Expensive water plants won’t quench thirst in Pakistan’s Thar desert

Government investment in 750 expensive water treatment plants won’t solve drinking water problems for people in the drought prone Thar desert. Experts argue for the construction of canals and rain ponds instead
<p>Last year&#8217;s drought led to the death of 600 people in Tharparkar, including infants, mostly due to malnutrition (Photo by Adil Siddiqi.</p>

Last year’s drought led to the death of 600 people in Tharparkar, including infants, mostly due to malnutrition (Photo by Adil Siddiqi.

In early January former president and co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, inaugurated what is touted to be one of Asia’s largest reverse osmosis water purification plants in Mithi city in Tharparkar district, Sindh province.

This is just one of 750 plants in the pipeline, which the Sindh government – run by the PPP – claims will bring drinking water to the drought prone region. But experts say the expensive technology is inappropriate for dispersed local communities and building canals and rain ponds would provide a more reliable stream of water in the long run.

Tharparkar lies in the south-east of Sindh province. With a population of about 1.2 million, it is one of the poorest of Pakistan’s 120 districts, with the lowest Human Development Index.

People live in harsh conditions where even the smallest weather aberration can have huge repercussions. Last year, the 30% less than average rainfall led to over 600 deaths, including infants, mostly due to malnutrition. The region, bordering the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat has been facing drought for the third consecutive year.

The Mithi plant will produce almost 8 million litres of drinkable water every day by treating dirty groundwater using reverse osmosis (RO) – a process which removes impurities from water by filtration, using membrane technology.

The Rs 934 million (£6 million) plant can be run on electricity from the national grid or solar power and will cater to the drinking needs of an estimated 75,000 people in the nearby 100 villages.

“There is enough groundwater in Tharparkar, but it is brackish and needs to be drawn from the soil by boring wells as deep as 1,500 feet,” said Dr Sono Khangrani, head of the Hisaar Foundation, an NGO working on water, food and livelihood issues.

Water is a precious commodity in the desert. Women have to travel long distances to fetch water which is often contaminated and brackish. “While putting up these plants, I travelled the length and breadth of Thar and I noticed that half the people coming to hospitals were suffering from water borne diseases,” said Kazim Burney, spokesperson of the Pak Oasis Industries (Pvt) Ltd, which had been tasked with installing water purification plants across Sindh.

The plant at Mithi may be the biggest, but it’s certainly not the only one. The Sindh government plans to install 750 water filters of various sizes by June, of which 150 are already operational. The government also says it will install more tube wells and loans to develop the livestock sector and other businesses.   

Animals are far more abundant than people in the Thar desert, where raising cattle, camels, sheep and goats is the mainstay of the local population. There are 4.6 million animals in Tharparkar, according to the official 2006 livestock census, accounting for 21% of nation’s total livestock – expert say this number may have reached 6 million today.

For this reason, said Burney, the company has constructed water troughs outside water plants for livestock. “Animals are their only asset. Along with providing clean water to the people, it was important to provide their animals with clean water as well,” he said.

Poor investment

All this provides good political sound bites but these reverse osmosis (RO) plants are not really the answer to the region’s water problems say experts.

First, the plants do not have the capacity to supply sufficient water to the local population. At a newly government-installed RO plant in the village of Fangrio, also in Tharparkar, three dozen or so people including men women and children were seen bickering and fighting over the limited waster produced by the plant.

The plant does not provide nearly enough water for the village of 500 households. “For a village as big as this, you would need at least 300,000 litres per day but the machine only provide 20,000 litres a day as it works on solar energy. This little amount of water is just enough for 30 households,” said Khangrani. People have had to set up a distribution system that gives households water from the RO plant once a week. The rest of the time, people still have to walk to the nearby well or make do with brackish water.

The plants are also costly and difficult to maintain. Civil engineer Liaquat Panhwar is skeptical these RO plants will last long. “No doubt this is a good technology but an expensive one. Experts say a plant with a capacity to provide treated water anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 gallons per day costs about £20,000, but I am not sure what will become of them two years from now when their membranes need to be replaced. The community is too poor to finance these,” he said.

Panhwar also says the community has not been given sufficient training to operate and maintain these plants, although company representative Burney claims the water plants have generated local employment opportunities. “In any case there is no rocket science to operating and maintaining them,” he pointed out.

The plants also consume large amounts of energy , something which is also in short supply. “The ones we installed are not working now because power cuts mean there is not enough electricity to draw the water for the purpose,” Panhwar said.

Khangrani is concerned the shallow groundwater acquires will dry up within a year because the boreholes have not been dug deep enough. “Then what, where will they get the water to run the plants?” he asked.

Economist and water expert Dr Pervaiz Amir, who is quite familiar with the district, says RO plants are not feasible in areas where the population is dispersed like Tharparkar. “It would be better to go for the cheaper and locally made bio-sand filter. But in the long term, he said, it would be more practical to build a canal, like India has done in Rajasthan, along with thousands of rain water storage ponds. For areas where canal cannot reach, trucking water to people would be a good option.”

Panhwar, who works for an NGO which has installed several similar plants in Sindh’s arid areas, is also in favour of constructing a canal. He believes water could be pumped to various communities through a network of pipelines using solar power since the region has plenty of sunlight.

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