Sahiwal coal plant and the smog crisis


The Sahiwal Coal-fired power plant is unique in many ways. It has been established on the most fertile land of the country just a few miles away from Lahore. Coal is imported from South Africa and Indonesia which is unloaded at the Karachi port, it is then transported through rail to the site. It is then burnt to produce steam which generates 1320 Megawatt (2x 660) of power while polluting the air and producing mounts of Ash that are heaped there. 1700 Acres of prime private land was acquired against the wishes of the owners by promising them incentives that have not been met. The groundwater level is reseeding at a fast rate (about 20 feet per year).

Respiratory and skin problems are rampant amongst the local population. Though I have led the movement for the development of Thar Coal, yet I have never supported the burning of this resource due to environmental degradation. Several 21st-century technologies are now available to be exploited that include gasification to produce Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) which is an 80 % cleaner fuel.

How coal plants have evolved in years?

During the second term of Benazir Bhutto, an extensive plan was prepared to establish coal-fired plants at Kaiti Bunder based on imported fuel. Most coal plants are either built on the mouth of mine or on the port for ease of transportation. Initially, the Sharif Brothers wanted to build these plants outside Karachi which was resisted by the provincial government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Finally, the brothers moved the idea to Lahore for which Sahiwal was chosen. While China is moving away from Coal-fired plants, it readily agreed to transfer this technology to Pakistan at very lucrative terms for them.

Our Chinese friends are now using this natural resource to produce several useful products that include; SNG, Urea, Anhydrous Ammonia, Crude Cresylic Acid, Phenol, Diesel, Naphtha, Tar oil, etc. Personally, I think, burning coal in the 21st century is a sin. The slogan is; “Coal with no environmental toll”.

Only India remains defiant in the use of coal for power generation. In the recently concluded Glasgow Environment  Conference, India pleaded its case for the need for affordable power. In order to move to alternate clean energies, it succeeded in getting financial support. In the present ‘Smog Crisis’, coal-fired power plants have been shut down around New Delhi while the Sahiwal plant continues to pollute the air of Lahore. Immediate action is needed, first to shut down the plant and then move it to ‘Thar’ where power is being generated by the use of local fuel. Amongst the several disasters produced by the Sharif Brothers, this plant stands out followed by the Orange Train of Lahore both funded through CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor).

Considering the poor air quality of Lahore, today it was decided to shut down the schools for extended weekends (Saturday, Sunday, Monday). This is on top of the Covid break that has caused major disruption in the field of academics.

The current plant at Sahiwal was shifted from China together with the Chinese operators. Shifting of Coal Plants is not a very complicated procedure. Only concrete foundations have to be poured to install the burner and the generators. Burners are designed according to the quality of input. For the existing plant to run on the Sub-bituminous coal of Thar, some minor modifications may be required. Considering the current ‘ Smog ‘ situation of Lahore this may be a small price to pay. Such short-term ad Hoc, kick-back-driven projects of the Sharif Brothers have to be corrected for the long-term survival of the nation. Today the energy and the power sector of the country needs a major change of course. Pakistan produces the world’s most expensive power and gas which is unaffordable by the masses.

The circular debt continues to spiral

The government is required to pay upfront while the public is not in a position to cover the cost. Currently, most new projects are based on hydro and local coal which will take time to mature. Several dams are being built. Thermal power generation has to be moved away from cities mostly at the mouth of mine or the port.

Unfortunately, in the land of pure course correction has not been easy. Everyone has a story to narrate but no solution to move forward. It is a perfect case of blind leading the blind. Smog and Dengue come every year, for which there must be a plan of action that is missing. Handling of the ‘Corona Pandemic’ has been appropriately handled mainly due to a fresh centralized approach with minimum involvement of the ‘Royal Colonial Bureaucracy’ that only consumes but does not deliver. Like NCOC (National Command Operation Center) a Task Force is required to handle the menace of ‘Smog’ on a long-term basis.

Environmental experts have to be involved to look at all the possible options together with implementation which has always been the missing link in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan but in the meantime, let’s shut down the Sahiwal Coal Power plant for immediate relief to the suffering people of Lahore and Sahiwal. Currently, there is an excess of power generation and a shortage of clean air to breathe. Let’s give a break to our respiratory system before it collapses resulting in another pandemic.

The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation. He can be reached at The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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