DAWN: Wells have dried up. Groundwater is contaminated with fluoride and arsenic. Crops and livestock have perished. Waterborne diseases, viral infections, and malnutrition have led to the death of nearly 450 infants this year alone. All this begs the question: where is the Sindh government?…..A special report by Rifan Ahmed Khan
Over 450 persons, mostly children, have died this year in Pakistan’s Thar desert region where a majority of the Hindu minority live without adequate water, food, jobs and medical care, media reports from Sindh province say.
Over 50,000 acres of cultivable land lies barren for want of rain and water, forcing thousands to migrate with their families and cattle.
The worst sufferers are the Hindu Dalits, officially referred to as Scheduled Castes by the government of Pakistan.
Absence of rain and drought conditions is perennial to the Great Indian Desert (75 percent in India and 235 per cent in Pakistan). The India area east of the Aravalis, covering Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat are doing relatively better. But that is no consolation to the Tharis – the inhabitants of the Pakistani region.
Geographically, the Thar Desert is located 300 kilometers east of Karachi and runs up to the border of India. It is dominated by subsistence farmers who depend on beans, wheat and sesame seeds for survival.
The election in Pakistan this year generated expectations and its own excitement. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) retained power. But that, again, is of no consolation. Not even that Asif Ali and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari duo are popular in the region. The Chief Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah is running the show on behalf of his political masters.
On August 15, Tharparkar’s deputy commissioner penned a letter to the Board of Revenue, requesting that the district be declared ‘drought-hit’. The desert region had received insufficient and erratic rainfall, and hospitals were filling up with the dead, dying and diseased. Residents worried they would once again be witness to the all-too-familiar scenes of starvation experienced periodically.
On Aug 20, the Sindh cabinet, in its first meeting after the general elections in July, declared the region to be drought-hit, and promised to send aid and relief packages. That was over a month ago.
“But then what?” wonders an editorial in Dawn newspaper (September 24, 2018), pointing out: “Wells have dried up. Groundwater (where available) is contaminated with fluoride and arsenic. Crops and livestock have perished. Waterborne diseases, viral infections, and malnutrition have led to the death of nearly 450 infants this year alone. All this begs the question: where is the Sindh government? Where is the PPP that has always projected itself as ‘the party of the poor’, with its slogan of ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’?”
The newspaper reasons that the drought and water shortages are not ‘sudden’ or ‘unexpected’ events. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had requested his government to ‘stay alert’ in the likelihood of the natural disaster.
Even though the drought in Thar is a natural occurrence, it requires human intervention in the shape of long-term and short-term solutions. How the PPP responds to the crisis will determine its public perception in the coming years.
Media reports lament that the PPP’s past record leaves much to be desired. The area has not had water for many years: over 50,000 acres of fertile land lie barren, forcing inhabitants to migrate to other areas. Private firms responsible for setting up RO plants complain of lack of payment from the government.
The Sindh government has not acted fast enough to save countless lives. Reports talk of widespread corruption, but charges are difficult to prove. Yet, inefficiency and incompetence, on the other hand, can be observed by anyone.
Drought management is a provincial subject. But media has no word to say about the role, if any at all, of the federal government. It is as if the provincial government is supposed to fend for itself.
For one, Sindh province (the fertile part of it) produces and sends out thousands of tonnes of wheat and other farm produce. But even its small portion is not available to the local populace. Indeed, farmers are known to have burnt their crops after keeping some for themselves and their cattle, because there is no procurement, no buyers and no way of transporting the produce.
The region in Sindh covers Tharparkar District and Umerkjot, two of the twenty nine districts of Sindh province in Pakistan. Tharkarpar is largest district of Sindh province by land area with headquarters at Mithi. It has the lowest Human Development Index of all the districts in Sindh.
The regtion’s woes persist despite the fact that Thar has a fertile desert. Tharparkar has the only fertile desert in the world. But the livelihood of Thari people depends on rainfall agriculture.
According to the 1998 census, Muslims constituted 59% of the population and the Hindus 41% of the district’s population.
It has changed radically since it became part of Pakistan. At the time of the independence in 1947, the Hindus were 80% while the Muslims were 20% of the population. Because of the armed conflicts in the years 1965 and 1971, population exchanges took place in the Thar between India and Pakistan. Thousands of Hindus (particularly the upper castes and their retainers) migrated from Pakistani Thar to the Indian section of the Thar. 3,500 Muslim families also shifted from the Indian section of the Thar to Pakistani Thar. The Muslim families moving to Pakistan were given 12 acres of land each (a total of 42,000 acres), according to official claims.
All that has not changed the lives of the people in Thar. It remains a drought-stricken district. This year, according to official estimates, some 323,435 families in Tharparkar and 43,240 families in Umerkot have been affected by the changing climate conditions.
It is one of the factors responsible for poor growth performance in the country. Droughts occur if there is no rain during the monsoon season. Taluka of District Tharparkar suffered a severe drought in 2013 and 2014, which resulted in many crops dying in the area, further leading to food shortages.
This year again, Thar is suffering from droughts forcing people to migrate. Their livestock is also a victim of the climate, water shortage makes the animals weaker and prone to diseases. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is not properly working and more than 50 percent of water plants are out of order.
Since Thar is located in a remote area which barely has access to basic facilities, the government and the NGOs have failed to provide extra provisions to the people.
In Tharparkar, the government has an opportunity to help the people before there is a major outbreak of disease. In order to do so, they need to implement policies that will increase the population’s resilience and livelihood, and thus reduce their vulnerability to climate change.
There are pleas that new Prime Minister Imran Khan must visit the place. Also, that help be sought from the international community. But there does not appear to be any move in that direction.
Media reports say the province’s governor hosts the Chinese Consul General Wang Yu, based in Karachi and the talk is of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that the diplomat assures, will be “a game-changer” for Pakistan.
Till that happens, the drought-hit people of Thar region must suffer.