Pakistan faces a serious Atta Chula crisis. Due to shortage of fuel the chula (stove ) is thanda (cold) while there is no atta (flour) to cook roti‘ (bread). In the 1970s, Bhutto launched his party on the promise of ‘Roti Kapra Makan‘ which still remains a pipe dream. Even the roti (bread) is out of reach of the common man.
Natural gas is short and expensive. It is back to the basics from where the journey had started. The 12 Trillion Cubic Feet of natural gas deposit at Sui is now depleted together with acute shortage of wheat. Both items are now being imported. While the fuel import bill is highest followed by food items which poses serious sustainability challenges.
There is a huge trade deficit as the republic does not earn enough dollars to pay for its basic needs. LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is being imported from Qatar at an unaffordable price, also recently a shipment of wheat arrived from Russia resulting in depletion of the much needed foreign exchange reserves.
Every day I receive SMS messages saying “We buy ACs”, indicating that there is a huge market for this product. While the nation struggles for Atta and Chula (AC), the Air Conditioners (AC) remain in demand for the few. As a nation we cannot sustain this luxury on borrowed money. The import bill has to be drastically slashed. Food and fuel are the basic needs of the nation. Unfortunately there has been a consistent decline in these two vital areas in the Land of the Pure.
I remember the days when wood and coal were used to cook food. Kitchens were dirty and usually isolated from living quarters in posh dwellings. Every locality had a Taal (a place where timber was stored and sold) mostly manned by Pathans. There were several coal Merchants in the city who sold both local and imported fuel. In the 1960s came the kerosene stoves which were a big relief for the housewives. Cooking meals was made a bit easier.
Despite all the available indigenous resources, there is no justification to deprive the masses from the attainment of the basic human needs like Fuel and Food. This Atta Chula crisis is uncalled for and can easily be overcome through astute planning with utilization of appropriate technologies. In 1952 we had the gift of Natural Gas at Sui, today we have Black Gold at Thar to meet our fuel needs. The heat is on, Thanda can now be converted into Garam (hot) without spending the much-needed dollars.
Then there was a big break with the discovery of natural gas at Sui in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan. There was no looking back. Gas transmission and distribution network was developed by the two public sector Gas Companies (SSGC, SNGPL). Pakistan now had the privilege of using the cleanest ‘ Fossil Fuel ‘. Natural Gas is the final product of the carbon cycle. Organic matter first decays into coal followed by oil and then gas. Nature had been kind to the republic, the huge gas deposit was a gift. Unfortunately the resource was mismanaged, instead of lasting for a century it fell short after 50 years of misuse (1952 to 2002).
In 2004, as Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation, I started looking at coal as an alternate fuel. A Coal Conference was organized. All players in the field were invited for inputs. A clear roadmap to move forward was developed with consensus. With no experience of large scale commercial mining in the country, it was decided to focus in this area at the largest deposit at ‘ Thar. Thus started a long, painful journey that has been ongoing since then.
Finally in the year 2018, I had the satisfaction of touching the coal seams at the bottom of the first mine jointly developed by the Sindh Government and ENGRO (Sindh Engio Coal Mining Company). Power production has now started at the mine, which is now connected to the national grid. At Rs 4 per unit it is the cheapest source of the much needed electricity. Now work has started on the production of Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) from the huge deposit (175 Billion Tons). With soaring LNG prices in the range of $30 per MMBTU, SNG production at $8 per MMBTU makes sense.
Coal has been the historic fuel for mankind. Romans started using it centuries ago. It fuelled the entire Industrial Revolution and also provided movement by the production of steam which started to move the wheels of the world. The steam engine brought the much needed motion. In the year 2016, I was invited as a keynote speaker at the International Coal Conference at Pittsburgh (IPCC 2016) to talk about the ‘Future of Coal’. For fuel-starved nations like Pakistan, ‘ coal has a future but with the application of environment-friendly 21st century technologies.
Gasification of this black gold is the way forward. Once gasified it can be converted into clean fuel which can then be used in place of natural gas. The country has a huge state-of-the-art gas distribution network spread over several thousand kilometres which is now dependent upon expensive imported gas that is unaffordable with the current worldwide energy crises.
Food is equally important. For a long time the republic was self-sufficient in wheat that is now being imported in addition to other items like edible oilseeds and tea. All three of them can be grown locally with an effective road map to move forward. During my tenure at PSF (2002 to 2005), tea plantation areas were identified in Kashmir and KP together with trial plantation.
The Tea Research Institute (NTRI) at Shinkiari has enough know-how to achieve self-sufficiency in this area. Oilseeds can also be grown on marginal lands to save the much needed foreign exchange. Recently olive plantation has started in the Salt Range which holds great future potential.
Despite all the available indigenous resources, there is no justification to deprive the masses from the attainment of the basic human needs like Fuel and Food, This Atta Chula crisis is uncalled for and can easily be overcome through astute planning with utilization of appropriate technologies. In 1952 we had the gift of Natural Gas at Sui, today we have Black Gold at Thar to meet our fuel needs. The heat is on, Thanda can now be converted into Garam (hot) without spending the much-needed dollars.