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PAKISTAN: Water Trickles Back into Village, Thanks to Solar Desalination

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Jun 27 2010 (IPS) - Ismail Achar never thought a day would come when his island village would be reduced to a barren tract of land with hardly a drop of water to drink.

A solar-powered desalination plant has sparked hope for clean water among the residents of Jat Mohammad village in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A solar-powered desalination plant has sparked hope for clean water among the residents of Jat Mohammad village in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

After all, his village, Jat Mohammad, is situated along the Indus delta in Sindh province in south-eastern Pakistan, which is considered one of the longest rivers in the world.

“We were dying a slow death,” says the 52-year-old of the acute water shortage that he and his neighbours have had to endure since the early 1990s.

Until three months ago, Karmi Qasim, 32, says he had to buy 10 litres of water daily for his family of 10 from Kharo Chaan, one of three nearby towns where villagers got their water supply using their fishing boats.

Each litre costs 30 to 40 Pakistani rupees (35 to 47 U.S. cents). On top of this, he says, “it costs us 1,000 rupees (approximately 12 U.S. dollars) to hire a boat to get to Kharo Chaan and back to fetch water. We split the fare among 10 people.”

“The Indus river flowed alongside our village till the late ‘80s,” recalls Achar, until there was nary a drop to drink.

The Indus delta that once covered an area of about 600,000 hectares comprising creeks, forests and mudflats has now been reduced to just 10 percent of the original size, says Tahir Qureshi, senior advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which promotes natural resource conservation.

The Indus basin originates in the Tibetan plateau and flows through northern India and then south-west through Kashmir and Pakistan toward the Arabian Sea.

Achar says that instead of fresh river water, his village – whose population of about 1,500 is among the South Asian country’s poorest of the poor – is now surrounded by seawater from the Arabian Sea. Construction of dams along the river, alongside other factors, has reduced river flows, resulting in increased saltwater intrusion, which in turn raises the salinity of water.

High salinity is known to affect soil productivity that in turn adversely impacts food security, and leads to scarcity of safe drinking water as well as loss of biodiversity, experts say.

“The saltwater has destroyed acres of prime agricultural land, wiped out flora and fauna, contaminated and dislocated an estimated one to two million people living along the coast of the Arabian Sea since the early ‘90s,” says Nasir Ali Panhwar, programme coordinator of Indus for All Programme – a 50- year (2006-2056) joint initiative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading international conservation group, and the Sindh government aimed to address poverty and natural resource degradation in the area.

In March Achar and Qasim’s village finally saw a trickle of hope when the non-governmental Sindh Radiant Organisation (SRO), in collaboration with the WWF, installed a small solar desalination plant in their community as part of the Programme.

“To be able to have drinking water is a blessing indeed,” says Qasim.

The solar-powered desalination plant has the capacity to convert 40 gallons of seawater every day into what Achar calls “sweet water.”

The plant is made up of 16 desalination units, each measuring 8 feet by 4 feet. The plant technology was developed by the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), a private research outfit based in Karachi.

Water pumped into the solar stills is heated under the sun until it turns into vapours. The vapours condense into liquid on the inner glass surface of the stills, which then flows into aluminum channels before being funneled into storage tanks, explains engineer Nisar Pandhyani, who designed the plant.

Saeed Hussain, deputy director of the government-run Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy and Technology, says, “It’s a clean technology and poses no threat to the environment.”

Built at a cost of 500,000 rupees (5,952 dollars), the plant is expected to last 20 years, says Pandhyani. Villagers provided the labour.

The facility has sparked renewed hope for clean water among the inhabitants of Jat Mohammad. Without it they would have suffered the fate of their neighbouring villages, which were forced to migrate where potable water was available.

Scarcity of water along the Indus river has fueled mass migration among many of its inhabitants.

According to Ghulam Hussain Khwaja, director of the SRO, around 3,000 residents of three villages have migrated to adjacent communities in the last two years.

“Most of them have moved to the nearby towns of Chihar Jamali, Jati and Gharo, says Qasim. There they earn their livelihood from stone extraction or mining, “since all are unlettered and have no skills.”

Aside from Jat Mohammad, hundreds of other small communities dotting the Indus delta are also facing seawater intrusion, with the Arabian Sea encroaching up to 54 kilometres upstream in the river basin, says Qureshi of the IUCN.

The SRO’s Khwaja says water generated by the plant is “not enough” for Jat Mohammad village. Its residents need at least three more desalination plants, he says.

He reveals that the residents are trying to get another one installed by pooling their meagre resources. He is quick to admit, though, that it would take them years to generate the amount needed to install another solar- powered facility in their village.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s Ministry of Science as well as local officials have already shown interest in replicating the desalination plant in other villages. Even local NGOs have visited Jat Mohammad to see if the plant is a viable option for other water-starved communities in Pakistan.

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