Sunday 30 August 2009

Birth defects in India linked to pollution from coal-fired power stations

This story first caught my eye because the city of Bathinda in the Indian state of Punjab is only about 95 miles, a two-and-a-half hour car journey, from Lehrian in Haryana, where the Gilly Mundy Memorial Community School that has been built with funds and support from many friends in the UK. That’s about the same distance from my flat in Forest Gate to the home of Gilly’s father in Leamington Spa.

Tests have shown that an increase in birth defects and cancers amongst children living close to the coal-fired power stations in Bathinda and in Faridkot are the result of massive levels on uranium in the ground water, far beyond natural background levels.

The Observer suggests the contamination is caused by fine fly ash produced when coal is burned that contains concentrated levels of uranium, because of scientific evidence of similarly increased radiation levels around coal-fired thermal power stations in Russia. Further investigation is urgent and other suggested causes, although far less convincing, are no less worrying: one idea is that the contamination is a consequence of increased demands for water to irrigate large-scale crop production, which has led to ever deeper wells that both deplete the water table and may be drawing water that is contaminated with deep seams of uranium. The government has even suggested, rather fancifully, that the cause may be depleted uranium from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what the government of India has staunchly refused to do is acknowledge that there is a problem that needs further investigation: Dr Carin Smit, the South African toxicologist who carried out tests in Bathinda and Faridkot has been warned that she may not be allowed back into the country and clinics treating contaminated children have been threatened with closure if they speak out.

The expansion of thermal coal-fired plants in India is seen as an important part of the country’s economic expansion and demand for electricity, one that banks in the West are busily helping to finance. The Indian government therefore has powerful financial incentives to look the other way and to try and silence those who raise awkward questions about the pollution these plants cause or the possible impact on the health of local people.

Those who argue that the impact of dirty coal is global, in terms of dramatic climate change in the future, are often accused of seeking to deny millions of people in the global south, like the Indians who routinely experience (as anyone who has visited India has also experienced) intermittent power shortages, the right to the basic needs enjoyed in the West. But the real problem in India is not personal demand, which is always treated as secondary at best to the insatiable requirements of Indian business, but the country's over-dependence on one form of energy generation - coal - that according to the International Energy Agency is predicted to increase from today’s 69 percent to 71 percent by 2030. As well as the unsustainable CO2 emissions this will cause and their future global consequences, its damaging environmental impact also has an immediate effect on the communities in coal-producing regions. As the WWF argued in its report 'Rethinking Coal's Rule in India':

Communities living either with, or in close proximity to coal mines and coal plants receive the brunt of the industry’s negative impacts — and in India, as in other developing nations, the bulk of coal mining’s environmental costs are imposed upon impoverished and marginalised communities. Locals living in these coal burdened communities endure degraded health, damaged natural resources, and increasingly, loss of their homeland. The Coal Vision 2025 of India’s Ministry of Coal reveals that about 170,000 families involving about 850,000 people will be affected by coal projects by the year 2025. Large-scale population displacement raises serious questions about the ability to bear the costs of such rehabilitation, or to find adequate replacement land of similar ecological value. But institutional responses to such woes have been dampened by weak environmental laws and regulations, which effectively deny poor communities a voice.
That's why accusations that environmentalists are denying the rights of the poorest seem so hollow. It also means that we mustn't forget that dirty coal is not just a future concern but right now is also a local human rights issue too, with the damage done to the lives of the most vulnerable and powerless.

And for those in the UK who have family or friends living in India, this could be happening close to the places we know and love. As close as a journey from London to Leamington.

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