coal. Pollution from insufficiently treated effluents – water that runs off after the coal has been washed and that contains toxic substances – and the pollution of streams and boreholes from acid mine drainage are another worry. Elsewhere, where there are many active and abandoned coal mines, people’s tap water is undrinkable. Their only option is to buy water. Yet these are people who cannot even afford the most basic things like sufficient food or primary healthcare.


The majority of people constantly suffer after mining operations impact their homes and lives as those living near mines are left worse off than before because they no longer have enough land to farm. And to make matters worse, many end up breathing coal dust, getting sick, and their houses, most of which are made of clay, are cracking because of the blasting. Exposure to coal dust compromises people’s health. When inhaled, this very fine dust can cause respiratory problems, coughs, and trigger asthma. People end up having to see doctors, which is another expense they cannot afford. In Thar, there is not a single hospital to cater to the poor. Not a single ambulance service to help them reach nearby towns in emergencies. No qualified doctor is sent there to look after the poor as their children succumb to disease and affects of injuries while living in the wild desert conditions – as in literally deserted.


Most times, the law becomes unaffordable and expensive. In countries like Pakistan, where local and national government officials rarely respond to formal complaints, the community cannot even exercise its last resort, to take mining authorities to court as they do not have the resources to find against a corrupt and morally weak justice system.


At the end of the day, people are angry. When no one ever responds to their grievances, they resort to protests that are buried by the law enforcement as the police are as corrupt as the rulers of that area. There must be a law that confronts this epidemic which is endemic. Before the Pakistan government starts operations in the desert, they must have a risk management strategy in place and also study some of the major concerns of the minorities that are currently living in the desert of Thar.


The people of Thar have been suppressed by threats by the powerful people of the area who have refused to take care of their minorities and left them without any food, water, shelter, health or education. For those who oppose these powers, it is death for them. They are forced into submission and forced to give them their rights for fear for their children and families. The threats diffuse their courage and passion. Some have families or dependents they have to look after. They know that anything can happen to them, and there are no security measures in place that make them feel protected.


A recent UN report states that in 15 years, the world could face over 40% of water shortfall. The report also further sketches a horrifying outlook on water as the cause of previous deadly wars and their impact on human populations, breakdown of eco-systems, crop failures, collapse of industries , disease and poverty.


If Thar people are not given water access, they will die. The mining corporations will squeeze away all the drinkable water away from this community, leaving them with deadly water, virus and death in return. These people wake up in blood and sleep in blood. The Earth is not Green for them nor is it Blue. The Earth is blood red- as death awakens them each morning. We have seen water wars in Mosul, Yemen, Damascus, Khartoum, Kashmir and many places around the world as people take up arms in order to save their own lives. The cost of business must be justified alongside the cost of death- for any nation.


To run coal mining operations, one needs water access. Lots of it.


The UN has reported that by 2050, Global Water demand will increase by 55%. Rich countries may apply desalination plants – expensive and oil intensive processes. Others will suffer the consequences of war. Safe drinking water is shrinking globally. With a lack of an integrated approach to water resource management, more ways need to be found before there is more climate change impact and more wars. Water conservation should be looked at from a macro perspective – not just the per capita consumption. Wasteful industrial and agricultural water usage must also be accounted for. Gender equality, low poverty rates and a cleaner, greener environment is the only possible solution. Costa Rica for example is on its way to becoming the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2021. Where is Pakistan?


Are banks financing water projects for public utilities or for private profiteering? Are governments adopting water policies that conserve water? Is the water industry getting rich of the poor water without supplying them clean water? Pakistan for instance is yet to formally cascade a Country Water Policy. They must not initiate mining operations in Thar until rules are defined and governed after a formal water policy is announced.


Thar’s coal operation may be the biggest environmental threat to the country at a time when the government is boosting the Go-Green initiatives to preserve environment and protect the lands. Not seeking enough environmental legislation and failure to enforce environmental governance will result in a bloody war between the corporations and the environment, between the rich and the poor, between injustice and justice.


Water will kill more people before coal mining does in Pakistan. To ensure that we benefit from coal mining and fossil fuels, we need to secure health and water for our people, or there will be a blood red sky above and a bloody earth below us. We must salvage our minorities and communities who suffer from lack of resources and lack of basic rights to life. We do not want a civil war. We do not need a Red Earth.





Zeeshan A. Shah

Zeeshan Shah writes on Global Affairs, Climate Change, Governance and Public Policy. He is a banker and a broadcaster.

The writer is a Director at CNNA Pakistan – a leading advocacy institute and is an expert on International Relations and Education Policy.

With over 150 publications in major local and global social media & newspapers, he has been instrumental in producing over 5,000 radio broadcasts aired globally.

A thought leader, environmental journalist, media broadcaster and a change maker with an acute focus on development affairs & education for Pakistan.

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