Pakistan Bulletin

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The Gendered Impact of Coal Mining in Thar: A Socio-Environmental Perspective

April 2024

The progress of coal mining projects in Thar showcases a contradictory story of economic development, as it has been hailed as a solution to Pakistan’s energy concerns, failing to account for significant social and environmental drawbacks, especially for women. 

Energy plays a pivotal role in shaping societal structures and dynamics, with its pursuit often intertwined with economic aspirations and environmental consequences. We can critically examine the gendered implications of coal mining in the Thar region of Pakistan, focusing on how women’s lives, environments, and societal roles have been adversely affected by the rapid development of coal extraction projects.
The Tharparkar desert in Sindh province, Pakistan is characterized by its arid landscapes and sparse vegetation. Forty per cent of Thar’s population of 1,778,407 people, consists of the Hindu community, adding to its cultural diversity. Despite its rich cultural heritage, Thar remains an underdeveloped region, grappling with challenges such as limited access to basic amenities and infrastructure such as health care and education.
As noted by the Geological Survey of Pakistan, coal deposits in the Thar coalfield stand as the 16th largest coal reserve in the world. It was discovered in 1991 by Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Pakistan stands seventh in the list of top 20 countries of the world after the discovery of this huge lignite coal resources. Following decades old electricity shortage crisis, Pakistan decided to turn to coal, as a local resource, to generate power and energy and began coal production in the region in around 2013.

The pollution of water sources from coal mining activities and and power plant adds to the health risks faced by women in Thar desert.

The coalfield in Thar has been divided into 13 blocks. Out of 13 coalfield blocks, the development of open-pit mining and coal power thermal power plants is going on in two blocks – Thar Coalfield Block-II (TCB-II) and Thar Coal Block-I (TCB-I). Open-pit mining, the primary method employed in Thar, necessitates vast tracts of land, disrupting local ecosystems and landscapes. Moreover, the extraction, transportation, and combustion of coal contribute to environmental pollution, exacerbating the region’s already fragile ecological balance. Despite these challenges, the development of coal-fired power plants in Thar has been underway since the coal mines were constructed in 2019 after the agreement between the Government of Sindh, SECMC and the CPEC investors in 2014 to build energy production capacity in the country.
While coal mining in Thar has been hailed as a potential solution to economic and energy challenges, its progression has unveiled a plethora of social, economic, and environmental costs, particularly for women in the region. In the aftermath of coal development in Thar, communities face displacement as vast tracts of land is being acquired for coal and power development operations, on an ad hoc basis. Coal development has also led to significant environmental damage and ecological imbalance, including land degradation and water scarcity that are severely impacting agricultural productivity and livestock rearing. Despite promises of economic development, including improvements in education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, these commitments often remain unfulfilled, leaving local residents disillusioned and economically marginalized. The influx of corporate interests further exacerbates social tensions, leading to a widening gap between promised prosperity and the reality experienced by the people of Thar.
Foremost among the concerns surrounding coal mining in Thar is its detrimental impact on women’s health. The extraction, transportation, and combustion of coal release a myriad of pollutants into the environment, leading to elevated levels of air and water pollution. The emissions from coal mining and power generation have been linked to a range of health issues, including skin diseases, cardiovascular ailments, neurological disorders, respiratory illnesses, and various cancers. The prevalence of these health conditions is exacerbated by the lack of adequate medical facilities in the region, resulting in undiagnosed and untreated ailments among women.
Moreover, the contamination of water sources due to coal mining activities further compounds health risks for women in Thar. The most significant example is found in the case of the Gorano Dam, situated some 30 kilometers away from Islamkot. The Gorano Dam is a haphazardly constructed dam in Block II intended to release water discharged from coal mining operations. It has inadvertently led to water pollution, infiltrating underground storage facilities and disrupting the local water table. Consequently, villagers are deprived of access to clean drinking water, forcing them to rely on a single Reverse Osmosis (R.O) plant situated kilometers away. This reliance on distant water sources imposes additional burdens on women, who bear the brunt of fetching water for their families in harsh weather conditions, exacerbating their physical strain and susceptibility to health risks associated with consuming polluted water.
The remote and underdeveloped nature of the region means that healthcare infrastructure, including facilities for maternal and child health, is limited and often inaccessible to women in the villages in Thar. The absence of proper medical facilities poses significant risks for pregnant women, as they may not receive adequate prenatal care or assistance during childbirth. Postnatal facilities also does not exist in the desert region. Without access to skilled birth attendants or emergency obstetric services, women face heightened risks of maternal mortality, complications during childbirth, and neonatal health issues. The lack of healthcare facilities not only endangers the lives of women and their newborns but also perpetuates cycles of poverty and gender inequality, highlighting the urgent need for improved healthcare infrastructure in Thar.
In Thar desert, women have long been engaged in agrarian activities as well household management, owing to the fact that agriculture and livestock have been a means of livelihood for most Tharis. However, the expansion of coal mining operations has disrupted these roles, resulting in economic disempowerment for women. The acquisition of land for mining projects has led to the displacement of indigenous communities, depriving women of their rights to land and livelihoods. Furthermore, compensation mechanisms for land acquisition often overlook the contributions of women, with only male household heads receiving compensation, further entrenching gender disparities and economic dependence on men.
The environmental impact of coal mining in Thar is extensive, encompassing deforestation, habitat destruction, and contamination of water sources. These environmental changes undermine traditional livelihoods relied upon by women, such as agriculture and gathering of forest resources, exacerbating their economic vulnerability. Additionally, the depletion of water resources and pollution of water bodies jeopardize women’s access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and sanitation, perpetuating their socio-economic marginalization.

Women in Thar have also been facing a myriad of challenges that curtail their mobility. With the proliferation of coal mining infrastructure, women find themselves constrained by new restrictions on movement, impeding their ability to engage in customary activities such as assisting in farming or overseeing livestock. Blocked roads and pathways limit their mobility, creating a dynamic of dependency upon male household members which have social implications of reinforcing patriarchal power dynamics within and outside of family. Traditional gatherings during fieldwork or water collection, which fostered social cohesion and support networks among women, have dwindled in the wake of coal mining expansion. Women, who were once integral participants in these communal activities, now find themselves confined to their homes, deprived of opportunities for social interaction and engagement. This isolation further compounds their marginalization, exacerbating existing gender disparities within the community.

Women in Thar have also been facing a myriad of challenges that curtail their mobility. With the proliferation of coal mining infrastructure, women find themselves constrained by new restrictions on movement, impeding their ability to engage in customary activities such as assisting in farming or overseeing livestock.

The influx of external mining companies and labourers into Thar disrupts the social fabric of indigenous communities, leading to heightened social conflict. Women, as primary caretakers and custodians of familial and communal well-being, bear the brunt of these disruptions, facing increased risks of patriarchal violence, displacement, and loss of social cohesion. The erosion of communal values and traditional practices further exacerbates the vulnerability of women in Thar, undermining their agency and autonomy within the societal framework.

Hidden vulnerabilities related to gender in Thar emerge as well within the intersecting spheres of socio-economic, cultural, and environmental contexts. While gender disparities are often overtly manifested through limited access to education, economic opportunities, and healthcare, deeper-rooted vulnerabilities lie beneath the surface, exacerbating inequalities and perpetuating systemic discrimination against women. While there is limited information on potential instances of violence against women that may have emerged as a result of the altered social structure of Thar in the backdrop of rapid expansion in coal exploitation. We can gauge that women have been impacted disproportionately by being vulnerable to various forms of complex oppressive structures.

In conclusion, the advancement of coal mining projects in Thar presents a paradoxical narrative of economic progress juxtaposed with profound socio-environmental costs, particularly for women in the region. From adverse health effects and economic disempowerment to environmental degradation and social disruption, the gendered impacts of coal mining underscore the urgent need for inclusive and gender-sensitive approaches to development. Policymakers, civil society organizations, and mining companies must recognize and address these gendered dynamics, prioritizing the well-being and empowerment of women in Thar. Only through concerted efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of coal mining and promote gender equity can sustainable development be realized in Thar.

Shanzeh Afzal


Shanzeh Afzal is a researcher at The Knowledge Forum

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