Deserting Thar

The people of Tharparkar are battling against the pervasive impacts of climate change on their own. Haroon Janjua reports

Deserting Thar
For more than a century, Sindh has lured masses who have migrated to the province for livelihood, primarily to its commercial hub, Karachi. The city has a rich range of topography as well.

From mountains such as the Karoonjhar in the east and Krithar in the west; some of the most fertile farming lands in Pakistan and a coastline that has enabled trade and commerce, all of these give birth to aspirations, dreams, wealth and a flourishing habitat.

The district of Tharparkar is in the south-east of Sindh. It’s a desert region, with the lowest HDI in all of Sindh. It consists of over 2,300 villages in an area spanning 22,000 square kms, with 1.6 million living across the district.

This region has been inhabited for ages. However, over the past few decades, the desert has been bearing the brunt of arid and scorching weather. Women and children especially are severely impacted by the deteriorating climate.

Children from the village Naroji Wand
Children from the village Naroji Wand

A grueling drought, and perpetual negligence by the state, is wreaking havoc

Cut to the present, a grueling drought this summer and perpetual negligence towards dealing with this on the part of the state, is wreaking havoc. People have no access to clean drinking water, food supplies, appropriate dwellings or shelter to escape the heat. Despite high casualties – i.e. death of more than 500 children and livestock losses over the last three years – the calamity that has engulfed many lives is yet to be effectively addressed by the government.

Ecologically similar to the Indian state of Rajasthan, Tharparkar has survived many catastrophes before — as it has withstood more devastating and deadlier challenges, more severe than energy crises and seasonal deluges during monsoons. These days the population is increasing rapidly, creating extra pressure on the food supply to efficiently tackle the looming threat of climate change.

An estimated, 1.6 million people live in Tharparkar today, more than double the people who lived here in 1947 — when Pakistan became an independent state. Desert labor-force in this area has exploded to nearly a million, including women and children that are engaged in livestock and rain-fed agriculture.

“Some two thousand years back Tharparkar was a very populated area with a sea coast,” said Noor Ahmed Janjhi a history professor and researcher who has written extensively on this desert. “This has been the culture for the past thousands of years. Thar has growingly invented and reinvented itself probably owing to some natural processes”.

“With its unique topography the development plan has not been executed according to the environment. Only the upper layer of the soil – some 4-5 inches – is fertile. Going deeper decreases vegetation,” Janjhi added.

 A farmer preparing land
A farmer preparing land

The population is increasing rapidly creating extra pressure on food supply

“Tharparkar is not going to stop existing, but we have to change the ways to sustain life here.”

Forty-year-old Tare, a widow, is among half a million laborers and farmers engaged in livestock activities in Tharparkar presently. She has been working in the Baharo Bheel village for the past two decades. She has witnessed many droughts before, while living with six children.

“My life is full of struggle and hardship,” she says. “Being the lone bread winner in tough environmental conditions and drought I see no hope for poverty alleviation in this region to accommodate our children”.

Cataclysmic climate leading to malnutrition

The arid tropical environment has always remained a source of crop failures halting the agricultural activity which directly affects crop yield in the region. Additionally the negligence of state and refusal to focus on the agricultural innovations – primarily water availability –could be the main factor ensuring the persistence of this on-going drought.

People lose a major portion of livestock (especially sheep and cows), which is often their only asset. They also lose staple food and seed which they keep for sowing. The rate of livestock decrease by 50 per cent in the market, and options for earning livelihood could be reduced to a greater extent. Diseases like diarrhea, respiratory infections and night blindness increase, along with malnutrition. People borrow money from the moneylender on 100 per cent per annum interest rate for staple food, fodder and treatment of illness.

“Dry climate needs shifting of agricultural methods into more effective production with the less available water. Hybrid species of wheat, millet, chilies and sunflower had given excellent yields in the Tharparkar,” said Dr Attaullah Khan, Director, Arid Zone Research Institute Umerkot. “These agricultural methods should be promoted in the entire area to get rid of drought and food insecurity,” he added.

Deman performing household tasks
Deman performing household tasks

"Tharparkar is not going to stop existing"

Deman, a 42-year-old woman who’s a resident of village Naroji Wand, is still living in the village despite many people from the village having migrated to barrage areas. The majority of the houses are closed as there is no possibility of rainfall this summer.

“I am still hopeful that rain will bring agricultural activities back and surely food as well. Our village always faces extreme drought due to which people flee to earn livelihood,” Deman said. “Look, the entire village is empty, but hope is still alive.”

Data from the National Nutrition Survey 2011 shows that 58.1 percent of the households are facing food insecurity in Pakistan. Globally, only three countries account for half of the children and women as malnourished and Pakistan is one of them. Sindh province is the most insecure and poorest province with only 28 percent households having food security. However, recently WFP is carrying out the Community Based Management of Acute Malnutrition interventions for improvement in livelihoods and disasters risk reductions in Tharparkar.

“The situation in Tharparkar remains problematic with malnutrition levels holding at rates above 22% through 2014 and into 2015. These rates reflect a serious emergency situation.  UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that both severely malnourished and moderately malnourished children are identified and treated promptly. Prevention measures through a multi-sector response to nutrition, including work on sustainable agriculture solutions and improving access to clean water and sanitation facilities will allow us to mitigate drought effects in the future and offer some hope for avoiding malnutrition problems,” says Melanie Galvin, Nutrition Chief UNICEF Pakistan.

Preman carrying water containers on a donkey
Preman carrying water containers on a donkey

"I am still hopeful that rain will bring agricultural activities back and surely food as well"

“The situation is being monitored closely and UNICEF is working with the Nutrition Cell of the Government of Sindh and other partners to scale up the treatment of malnutrition in all 44 Union Councils in Tharparkar district,” she added.

Last month, during an inter-provincial meeting in Islamabad Dr Baseer Khan Achakzai, director nutrition, indicated that nutrition index numbers had dropped over the past decade. According to him, 43.7 percent children under five in the country are scrawny, 15.1 percent atrophied, while 31.5 percent are underweight owing to lack of proper nutrition.

South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), an initiative by the World Bank, in 2010 commenced to address extreme malnutrition in the region. However recently, SAFANSI found that:

“Malnutrition among both women and children remains a major health issue in rural Pakistan. It is also seen as contributing to the high neonatal and under-5 mortality rates as well as to excessive maternal mortality. Almost 40% of children under the age of five are underweight, over 50% are affected by stunting and some 9% by wasting—these rates are much higher in rural areas. Malnutrition is also pervasive among women of reproductive age”.

Taking care of livestock
Taking care of livestock

"The entire village is empty, but hope is
still alive"

The majority of the county’s malnutrition cases are found in Tharparkar desert, since 2012 where children are suffering the most from devastating climate change impacts due to shortage of rainfall leading to extreme hunger and food insecurity.

Environmental decay and poor reproductive health

Life has never been easy in Tharparkar’s arid ranges — a desert region of leafless trees, mud huts, and scorching heat. Over the years the researchers have long warned of the risk that climate change would worsen maternal health issues in many of the world’s poorest regions, as different groups struggling to cope with droughts and growing desertification, leading to malnutrition and mothers and infants deaths.

Deman, who is also a midwife stated that: “Many children have died of malnutrition over the past five years. The main reason is weak mothers and extreme poverty”.

The Tharis construct their homes — called chaunra in local language — with mud, grass and wood which is prone to accidental fire from cigarettes and sparks from traditional stoves and  due to natural processes. In windy seasons, such fire spreads and engulfs the whole village in no time. Due to the lack of proper dwellings the women have to face a number of reproductive health issues in the intense heat.

“Insufficient number of skilled birth attendants and difficulty in accessing health facilities in Tharparkar region result in birth related complications such as birth asphyxia and birth trauma. Deliveries are conducted by traditional (unskilled) birth attendants. Malnutrition in mothers leads to low birth weight of new born babies and they catch frequent infections and illnesses including Acute Respiratory Infections and diarrhea, etc.” says Sarah Coleman, Child Protection Chief UNICEF Pakistan.

Tari feeding her goats
Tari feeding her goats

"We have to travel 3-4 kilometres towards Malnhor Vena village to get water"

Coleman further informed: “Lack of access to safe drinking water and poor hygienic conditions in the desert along with lack of awareness regarding early initiation and exclusive breast feeding leads to malnutrition in children”.

“It is a reality that extreme poverty is the factor impacting women’s health more dangerously but erratic weather patterns like shortage of the rain can never be neglected in addressing reproductive health here,” said a lady health worker in the Naroji Wand village.

The findings of UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2015 depict the alarming state of children health in the South Asian region. Child marriage and knowledge of HIV among South Asian boys and girls is alarming and leads to health complexities.

“The richest 20 per cent of the world’s women are 2.7 times more likely than the poorest 20 per cent to have a skilled attendant present at delivery. In South Asia, the richest women are nearly four times more likely than the poorest to have this benefit”.

“Adolescent girls are more likely to be married or in union by age 19 than their male counterparts, and less likely than boys to have comprehensive knowledge of HIV. In South Asia, boys are almost twice as likely as girls to have this knowledge with which to protect themselves”.

Crises emerging out of water shortage

Preman, 35, a farmer from Baharo Bheer village narrates how difficult it is to get water. “We have to travel 3-4 kilometres towards Malnhor Vena village to get water from the well,” he said. “In extreme dry weather we have to go even farther to fetch water,” he added.

“Still there is no rain but I will plough my fields for farming immediately whenever there is rain,” he said, while leaving for farming to plough with Manthro, a farmer in Baharo Bheer.

“Global warming and climate change has a notable impact on water cycle in the form of either too much water (flood) or too little water (drought). Rapid loss of soil moisture due to rising temperature in dry areas like Thar is pushing them into severe drought,” Ghulam Rasool, director-general of the Meteorological Department, said.

“Water and sanitation is an important issue in Pakistan where majority of the population does not have access to safe drinking water and nearly 41 million people defecate in the open due to absence of household toilets. Being a desert region, water problem in Tharparkar is chronic as most sources have unsafe brackish water which is injurious to human health,” says Timothy A Grieve, Water & Sanitation Chief UNICEF Pakistan.

Grieve fears that, “due to lack of awareness and resources, people do not use household level water purification treatments and nearly 78 per cent of the population in the district does not have household toilets. These factors pose a challenge to the local authorities and humanitarian partners who are trying to improve health, hygiene and nutritional status of people in the area, especially children and women”.

Water shortage, which is clearly a changing climate indicator, is harming the daily lives of inhabitants living here. A number of NGOs working in the Thar reported that, the perpetual debt has been a common practice in this area. It is the only place in Pakistan where 80 per cent people borrow money to purchase food items. With debts to survive on daily basis, the food options are reduced as well. Only major food items can be obtained from borrowed money.

Relief activities — a drop in the ocean

Relief inspecting judge Mian Fayyaz Rabbani suggested that a drought control cell be established to avert another food crisis as drought may again hit Tharparkar this year because of no rainfall for long. Reportedly, on an average, five to 10 people have lost their life on a daily basis and thousands of animals also perished in Tharparkar owing to acute shortage of food since March 2014. Countless families along with their livestock had migrated to the barrage areas for survival. Due to negligence and ill-planning by the authorities concerned, the relief packages announced by the government were misappropriated.

Since the rapid children death and suicide cases because of extreme poverty in the desert, the Sindh government has framed a drought mitigation policy to overcome climate induced catastrophes.

There are problems because of malnutrition, early marriages, etc which result in physically weak children born of physically weak mothers, and suffering complications at the time of birth. However, the nursery at Mithi is well equipped and well attended. 45,000 children are born in the district every year. The death rate is also the same (high) as found in developed districts.

“In the unique geographical and economic conditions of the district there is a need to decentralize and upgrade the present facilities. Patients from all over the district converge on Mithi Hospital because there is a severe lack of facilities at local hospitals and health care centers,” said Deputy Commissioner Tharparkar Mr Asif Jamil, who is also performing the duties of District Relief Commissioner.

Karachi based renowned environmental journalist Amar Guriro, who has reported on Thar Desert drought and impacts of climate change on the region, said that Thar is suffering from devastating impact of climate change.

“The 1.6 million population of Thar region is totally dependent on rain-fed agriculture or on livestock. But since there is no rain or less rain for past four consecutive years, these communities are suffering with acute shortage of food and water, which is killing people, animals, infants and wildlife,” he said.

“In this disaster situation the food supply and relief activities are too slow and small, the rural areas in the desert are unable to get any relief,” Guriro added.

He said that almost 20-30 percent of the local population has migrated to the north in search food and water.

“Despite tall claims made by government authorities, the situation has not improved in the region,” he said.

Guriro also apprehended that if there is no rain this year, it will be a disaster for the region.

Recently, The International Energy Agency has warned about the global trends in the climate change – temperatures could increase by 4.3 degrees Celsius by this century. Leaders have been urged to ameliorate their pledges on reducing emissions. Climate change if not controlled adequately in time would lead to serious catastrophe like drought, dryness leading to food shortage and floods. With increasing population, food production is hard to fulfill hence it will severely affect relief activities in the poverty stricken countries where corrupt practices are ubiquitous.

“Tharparkar has been witnessing a drought-like situation since the last three years with inadequate rainfall in this desert district. As a result people who rely on rain-fed agriculture are suffering the most. Thari people eat local vegetables throughout the year, which are merely grown through rain source. Shortage of rainfall — a serious climate change indicator – has caused malnutrition and other health disparities,” said Kapil Dev a human rights activists from Tharparkar.

“Despite tall claims made by the government of Sindh on relief activities, one can feel the miseries of these poverty stricken people suffering from drought”.