Pakistan uproots mangroves to install coal-fired power plants

Environmentalists warn Chinese-backed project will pollute the climate and damage a natural buffer against storms

Mangroves provide a natural buffer against cyclones (Flickr/Hemanshu Kumar)

Mangroves provide a natural buffer against cyclones (Flickr/Hemanshu Kumar)

By Aamir Saeed in Islamabad

At a time when international community is struggling to finalise a global climate action plan, Pakistan has removed mangrove forests on 205 acres of land to install coal-fired power plants of 1,320 megawatts.

The project, known as Port Qasim Power Project, near Karachi will be jointly carried out by Chinese Power Construction Corp Ltd with 51% and Qatar’s Al Mirqab Capital with 49% stakes in the project with a total cost of US$2.1 billion.

The plants are being set up along the coastline of Arabian sea, where the government has uprooted mangrove forests to carve out a passage for the coal supply.

The project is part of a broad bilateral deal called as China-Pak Economic Corridor under which the Chinese government and banks will finance Chinese companies to invest $45.6 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan over the next six years.

Environmentalists say the move would have serious consequences on not only tens of thousands of people living around the plants but also the marine life and livelihood of fishermen.

Port Qasim and surrounding mangroves from the air (Wikimedia Commons/Ismael.sultan)

Port Qasim and surrounding mangroves from the air (Wikimedia Commons/Ismael.sultan)

Pakistan’s mangrove forests cover has already decreased from 400,000 hectares in 1945 to 70,000 hectares due to different factors including land grabbing, rising sea levels and decreasing flow of fresh water into the sea, says Mustafa Gurgaze, programme officer at Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a Karachi-based non-profit organisation that works for welfare of fishing communities.

“Karachi could be more vulnerable to disasters like cyclones and tsunamis as the natural shield to disasters like cyclones and tsunamis, mangroves, has been removed,” he said.

The development should be eco-friendly and sustainable and long-term, he said, suggesting the government to review its decision of installing coal-power plants to overcome energy crisis in the country.

Gurgaze said the fish stock near the coastline has already decreased nearly one-third due to fast depletion of the mangroves that serve as a natural breeding ground for fish, shrimps and other marine life.

“The fish have moved to the deep sea and fishermen have to follow the catch by putting their lives at risk,” he said, adding the coal-fired power plants and the mangroves removal have seriously threatened livelihood of the fishing and coastal communities.

People are having to go further out to sea to find fish (Flickr/Wajahat Mahmood)

People are having to go further out to sea to find fish (Flickr/Wajahat Mahmood)

He said the government was installing the plants by completely bulldozing public opinion and protests by fishing and coastal communities. “We have failed to halt environmental hazards of the coal-fired power project but succeeded in raising public awareness about the issue,” he said seemingly satisfied with his organisation’s efforts to stall the project.

On the other hand, the government says it has carried out environmental impact assessment of the project and would ensure regular monitoring of the plants to keep carbon emissions at the lowest, minimise its negative impacts on human health and marine life.

Naeem Ahmad Mughal, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the investors are building waste water treatment plants and exclusive landfill sites for the ash disposal to minimise the environmental hazards.

“We are taking strict measures to ensure complete compliance of all the environment-friendly conditions agreed by the investors,” he said, adding they are also planning to plant mangroves along the coastline to compensate the loss.

“We along the forest department are looking for a suitable area on the shoreline for plantation of the mangroves on at least five hundred acres of land,” he said.

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According to government data, Pakistan has coal resources of more than 185.5 billion tonnes. If half of these resources were exploited, it would be enough to generate 100,000 megawatts of electricity for 30 years.

Pakistan faces a year-round electricity crisis which rises to over 6,000 megawatts in summer. The government is planning to bridge the shortfall by building coal-fired power plants with help of foreign investment, especially from China.

Qamar-uz-Zaman, a leading expert on environment and climate change, said the government may be under public pressure to end the persistent energy crisis but it should not depend entirely on the coal sector.

“The government should be more strategic to end the energy crisis as the coal-fired power plants are already under intense scrutiny of the international community for their excessive carbon emissions,” he said.

The international community may impose a carbon tax on the coal plants and exports of Pakistan if a global climate agreement is reached at the upcoming Paris conference, he said, suggesting the government to focus on more sustainable energy projects like hydro, wind and solar.

Talking about clean coal technology, he said that such technologies are still in experimental phase and costly too but Pakistan could seek financial assistance from developed and rich countries to overcome its energy crisis and ensure effective mitigation and adaptation measures in face of the adverse impacts of the climate change.

Read more on: Asia | Fossil Fuels