From Marvi’s Well to Reverse Osmosis

Tipu Sultan takes us to the Thar desert, where technology is being deployed against the age-old scarcity of water

From Marvi’s Well to Reverse Osmosis
Sand dunes in the Thar Desert echo with the melancholic folktale of Marvi Maraich. Marvi was a young and beautiful girl, whose story provides a true picture of the miseries of life in the desert.

She was fetching water from the well when she was kidnapped by the powerful King Umer Soomro, who wanted to marry her. The story remains a myth after eight centuries, but a well associated with her, often referred to as ‘Marvi’s well’, is still intact.

As the sun mercilessly bakes the sand dunes, women flock to this historic well to fetch water.

Bhangati Devi walks up in hurry, on the hot and bushy sand, barefoot.

With one hand she balances the earthen pot on her head, as she carries her infant son in the other.

“There is no other source of water, so I fetch water from Marvi’s well. This is the only source of water,” the mother of three children tells me, as she pulls on the long rope tied to a rusty iron pot hanging deep down in the well.

An RO plant in the Thar desert
An RO plant in the Thar desert

"The water coming from the RO plant is very sweet. It's not salty. It tastes so good," Lasho Devi says

One by one, women keep pulling on the rope, drawing water from the well and filling their earthen pots.

The water looks black and dirty, but Bhangati fells grateful for it. She believes “something is better than nothing.”

Thar is the world’s ninth largest subtropical desert, spreading across 320,000 kilometres between India and Pakistan. On Pakistan’s side of the arid region, subsoil water is the only source of life.

But this water, the women say, is also getting filthy because there are no rains. “There have not been enough rains for years. There is no water for the crops. We wait days even to bathe!” the Hindu mother of three tells me as she reaches her traditional hut.

As Bhangati reaches the traditional hut, her two-year-old son, Mool Chand, who wears only a long shirt, starts crying. She says he is sick and hungry, but she cannot breastfeed him, as she herself is malnourished.

“Since three days, we are eating boiled rice. When we get fed up with it, we mix wheat-flour in the water and drink it. Our only hope is the rains,” she says as she looks at the nearby fields, where the crops need water to grow. This season, the crop consists of some pulses and watermelons.

‘No rains’ mean no life. Around 2,000 people, including women, have died in the region since 2014, mainly from waterborne diseases. Among them were 350 malnourished children.

90 percent of Thar’s population is Hindu - a religious minority that faces various kinds of discrimination. The area remains the poorest of the poor, as the successive governments took no concrete steps to save it from frequent droughts.

Now, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in charge of the Sindh provincial government, is trying to overcome the shortage of drinking water by installing 150 reverse osmosis (RO) plants in the far-flung areas of the region.

The largest plant was inaugurated by the former President Asif Ali Zardari in the district headquarters of Mithi. Authorities claim this is one of the largest such plants in Asia. Powered by solar energy to ensure its operations during electricity outages, this plant has the capacity to desalinate two million gallons of water every day, according to the supervisor Yasin Samejo.

“This water is fit for human consumption, as per the standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as this water has the average level of 4,000 to 5,000 Total Dissolved Solids (TDS),” Samejo explains.

“Through the reverse osmosis procedure, we reduce the level of the TDS,” he says, adding that this plant can only cater to the population of the Mithi district headquarters.

However, another 150 small RO plants have also been installed in far-flung villages.

Lasho Devi, 45, lives in a village located some 160 kilometres away from the Mithi. Just at the entrance of the village, a one-room RO plant desalinates 100,000 gallons of water in 24 hours.

She says there is no shortage of drinking water in the village anymore.

“My relatives and I, we women all used to fetch water from the wells which were located in far-off areas. We had to make several trips daily to bring water for the family as well as the animals,” she reminisces.

Now, she says, the life has just changed.

“The water coming from the RO plant is very sweet. It’s not salty. It tastes so good,” Lasho quickly adds as tries to cover her face with veil because men start coming home with small herds of animals. Outside the room housing the RO plant is a water kiosk for the animals.

During the last drought that hit the region in 2014, when I visited this area, skeletons of dead animals could be seen along the roads. Deaths of their cattle, which become the only source of livelihood and survival, had forced a number of the villagers to migrate to the ‘irrigated’ areas.

Villager Birju Mall, 39, had to sell many of his goats to buy food for the family and a ticket for himself.

“Finding no source of livelihood here, I decided to travel to Karachi to find some work so that my family does not have to starve,” the dark-complexioned, skinny man tells as we travel to the famed ‘Marvi’s Well’.

He ended up becoming a security guard, which he says gave him hope that was short-lived. “Our in-charge would not like to share my glass. He would not like me because of my religion, so soon I decided to quit and returned home,” he adds sadly, with a deep sigh.

Back in the desert and jobless, he got involved in social work. Also, he teaches some children free of cost.

The face of discrimination may have changed, he says, but it still continues. “The RO plants have, no doubt, brought about a major change in the lives of the local Tharis. But, many are built on the Autaks (guest houses) of the politicians or those with connections. Now what happens is that these people open and close their premises whenever they want,” he points out.

“When these people go to any other city, the RO plants remain locked, sometimes for one day, two days or more. This again forces the villagers back to the wells,” he says.