In-Depth Arena

Why the water table is receding in a Salt Range valley

Updated 15 Jul, 2018 07:35pm
The Hindu temple of Katas Raj in Kahoon Valley, Punjab | Photos by Murtaza Ali, White Star
The Hindu temple of Katas Raj in Kahoon Valley, Punjab | Photos by Murtaza Ali, White Star

Kahoon was once a beautiful valley. It was covered with trees and shrubbery as far as the eye could see. A Hindu temple complex, known as Katas Raj, has been sitting in its midst since time immemorial, an isolated but pleasing site to contemplate. The ancient ruins of the temples overlook a large pond full of clear water — always the colour of the sky above.

Farming here was limited to small, rain-irrigated patches of land. The means of communication were scant and other sources of livelihood non-existent — except Khewra’s famous salt mines, about 20 kilometres to the south of the valley. Most young men from the valley would join the army. Most women would stay at home.

Limestone mining from the plateau of Punjab’s Salt Range, which includes Kahoon valley, was the first indicator that the area’s pristine natural environment might be endangered one day. The mining was followed by the setting up of cement plants that use limestone as their basic raw material. The first one was set up near the village of Gharibwal in the early 1960s — 42 kilometres to the east of the valley. Another one was set up in the early 1970s in Dandot, halfway between Katas Raj and the salt mines.

The valley still managed to retain its bucolic charm.

Today, many roads crisscross over it. The Lahore-Islamabad Motorway is a short distance to the west and a highway linking the motorway with the town of Choa Saidan Shah passes through the heart of the valley. Three more cement factories now dot the area. They are all located within a 15-kilometre radius of the temple complex, each with its own limestone quarry.

The factories have brought air pollution. They have also changed the demographic profile of the area, from a pastoral-rural one to a semi-urban industrial one. But perhaps more importantly, they have damaged the underground water table in the valley to the extent that the pond at Katas Raj has been lying dry for two years now.

Hundreds of turbines, running on electricity in the villages across the valley to extract groundwater for potato farming, have only exacerbated the problem.

“Water is becoming scarce in our area,” says 65-year-old Muhammed Ismail Malik, a resident of Waulah village, hidden behind the sprawling premises of the Bestway Cement factory. One of the largest in the country, the factory was set up during the government of General Pervez Musharraf.

About 10 years ago, Malik returned to his village after working in Qatar for decades. He saw that the water table was going down but local residents were too engrossed in their political rivalries to take note. The government, too, seemed indifferent.

“Every time we asked the local administration to focus on the problem, the officials were reluctant. They feared people would be angry if the government started regulating groundwater extraction [since it could also hurt their farming],” he says.

The village, in the meanwhile, was not getting enough water even for domestic use. Most villagers did not have the money to install turbines that could extract water from the rapidly diminishing aquifers. Malik collected money from the villagers to install and run a local water supply system.

It worked for a couple of years until 2010 when the water reached a level that was no longer accessible through the turbines Malik had installed. He approached a former general -- who also came from Waulah and was well connected with senior authorities in Lahore – for help.

These efforts resulted in the approval of a water supply project, but a year passed by and it was not implemented. The villagers threatened to protest in front of a delegation of Indian Hindus coming to visit Katas Raj. The government buckled and provided 27.5 million rupees to set up two turbines and two tanks to store water. The villagers were required to keep the turbines running by paying the price of the electricity they consumed — costing each household roughly 400 rupees each month.

Waulah’s water shortage was thus resolved, albeit temporarily. The groundwater is receding further and may soon require bigger and more powerful turbines to extract it. This will necessitate further investment by the government and higher electricity payments by the villagers.

It is obvious that the problem requires a more sustainable solution. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of a news report about the Katas Raj pond having dried up in November 2017, many thought a durable solution might soon be found.

A cement factory in Punjab’s Salt Range
A cement factory in Punjab’s Salt Range

Hearings on the case continued for six months. On May 2 this year, a judge stated that the factories extracted a massive amount of water from the ground — 2.5 million gallons every day. The court also noted that “water worth billions of rupees was used by cement factories around the historic Katas Raj temple without any payment”. As reported by the daily Dawn, the court ordered the factories to submit a proposal on how they would compensate for water they had already used and what plans they had for the future. “The people who are not doing anything for water are not sincere with this country … [they] are enemies of this country,” the newspaper quoted Chief Justice Saqib Nisar as saying.

Six days later, the factory owners agreed to pay the Punjab government for the water they had used. As for the future, they proposed to find alternative sources of water and give the government two billion rupees as a security deposit that could be forfeited if they failed to make other arrangements within a specific time. They also promised to build a small dam in the area in order to provide water to the Katas Raj pond.

The court is yet to pass a final order on the case though hearings have been completed.

Irshad Ali Ameer, who works as a general manager with the Bestway Cement Company that runs two of the three plants set up in the area in the 2000s, says his firm will comply with whatever order the court issues. In any case, he says, within six months his company will shift to a new technology that requires no water for cement production.

The two plants extract 236 cubic metres of water every hour, mainly for keeping the machinery cool. They “have not used more than seven per cent of the water” in Kahoon valley, Ameer claims. “The crisis is much larger,” he says, pointing a finger to water being extracted for farming.

Some environmentalists argue that cement factories are hazardous not only because they are water guzzlers but because they are hostile to nature even otherwise. They should not have been allowed to be set up in the valley of Kahoon in the first place, they say.

The Supreme Court has reportedly asked government officials why the plants were permitted and Punjab’s secretary of industries is said to have responded that they did not require an environment-related no-objection certificate (NOC) when they were set up.

This is not entirely correct.

The Pakistan chapter of the World Wide Fund (WWF) for nature conservation notes that both the D G Khan Cement Company and Bestway Cement Company, which own the three plants, started work on them in 2004 before obtaining NOCs from the Environmental Protection Agency. The residents of the valley complained about it to the secretary of the Punjab Environment Protection Department on June 6, 2004. The next month, they met with the federal minister for environment and informed him about the adverse environmental impact of the factories. On August 4, 2004, they filed a complaint before an environmental tribunal. While the case was still pending, the Environmental Protection Agency issued NOCs to the factories in October that year.

If people had been heard and rules properly followed, the pond at the temple complex could still have carried its ancient waters.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This was originally published in Herald's June 2018 issue under the headline 'Ground zero'. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.