Pakistan Bulletin

An up-to-date and informed analyses of key issues of Pakistan.

Coal, Climate Capitalism, and Community: Exploring the Impacts of Resource Extraction in Pakistan's Thar Desert

February 2024

The article explores the dual impacts of coal extraction in regions like Thar, highlighting the immediate and long-term consequences within the context of climate change.

Pakistan’s Thar Desert, a densely populated vast expanse stretching 22,000 square kilometers across Pakistan’s Sindh province, stands as a battleground for conflicting visions of development and environmental preservation. At the heart of this debate lies the contentious issue of coal extraction—a perceived panacea for Pakistan’s energy and economic insecurities, yet a source of pressing socio-environmental concerns.
In the face of dwindling natural gas reserves and heavy reliance on costly oil imports – both primary components of the current energy mix – Pakistan has been turning to local coal to address its energy needs. The Thar Desert is central to this aspiration. According to the Geological Survey of Pakistan, Thar Coal reserves are estimated to be approximately 175 billion tonnes; making it one of the largest lignite coal reserves in the world.  Proponents argue fervently for the exploitation of these resources, positioning Thar as the cornerstone of Pakistan’s energy security and economic prosperity.

The most pressing concern with the exploitation of coal in Thar has been the impact it has had on the people that are indigenous to the region.

Tharparkar is an underdeveloped region with a population of the district is 1,649,661, according to the 2017 Census. It is one of the most dense desert regions of the world. Over 40% of the region’s population is comprised of the Hindu community. Thar’s economy is mostly driven by rain-fed agriculture, livestock, wage labour and remittances (mostly from internal migration). The livestock population in Tharparkar is estimated to be over 6 million, standing out as a major source of supply of meat and milk to the entire province of Sindh. A large majority of the farmers are small farmers owning an average of 2.5 acres of cultivable land (as indicated by the Agriculture Census 2010).
For the purpose of coal extraction, the Tharparkar coal field has been divided into 12 blocks. In the first phase, mining and power generation work started in Block II, in which 1.57 billion ton coal is estimated to be available for power generation. So far, 12 blocks have been planned after detailed drilling, covering an area of 1,192 sq km. Each block is estimated to carry reserves of over 2 billion tonnes. Most of the blocks in Thar Coal will be opting for surface mining/opencast mining methodology for coal mining.
While work on Block II and Block I is complete, and other blocks are progressing, the government is speedily entering into agreements with power production companies to convert their generation systems into Thar coal. There are also plans for using the Thar coal to energise rail network while special train lines to transport Thar coal to different parts of the country, especially Karachi are being planned for power production by the local electricity generation companies. A fresh water line supplying water for coal mining has been advancing despite serious reservations by environmentalists over prioritizing water for coal development instead of other sustainable uses.
However, amid these rapid developments, a chorus of dissent has been growing louder. Increasingly, voices of resistance denounce the development of coal in Thar, pointing to the staggering human toll exacted by such endeavors. Communities living in proximity to proposed coal mining sites, as well as civil society organizations have been actively voicing concerns over displacement, environmental degradation, and health hazards, underscoring the profound costs borne by local inhabitants.
The most pressing concern with the exploitation of coal in Thar has been the impact it has had on the people that are indigenous to the area. Residents of Thar block I and II have been forcefully displaced from their land. Community members have accused of inadequate compensation delivered through the outdated and contentious Land Acquisition Act 1894 of Pakistan. The traditional farmer community that uses vast tracts of the region’s land for animal grazing is experiencing  diminished agricultural production as well as loss of livestock due to change in vegetation patterns. This has been directly impacting the income and nutrition of the local population. Furthermore, the extensive coal mining activities in the area have led to widespread contamination of both air and water, exposing local communities to harmful pollutants such as sulfur monoxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide. This pollution has been linked to a range of health issues, especially respiratory diseases. Additionally, inadequate wastewater management practices in coal mining operations have contributed to the contamination of groundwater sources, leading to vulnerability to water borne diseases. The suicide rate in the area has drastically increased as well due to these unlivable conditions.
Energy security holds paramount importance as it serves as the driving force behind economic growth. Pakistan’s positive correlation between energy increase and economic growth has led to the popular slogan “Thar will change Pakistan” being propagated by the government. This widespread belief does not account for how the local environmental and social landscape of Thar has negatively transformed with the introduction of these coal projects. When confronted with the on ground reality of the people of Thar, some people claim that energy security comes at a cost to justify continuing the rapid expansion of coal in the region.

However, the notion that energy always comes at a high cost is not necessarily true. If Pakistan’s economic foundation relies on the marginalization and oppression of the local community in Thar, it sets the stage for an unjust energy landscape. Therefore, there’s a growing imperative to reconsider the reliance on Thar coal. While coal exploitation may promise short-term energy solutions, the long-term consequences, including environmental degradation, health hazards, and social injustice, outweigh its benefits. Transitioning away from Thar coal towards cleaner and more renewable sources is crucial for fostering a just and equitable energy system in Pakistan. By prioritizing renewable energy and investing in community-led initiatives, Pakistan can not only ensure energy security but also promote environmental sustainability and social justice for all its citizens.

If Pakistan's economic foundation relies on the marginalization and oppression of the local community in Thar, it sets the stage for an unjust energy landscape.

Coal is globally acknowledged as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to significant socio-economic and environmental changes in local communities. Extractive coal projects often overlook the true costs to communities and the environment. While climate change discourse has become widespread, it’s crucial to acknowledge that it encompasses not only catastrophic natural events but also the alteration of physical landscapes by human activity, rendering areas like Thar unlivable.

Shanzeh Afzal


Shanzeh Afzal is a researcher at The Knowledge Forum.

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