Thar Coal – Hope or Despair

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A knock at the door woke me up from a deep slumber. I opened the door and found Gulab Chandio, the jeep driver, with a tray of breakfast: barley bread, salty butter, sweet vermicelli, fried potatoes and tea. What else, one could ask for? Leisurely, I had my breakfast. No hurry. I just wanted to see Eldorado of Pakistan, a huge cache of coal or black gold buried under the sands of the Thar Desert in Sindh.

On a hired a jeep, I started my return journey from Nager Parkar, the farthermost town in Sindh, Pakistan. For about $40, the jeep would take me to Thar Coal Fields near Islamkot, about 100 km away. Since $40 was a lot of money for me, I faked bad health conditions and asked Chandio to drive slowly. It was a peaceful ride on asphalt road passing by sandy dunes covered with thorny bushes, small trees, herbs and grasses. It was mid-winter, cool breeze was slipping by my face. There were occasional scenes of womenfolk carrying water in earthenware.

About 10 km before Islamkot, we spotted a turning with a rusty signboard of “Thar Coal” and drove towards that direction. For forty km, there was hardly any sign of coal mines but the usual animal grazing, women with their arms filled to the shoulders with bangles. In the backdrop were their villages, just a cluster of straw huts, circular and cylindrical with conical thatch roof on top.

I passed by many abandoned stlocation-mapites like China Camp. These looked like ghost towns, reminiscent of Wild West where such crumbling structures have turned into a tourist attraction. At long last, a rigging operation was in sight and I asked the driver to get there.

Underground Coal Gasification

Leaving jeep at the edge, I walked over to the site and was greeted by an official wearing a hard hat. He was the site engineer and briefed me over the drilling operation undertaken by the Geological Survey of Pakistan under the direct supervision of a nuclear scientist, Dr. Samar Mubarkmand.

The site-engineer pointed to two rigs which were drilling two adjacent boreholes into the coal seam. This would be followed by injecting pressurized oxidants like hot air in one of the holes to ignite the coal seam while recovering the combustion gases through the adjacent borehole. He further informed me that the test-burn will be conducted in March 2011 for five megawatts electricity. In this process, coal is not mined or extracted rather plants are installed on deposits to produce gas. In fact, the Thar coal was the most suitable for underground gasification and oil production, recalling that China was running eight similar fields very successfully, he said.


Thar Coal Fields

Huge coal reserves were discovered some twenty years ago in Thar Desert, a desolate area where sand is piled up into huge windblown dunes, rising sometimes to 152 m above the ground level. There are proven reserves of 175 billion tons of coal.

A number of factors could be cited for limited progress in the past to use this enormous quantity of coal.

Lack of necessary infrastructure (roads, water, life support systems, community services and communication network) to support project activity.

  1. Inconsistent government policy.
  2. Inaccessibility to national grid.
  3. Political uncertainty.
  4. Security concerns – Law and order situation.
  5. Tariff issues originating from uncertainties surrounding price instability of the capital equipment and other input costs as well as inherent risks associated with a typical coal mining and power generation venture.
  6. Mining is a provincial subject. Thus hostage to vested interests. Coordination with Federal and Provincial Government departments and ministries.
  7. Role of oil companies and cartels in down-playing use of coal for power generation.

The desert contains the largest coal reserves discovered to date, covering an area of 10,000 sq. km. This has been divided in eight blocks which have been allocated to various private companies from Pakistan, Australia, UAE and UK.

The site, I visited, was handed over to Dr. Mubarkmand. It had a total area of just 64 sq. km.

The coal mines are near Islamkot, a fast developing town in the District Tharparkar, Sindh, Pakistan. The area is accessible by a 360 km metalled from Karachi upto Islamkot via Badin or by a 410 km road via Hyderabad. Public buses ply on the latter route. Besides a road network has been developed which connects all the major towns with Thar Coalfield.

The rail link is from Hyderabad to Naukot, which is about 100 kilometers from coal mines.

The terrain is sandy and rough with sand dunes forming the topography. The climate is essentially that of an arid to semi arid region with scorching hot summers and relatively cold winters.

Description of Mining & Power Projects

Mine and power plants would be developed side by side. Salient features are:

  • The production capacity of Coal mine will be 22.5 million tons per annum to support 4,000 MW of power generation capacity for 70 years
  • Phase 1 will be development of a 6.5 million tons Coal mine in parallel with 1,200 MW Power Plant
  • Thar coal development includes supply of water, effluent disposal, power transmission lines by and railway link.
  • In addition, it would involve construction of roads, supply of potable water.

Estimated Costs

Thar Mining & Power Generation Phase 1 would cost US$ 4 billion of which US $1.2 billion would be contributed by way of equity.  The remaining US$ 2.8 billion would be borrowed from local and foreign banks.

Thar coal development include supply of water, effluent disposal, power transmission lines by and railway link. The estimated cost of these projects would  Rs148 billion or US$ 1.74 billion equivalent.

Time Schedule

Detailed study has been completed. Financial close is expected by December 2012. If all goes well, coal mining and power generating plant would be operative by December 2016.

Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company’s Chief Executive Officer Khalid Mansoor has warned that delay in provision of infrastructure like water and transmission lines might jeopardize the $ 4 billion project designed to produce 1,200-MW by 2015 in the first phase at Thar.

Thar coal development includes supply of water by 2015, effluent disposal by 2012, power transmission lines by 2015 and railway link by 2015.

Progress Made So Far

There has been some progress as shown below:

  • A joint venture was formed between the Sindh Government and Engro Powergen Ltd under the name and style of “The Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company Limited” to mine coal from Thar Block II and to put a Power plant of 600-1000 MW capacity.
  • A high-powered institution, Thar Coal & Energy Board, has been formed for one-window operation.
  • Humayun Khan Sikandari, Board of Investment, has stated that Thar coal field has been declared Spcial Economic Zone, and the investor will enjoy Corporate Income Tax Holiday of 5 years and 10 years for Developers of the Zone.
  • A sum of Rs.315 million has been released to Civil Aviation Authority for construction of an airstrip in Islamkot, Tharparkar district, aimed at facilitating foreign investors to reach Thar coalfields by air.
  • Power supply arrangements from high tension electricity lines of HESCO to colony site have been made.
  • Design of pre-fabricated colony has been completed, layout plan of camp is prepared and contract has been awarded and construction work is in progress.

Dr. Samar Mubarkmand conducted burn-test in October 2011 for a small plant of 5 MW which created a lot controversy:

· According to a member of Planning Commission, Member Energy Shahid Sattar that ‘Dr. Mubarkmand failed in producing gas through Coal from Thar Field. The gas-flame lasted only for four hours and then dropped off.’

· But Dr. Mubarkmand claimed that coal gas remained flaming for almost four months and if still someone could not see it, then it is his fault.

· He said further that the government’s lack of commitment is a major hurdle to production of power under Thar Coal Power Project in the country.

2. The progress on Engro Chemical Plant is on the hold as according to its Chief Executive (Mr. Muhammad Aliuddin Ansari) the required gas supply is not being provided to the projects of his company.

3. On October 3, 2012, the government decided that existing oil-based power plants should be modified and redesigned to Thar coal specifications, and that new coal-based plants should also be designed keeping the same specifications in mind

The Kingho Group of China has expressed its keen interest to Invest in Thar Coal project. This is the largest private group in the country. It has manpower of 64,000 and possesses 22 billion tonnes of reservoirs of coal and 800 million tonnes of iron ore.

9. The company is also deliberating with Indians to sell Pakistani coal to India for their projects in Gujrat and Naveli Tamil Nadu.

10. Among others, German, Turk and Australian investors are keen to invest in Thar Coal project.


There would be immense benefits from the project.  These can be categories into financial, economic and social as given below:


Massive investments in profitable ventures would result in fat dividends to the investors.
Banks and other financial institutions would be able to employ their funds in a secure business.
Machinery suppliers would get fair prices for sale of their machinery.
There would be thousand jobs in the mining and power plants being install throughout the area.


  • Cheap and uninterrupted power supply would benefit many industries particularly cement, fertilizer and chemical industries.
  • It would result in substantial foreign exchange savings as locally available coal will replace imported oil in industrial usage.
  • It would result in massive foreign exchange reserves and strengthening of Pak Rupee.
  • It would accelerate economic activity thus create job opportunities.
  • Congestion caused at the port in handling of imported oil and impact of transportation of oil from port to cities and industrial units would reduce.
  • There would be substantial transfer to technology in the mining and power generating sectors.
  • It would provide opportunities for future downstream industries in petro-chemical.
  • Strategic energy resource that will guarantee energy security to Pakistan in the decades to come
  • It would a source of national pride


  • It will be a step forward in poverty alleviation and would result in improvement in quality of life in Sindh in general and people living around the plant in particular.
  • It would provide job opportunities to people of the area at their door-steps and thus contain shift of population from rural to urban sector.

Hope or Despair

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck”. Let us imagine un-interrupted power supply for use in industrial plants and transport system like cars, buses and train. Let us further assume that our people are prosperous, economy flourishing and exports dominating. If so, all the benefits cited above can be realized in our life time. There is certainly a light at the end of the tunnel.

At the same time, we must not forget that:

  • · The project would require a sizable quantity of water which is difficult to supply from the existing river system. In fact, there is already a chronic shortage of water in Sindh.
  • Even if water were available, the coal-based power plants discharge enormous quantity of waste water which is damaging to landscapes, water supplies, and ecosystems”.
  • · UCG Process is yet on experimental stage and has nowhere been tried on a mass scale.
  • · The project would require huge capital investments which are hard to come by given the creditability of the present regime.
  • · Coal is called a “dirty fuel”, it is losing its appeal as a cheaper energy source because of its major contribution to global warming.
  • · Thar Coal is “lignite coal” which is very high in moisture and so not going to be a globally traded commodity.
  • · “Coal in a Changing Climate” shows that coal produces large amounts of airborne toxic chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrous oxides, arsenic and lead.
  • · “Oil and commission mafia is the major hurdle in this project,” he said.
  • · The project had a checkered history. There had been “a series of unlikely coincidences and a comedy of errors” which does not auger well for the project. “This (Thar) coal needs further processing to make it useful for power plants,” the official said, adding low calorie was the reason why the ADB was not willing to finance Thar coal-based power projects.
  • · Differences between the members of Planning Commission on the fate of ‘Thar Coal Project’ may lead to jeopardize the pace of on-going development work, which is believed to be a vital indigenous resource to meet the energy requirements of the country
  • · Dr Samar Mubarakmand was given the assignment to initiate, experimentally, 10 MW power plant based on underground coal gasification. According to Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, minister for power and water: “Samar Mubarkmand has not given any breakthrough so far”.
  • · Until recently Dr. Mubarkmand was a national hero. Today he stands accused of being ‘intellectually dishonest’ and a ‘fraud’

BUT let us hope that we shall overcome all obstacles and move towards the path of prosperity.

My article was first uploaded on About two years ago. In the meanwhile, I received a lot of comments. Some of these are reproduced below:

shahnawaz sheikh 2 years ago from karachi

A very interesting article sir, truly THAR is Pakistan’s Eldorado, because i read somewhere that If all The Oil Reserves of Saudia Arab & Iran Put Together These Are Approximately 375 Billion Barrels, But A Single Thar Coal Reserve Of Sindh is about 800 Trillion Cubic Feet, Which is More Than Oil Reserves Of Saudia & Iran.These reserves estimated at 850 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas, about 30 times higher than Pakistan ‘s proven gas reserves of 28 TCF.

But Petroleum lobby , is very strong in Pakistan and they are against any other means of power generation except for the imported oil. This lobby is major beneficiary of the increasing oil bill that is estimated above 15 billion dollar this year. Even GOV. was planning to Sell all these reserve to a company on a very low price.

Think About This, How We Can Help Our Home Land . Please let us all strive our best to make our politicians to utilize this blessing in a good way and not to sell all these to increase their bank accounts.AMEN

Ghazanfar Ali Khan 2 years ago

Hello Hafeez.Thanks for sending the details of your trip to a difficult area.In this connection, the latest article of Dr. Qadeer Khan should also be read which is very realistic and points to the best course of action for development of mining resources like Thar coal and even gold and copper in Baluchistan. This is entirely a new field in which we have absolutely no experience and we must use the expertise and experience of well established international mining firms in the initial stages as advocated by Dr. Qadeer Khan.

Michael Schmidt 2 years ago

Eldorado? Hell-dorado?!! Hard to say. There is certainly an enormous amount of energy potential there. And there may be an enormous opportunity for economic development resulting from it. HOWEVER…. They say that “The devil is in the details!” And there are many, many details to work out here.

As I understand it, this coal might be used in one of two ways: strip mining it for the solid coal, or through coal gasification. Both have their problems.

Conventional strip mining (which is common in my part of the U.S.) badly degrades the environment. (At least in this case, unlike in this part of the U.S., the environment is otherwise rather useless desert.) Even so, it is likely to further degrade the land and water resources. Also, strip mining requires an enormous infrastructure to perform the mining and to transport the coal. What’s more, the burning of the coal spews off enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and of toxic by products like lead, arsenic, mercury, etc. into the atmosphere. A very dirty fuel.

Coal gasification, on the other hand, might be much cleaner. Most of the energy creation and chemical transformations can (in theory) be performed in a sealed, underground environment. This would limit the emission of toxic emissions and possibly even of carbon dioxide. The problem: this is very cutting edge technology. It is of date mostly a theoretical design and is not being widely implemented even in the most developed environments. It will be very, very expensive to develop the necessary technologies. And even then it may not work.

Add to these the other problems that may very well exist: lack of capital for development, lack of political support, lack of existing infrastructure (roads, water, a well developed electrical grid) and the factor of uncertainty grows exponentially.

This could in fact prove to be a very lucrative project – or a very expensive boon doggle. Either way, who would benefit from the profits? Who would bear the expense of failure? It will be interesting to see how this plays out. But don’t hold your breath for an answer!

Great article, by the way!

zohaib noor( bahria karachi ) 2 years ago

China is producing 70% of its electricity by using its coal resources.

USA is producing 57% of its electricity by using its coal resources.

Do you know how much electricity Pakistan is producing using coal?

You may get astonished but Pakistan is producing only 200MW at current time using coal which is 1% of our total electricity generation. Do you know that if all the oil reserves of Saudi Arab and Iran have been put together they are approximately 375 Billion barrels but single Thar Coal Reserve of Sindh in Pakistan is about 850 Trillion Cubic Feet which is more than Oil Reserves of Saudi Arab and Iran. These reserves estimated to be equal to 850 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas.

Reasons of Project Delay:

The electricity which can be generated through this project will be very much cheaper then the Government dependence on the Independent Power Plants which are known as IPP’s. This project will certainly give life to economy of the Pakistan and will eradicate poverty. German, Chinese and other companies had not only carried out surveys and feasibilities of this project but also offered 100 percent investment in last 7 to 8 years but the petroleum lobby is always discouraged them in a very dramatic way.

Some people in the Government is also involved in the delay of this project because of there political and financial interests. The fuel bill was 15 billion dollar this year which is really damaging our economy and is strongly impacting on county foreign reserves.

dear sir this article really informative for new generation of Pakistan due to this kind of information we will be able to think that our motherland Pakistan has every thing but our leaders are using this land for own benefits thank you very much in order to share this may Allah gives you very long life aamin

M.AKRAM NIAZI 23 months ago

“Dirty Thar Coal Versus Environment Friendly Kalabagh Dam in Pakistan

& South Asia”.

• It is very strange to note that present Government of Pakistan is advocating for Air Polluting Thar Coal Project Versus Environmental Friendly Kalabagh Dam.

• Kalabagh dam which will increase the water resources of the country is being opposed while Thar coal project, which will consume huge amount of water and will contaminate all water, air and land resources of Pakistan is being advocated by the government.

• Clean electricity produced by Kalabagh dam will be available to every citizen of the country while Thar coal project will pollute all water, air and land resources of not only of Pakistan but also of neighbouring countries like India and China.

• Thar coal will effect each and every living organism while environment friendly Kalabagh will not only store water for the cultivation of land , but also will produce clean energy without carbon emmision, by that electricity it will be possible to pump out under ground water which will also increase water resources and will store water for cultivation of land, Kalabagh Dam will increase wet land for fisheries, will increase green land which will be helpful in decreasing environmental carbon dioxide produce by coal and other fuels and will control flooding and erosion of land and will save lives and lands of people.

• Coal is one of the most polluting sources of energy available, jeopardizing our health and our environment. While Kalabagh Dam will have multiple advantages and will act as clean electricity power house, Sweet water reservoir and floods controller all these things will improve fertility of lands, will reduce poverty and will increase food production.

The Effects of Coal on the Environment.

Coal as a source of energy is probably the most environmentally damaging of

all the traditional sources of energy.

• One must keep in mind that a typical power coal plant generates 3 million tons of CO2 or 17 tons of carbon per megawatt and draws about 2.3 billion gallons of water per annum from nearby source while on land coal produces mercury which not only renders water useless for human consumption but also for irrigation purpose as well.

• “Coal Power in a Warming World” by Barbara Freese et al, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in October 2008 states that “The underground mining of coal is a dangerous profession, and underground and surface mining are both highly damaging to landscapes, water supplies, and ecosystems”.

• The Natural Resources Defense Council paper entitled “Coal in a Changing Climate”, issued in February 2007 claims that “Coal mining—and particularly surface or strip mining—poses one of the most significant threats to terrestrial habitats in the United States.”

• Figures from “Key World Energy Statistics: 2008? show that coal is responsible for 42% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

• “Coal in a Changing Climate” shows that coal produces large amounts of airborne toxic chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrous oxides, arsenic and lead.

• Coal is a highly polluting energy source. It emits much more carbon per unit of energy than oil, and natural gas. CO2 represents the major portion of greenhouse gases. It is, therefore, one of the leading contributors to climate change.

• From mine to sky, from extraction to combustion — coal pollutes every step of the way. The huge environmental and social costs associated with coal usage make it an expensive option for developing countries.

• Coal mining is responsible for acid drainage from coal mines, polluting rivers and streams, to the release of mercury and other toxins when it is burned, as well as climate-destroying gases and fine particulates that wreak havoc on human health, COAL is unquestionably, a DIRTY BUSINESS.

South Asia.

On one side China and India are planning to curb the Carbon emission by curbing the use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels, and Bangladesh and Maldives are crying for taking measures against rise of seas due to global warming and melting of glaciers and on other side Government of Pakistan is planning to use Thar coal which will not only cause global warming but also pollute the whole environment of South Asia but in fact will endanger the life of 3 Billion peoples living in China, India, Kashmir, Northern areas, NWFP, PUNJAB and Sindh, as the direction of smoke and dangerous gases will be from east to north west of Pakistan. And people of these areas will suffer from respiratory diseases such as Asthma, Bronchitis, Cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and people of these areas will suffer from dangers and adverse effects of smoking without smoking the cigarettes.

Government of Pakistan is leaving no stone unturned for sinking delta dwellers people of Bangladesh and Island dweller people of Maldives under sea by wasting about 10 Million Acres feet water of River Indus from the catchments area of whole of Pakistan in the sea and is not preserving and storing that water in dams like Kalabagh and Basha, on one side people of Pakistan are suffering from acute wastage of water and electricity and on other side Government is wasting sweet water in the sea which is not only causing sea rise and erosion of coastal land for whole of subcontinent, including Bangladesh and Maldives but is also harmful for saline habitat fishes and saline and sea plants like Mangroves

Countering Rise in Sea level and Global Warming.

Global Warming:

For countering global warming there is need to completely restrict use of coal for any purpose and to minimize other fossils fuels such as oil and gas and use of alternatives resources such as wind, solar and water power by means of dams like Kalabagh and Basha Dams in Pakistan should be encouraged and preferred.

Rise in Sea Level.

For countering rise in sea level following measures should be taken to save and to protect from submerging the people of Bangladesh, Maldives and other Island dwellers under sea.

• All the rain and glaciers water on land should be preserved and stored in reservoirs and dams like Kalabagh and other dams for use on land( For Agriculture, Electricity generation and human consumption) and other purposes so that no water should waste in sea which will ultimately cause the rise in sea level.

• In Coastal areas use of sea water should be increased as much as possible for Industrial and agricultural purposes.

• After desalination and Purification Sea water should be use for human consumption as much as possible.

• Wastage of sweet water and fertile silt in sea should be prevented and should be used for fertilization and irrigation of land and other useful purposes.

• There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as exploration of silt and stones from sea towards land and coastal areas.

• There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as exploration of sea salts for use as chemicals and other purposes.

• There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as sea plants such as algae and fishes to decrease the volume of sea so that rise in sea could be countered by each and every mean available.

Already Polluted Atmosphere of South Asia.

South Asia is already suffering from the adverse effects of Brown cloud(Accumulation of Dirty gases in upper atmosphere of Subcontinent and is having negative effects on the health of population of India and Pakistan , Moreover there is already shortage of Ozone gas in the upper atmosphere of South Asia, due to which people of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka ) are not having perfect healthy bodies as compared to other races of the world, .In view of such a bad condition of atmosphere burning the coal is just like to throw the people of Pakistan into valley of death, where as there already so many poor workers are daily dying in the coal mines of Balouchistan, but no one is having any care about those poor workers.

There are a number of adverse environmental effects of coal mining and burning, especially the

Samunder khan 22 months ago

Avery nice and informative article in deed. It has generated very interesting debate, ( I read all the comments ).I regret to note that that the coal reserves were discovered about 20 years ago and we are still debating as what to do ! Others would have gone ahead and the use of the huge natural resource in one or the way or the other would have been in full swing.

A word about our scientists, specially the physicists ( be it nuclear or other specialty ): They claim they are like cooks, all you need to tell them what dish you need, they will cook it for you, you just foot the bill ! A

nuclear physicist, turned rocket scientist, a

,planner in the planning commission has now turned a coal/gas expert, because he has nothing to loose, no equity in the project, no personal investment, who will bear the cost of the failure?

Musharaf regime should have given the project to China on turn key basis. They had offered a very lucrative deal, by offering to sell electricity at very low price ( I believe some paisas per unit ). But they wanted not interference (typical Govt red tapism ). Our Prime Minister Mr. Dollar Aziz and of the higher ups declined and the Chinese left. Vive la beaurocracy. I believe our Govt tried to call them again later, but they ( Chinese ) declined by saying you are not serious. Let us hope soon we shall hear that our nuclear scientist can also make nuclear device from the coal through another magical process !

Zahoor Abbasi 19 months ago

Thar Coal Project Overview

Govt. of Sindh is making sincere efforts for Development of Thar Coal such as creating a Private/Public sector partnership with Engro, signing MOU’s with various investors and massively funding the experimental technology of underground Coal Gasification (UCG). However, serious technical, administrative and cost issues remain unclear which if left unaddressed may result in complications and delays in the implementation and success of the Thar Coal project. The purpose of this technical discussion is to highlight some of these issues and provide suggestions from a professional perspective with intent to assist and to inform.

All major project planning efforts are geared towards achieving specific goals, which in this case is presumably the Govt of Sindh’s declared intent to develop 10 blocks of Thar Coalfield for production of 20,000 MW of electricity by the year 2030.

Thar Coalfield Water Scenario:

The flagship Sindh/Engro project in block II of Thar coalfield, hinges on the availability of 300 cusecs (cubic feet per second) water from the Indus River System for operation of the Coal Fired Power Plant. Therefore, cumulative water demand for the proposed 10 blocks of Thar coal is calculated to be 3000 cusecs.

There is a chronic water shortage in Sindh; in fact it is so for all of Pakistan, where is this water going to come from? Assuming that somehow this additional water does become available, the question then is, how do we get it to the coalfield? Due to topographic constraints, conventional gravity driven channel flow of water to the coal project is not possible, costly upslope pumping would be required.

Thar project is located near Islamkot in Thar Desert, which is outside the Sukkur Barrage Command Zone; the nearest source of Indus water is Jumrao, Makhi and Farash distribution complexes, these are all branches of Nara Canal which itself draws water from Sukkur Barrage. Due to siltation of the Canals and degradation of the nearly 80 year old regulatory system, additional water carrying capacity of the entire Nara Canal command stands significantly impaired.

To meet agriculture demands these canals are forced to carry water beyond their design capacities and will not be able to carry an additional 3000 cusecs of water for Thar coal without a total overhaul and remodeling of their entire regulatory systems. This will be a massive undertaking costing Billions of Dollars and at least 20 years. Does the Govt of Sindh have these financial resources and the luxury to wait another 20 years for power generation from Thar Coal?

A recently completed study by GOS at a cost of Rs. 180 Million estimates providing a mere 100 cusecs of water, in the first phase, from Nara canal’s Farash weir off take complex at a staggering capital cost of Rupees 27 Billion (operational costs of pumping not included). (Source: GOS Department of Coal and Energy)

Capital costs for second phase of providing additional 200 cusecs of water are not yet known, total capital costs for the entire 300 cusecs will likely exceed Rs.100 Billion roughly equivalent to US $1.2 Billion!

This is cost of water for Block II only, what about the rest of the Thar coalfield?

Providing Indus River water, at these costs is beyond the Govt of Sindh’s resource capability. World Bank and other multi-lateral lenders will likely consider these projects as economically unfeasible (which they are); in that case, it will be back to square one for Thar Coal development, minus a lot of money and time.

Transporting a mere 300 cusecs (for block II only) at a Capital Cost of Rs. 100 Billion (US $1.2 Billion) will require water to be pumped upslope through six separate, 4 feet diameter pipe lines, each 62 miles long, with 5 reservoirs, and operating 5 large scale pumping stations in the middle of the desert with logistical problems such as equipment breakdowns, spare parts, diesel fuel availability, staff reliability and O & M funding shortages typically experienced by projects in Sindh.

Water supply from this source will be cumbersome, expensive and unreliable, with a very high potential for operational failure, the province of Sindh has a long history and experience with operationally failed or stalled mega projects (SCARP, DRIP, RBOD …….to name just a few).

Apparently bringing Indus River water into Thar Desert for use in the power plants is neither economically nor practically viable. However a perfectly viable, technically superior alternative is available at a fraction of the above costs! This would utilize the available underground water in Thar and/or recover excess moisture from the coal itself and use it for power plant operations. This is a proven concept being successfully practiced in many European coal mines and power production facilities.

Groundwater and Power Plant Selection:

Suitable “Closed Circle Cooling Cycle” Power Plants need to be selected, these type of plants re-circulate and reuse the same water and are considered ideal for arid environments where water is scarce. Such power plants are operating in other countries; In United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not issue operating permits for new Coal fired power plants unless these types of systems are used. Existing plants will also convert to water conservation systems.

Various Thar coal seams occur between 450 feet to 650 feet depth, there are 3 ground water aquifers of which the base aquifer contains significant amounts of water and is highly pressurized and the only viable option for open Pit Mining is by dewatering and depressurizing these groundwater aquifers.

A state of the art mathematical model, simulating Thar coal area ground water conditions was employed by Rheinbraun Engineering (RWE). This same modeling method has been used successfully in European open pit mines by RWE and predicts that 41 cubic feet/second (cusecs) water will have to be pumped, for each mine in Thar to make the mining operations safe and workable. Water requirements of an 1100 MW “Closed Circle Cooling Cycle” plant are calculated to be 2.0 cusecs (cubic feet/second), therefore, no additional water will need to be imported from the Indus river system, thus avoiding huge Capital outlays and Operational expenses.

Selection of a “Closed Circle Cooling Cycle” Power Plant will also eliminate the need for large volumes of waste water disposal (saving significant costs), as it will generate only 2% to 3% waste water compared with an Open Cooling Cycle Plant.

Water Production and Disposal:

Massive amounts groundwater will be pumped out in order to dewater and depressurize the aquifers to achieve safe mining conditions, with proper planning the mine operators and Govt of Sindh can realize additional windfall profits by recovering/harvesting the natural gas (Coalbed methane) that is always present in Coal, which will be automatically released due to depressurization of the coal seams. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) sources (GOS) estimate that Thar Coal deposits contain over 21 Trillion cubic feet (TCF) of recoverable natural gas with a production potential of nearly 1 Billion Cubic feet/day (equal to 25% of the entire natural gas production from all gas fields of Pakistan, including Sui, Qadirpur …etc).

Water produced from the pumping operations is as precious a natural resource as the coal itself, Thar water is considered to be “moderately saline” containing 7500 to 10,000 (PPM) parts per million total dissolved salts (TDS), compared to sea water which has 35,000 to 40,000 Parts Per Million.

This water can be treated and used for cultivation of high value crops such as fruits and vegetables. Water produced by each mine will be able to cultivate 15,000 acres. Using the Govt of Sindh’s planning benchmark of 10 Blocks (mines) by 2030, the groundwater thus cumulatively produced can cultivate up to 150,000 acres of high value crops and will provide the basis for developing livestock industry, which is well suited for the environment and the lifestyle of people living in Thar Desert.

Downstream economic benefits of this approach are immeasurable in terms of job growth, poverty alleviation, improved food security and food price stability due to increased production and transportation through the existing road network in Thar.

Present mindset of entities dealing with Thar Coal is dispensed towards considering Thar groundwater as a waste water “effluent” that needs to be disposed off; costly plans for this (similar to the ill advised endeavor to import Indus River water) may already be in the works. This mindset needs to be changed; Thar Groundwater is a precious natural resource and definitely not “effluent” disposing it as such would be a monumental and a historic mistake which Sindh and its people will surely regret in the coming years of expected severe water shortages.

Ironically, on one hand policy decisions are formulated for undertaking the difficult task of importing a very expensive and unreliable supply of Indus River water for use in open cooling cycle plants, which in turn will effectively convert this same water into contaminated “effluent” which will then have to be disposed off in accordance with internationally acceptable environmental practices, at a huge additional cost.

Simply stated: “The Govt of Sindh will first spend trillions of rupees to help create a problem and subsequently spend other trillions to solve this problem”

On the other hand, a simple policy paradigm shift of utilizing the indigenous water resource and selecting a suitable power plant design would save the nation Trillions in costs and years in terms of time to generate power from Thar coal.

Waste Water Disposal:

In the current paradigm, more than 3400 cusecs of “effluent” will end up being sent into the already overburdened and under designed LBOD/KPOD and Tidal Link Canal; this huge influx will demolish the entire lower Sindh drainage system with devastating consequences for Badin district especially during the flood seasons.

Faulty design of LBOD system caused the collapse of Cholri weir in 1998, allowing tidal water flow intrusion into Pateji, Mehro, Cholri and Sanhro Dhands (lakes) destroying Shrimp estuaries and loss of livelihood for 14,000 people in Badin.

On a continuing daily basis, high tide cycles cause back up of drainage waters in Tidal Link and KPOD (lower LBOD system) which then flow through 56 unrepaired embankment breaches further inland into Badin district, this has destroyed thousands of acres of fertile land and fishing estuaries. This problem increases substantially during the flood season, rendering thousands of additional people homeless and income less.

During 2003 floods the LBOD system had to carry twice the amount of water than its design capacity of 4,440 cusecs, resulting in severe flood damage in Badin. Adding another 3,400 cusecs of Thar drainage water to an already overloaded LBOD system will be an unmitigated disaster for Badin District, which will spill over into Thatta District and the rest of the lower Sindh.

Lower Sindh wetlands maintain an ecological balance in this region and are an important national asset, contribute to food security from fishing and provide employment for thousands of people. They must not be destroyed. Thar coal effluent discharge into these wetlands through LBOD must be kept to a minimum while ensuring that deadly toxins like Benzene, Toluene, Phenol etc, created by the Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) process do not reach these wetlands and their fishing estuaries.

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG):

The dual concepts of harnessing Coal energy by (a) Recovering/harvesting Coalbed Methane (CBM), which is essentially Natural Gas in its purest form (pipeline quality gas) and (b) Mining out the Coal to serve as a thermal energy resource for power generation and other uses, are mutually inclusive. Technical processes involved in both of these concepts compliment and support each other, for example, recovery of natural gas from coal requires dewatering and depressurizing of the coal seams, which helps the mining process and results in cost savings for both.

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) process on the other hand, works at cross purposes with both CBM as well as conventional Coal mining in Thar. For example, the very same water and hydrostatic pressure that is needed to be removed by dewatering for CBM recovery and coal mining, is necessarily needed to be retained in the ground in order to contain and control the UCG’s coal burn from spreading into the adjacent mining and power generating operations, thus creating a an extremely significant hazard and a potentially very dangerous situation.

“This technical conflict can force a complete shutdown of the entire mining and power generation activity in Thar coalfield”

All UCG operations must therefore submit comprehensive work plans demonstrating safeguards against uncontrolled spread of the underground coal burn/fire from reaching the nearby mines and for preventing deadly toxins such as Benzene, Toluene etc, normally created by the UCG process, from entering the groundwater.

Clear and unambiguous UCG policy guidelines need to be formulated to ensure safety of mining and power plant operations, health and safety of their staff, the general population of Thar and the downstream recipients of waste water discharge from the projects. Rigorous groundwater quality assurance regime and an effective monitoring program must also be established.

Development of Thar Coal is a vitally important need of this energy starved nation, it is a complex mega project involving multiple aspects which requires a clear vision, a comprehensive understanding of all aspects and an integrated approach.

A broad based, well analyzed, clearly understood and technically focused strategic development plan needs to be formulated (can be done in 1 week, since all the data is already available with the Govt). This strategic plan should form the basis of overall policy. This policy should set the direction for all the tactical initiatives required to achieve strategic objectives, rather than the other way around.

Current practices appear to favor multiple, individualized tactical initiatives, each narrowly focused upon its own objective, moving and meandering in its own individual direction. From a project management perspective, this phenomenon creates an illusion and a sense of busy movement; since everybody appears busy doing something therefore one must assume that something is being done.

In fairness, the last few years have seen some degree of positive shift in the strategic direction of the project however; serious shortcomings still remain for achieving strategic coherence between various individual initiatives currently in play within the Thar project, one glaring example is the simultaneous grant of mining licenses to Engro and Oracle & UCG licenses to GOS and Cougar projects without any technical evaluation of what one concept will do to the other. Visualize this scenario: Can this happen? – YES it can.

10 + years into the coal mining operations, due to extensive dewatering by Engro, Oracle and other mines, water & hydrostatic pressure depletion will allow air intrusion into the coal seam fractures. Underground coal fires from the UCG projects will tend to migrate in the direction of the oxygen source, i.e. sidewalls & floors of the adjacent open pit mines, causing massive coal fires and potential total destruction of their entire operations.

Without a doubt; there are serious issues of policy and lack of technical coherence, which will continue impeding the successful and timely development of Thar coal project. A course correction is urgently required otherwise this whole exercise will very likely fail, the financial losses to the nation will be staggering and the extremely valuable Thar coal will remain where it has been for over 60 million years – BURIED BELOW GROUND.

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