As one enters the Tharparkar district through a huge cement arch, Baab Quaid-e-Awam Shaheed Zulfikar Bhutto, one is greeted by herds of cows. They loiter around in the barren fields and along the roads. They are there all year around – from Badin to Nagarparkar.
In drought, these animals move from west or north and, in rain, from south or east.
Near Islamkot, on the road that leads to the Thar coal site, Muhammad Aachar Samoon is walking with a herd of around a dozen white cows with beautiful horns, popularly known as the Tharparkar breed. This breed is considered to be the best not only for milking but also for the fact that it has good draught capability.
“There were no rains for many years. The entire region of the Thar desert witnessed severe drought,” Samoon tells TNS. “So, last year, I took my herds to the north in search of fodder. But, this year, Thar has received rains. We hope this will break the dry spell, and we will get enough grass for our animals.”
Thar, scattered over 20,000 square kilometres, in the south-east of Pakistan – along the Indian border — is a unique desert. Otherwise barren, it turns lush green after monsoon rains. The area is home to 1.6 million people and over 6 million cattle heads, including cows, goats, sheep and camels. Majority of locals are dependent on livestock and rain-fed agriculture for their food and livelihood.
But this arid region has been suffering under a dry spell for many years. Due to the changing weather patterns, as a result of climate change, the drought has been severe, with rainfall giving only a temporary relief.
Rains arrive with the monsoon months of June to August. When there is no rain and the desert runs out of food and fodder, usually around October or November, herders are compelled to move towards greener districts. June is an anxious month for them. But as the region gets the first spell of rain, these herders start to return to their native places, along with their animals.
During drought, the herders along with their livestock start moving north and west, towards the nearby districts of Umerkot, Mirpurkhas, Badin, and Tando Muhammad Khan. These districts have intricate irrigation systems and get water from River Indus through canals and water channels for agriculture. Sometimes herders can be spotted in far-flung districts of Sanghar, Benazirabad, and Khairpur.
In these districts, Thari herders also opt for daily wage work of harvesting grain or plucking cotton — and can also let their livestock graze on pastures. “In the past, most landowners in these districts, allowed our animals to graze on what remained after harvesting the wheat, cotton and sugarcane crops. Now they charge us even for the wasted crops,” says Samoon.
Thar depends for water on two major sources: rain and groundwater. When there is no rain, the groundwater level drops drastically. The lack of rain in the area over many years has not only affected rain-fed agriculture but also the many species of birds, reptiles, mammals, along with various desert herbs and plants. Thar has a variety of wildlife species. According to an estimate by Sindh Wildlife Department in 2014, Thar has over 80,000 Indian blue peafowls alone.
When the region gets rain, sand dunes turn green, desert flowers bloom, and trees became lush. Livestock and wild animals get enough food. After the first spell of rain, locals plough their fields with the help of donkeys, camels and bulls. There are also the occasional, costly tractors. After ploughing, however, the locals wait for second or third spells, but if there is no rain, they lose huge amounts of money that they have spent on plough and seed.
This year, instead of June, monsoon started two months late in August – a sign of climate change. Locals fear despite heavy rains they will not be able to grow crops and there will be not much grass for the animals.
“There are seven tehsils of Tharparkar district and so far Tehsil Mithi, Diplo and Chachro have not received even 100mm of rain. To end drought, Thar needs at least 300mm of rain,” says Khatau Jani, a journalist with Sindhi television channel, KTN News, who has reported drought for last many years. When it rains in June, there is enough time for more rains to come. But this year monsoon is late. We don’t expect it will end the ongoing drought.”
Despite the momentary relief that these rains have brought, experts are of the view that this is hardly worth celebrating, for climate change is harming weather patterns and crop growth. They say the recent rains will reduce the hydrological drought in the region to some extent, but the food and fodder drought will continue in Thar.
“The monsoon is late due to climate change. Because of rains, the region will get some grass and the desert will turn green. This will provide fodder for livestock but even then there will be no agriculture; so the shortage of food for humans will continue, as delayed monsoon rains will not benefit agriculture,” Ali Akber Rahimoon, director Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) tells TNS.
Before the partition, the government would traditionally give a drought alert and start relief operations if there wasn’t much rainfall before August 15 that year. That tradition has continued. The Sindh government has been conducting relief operations in Thar for the last five years, which means drought has continued for five consecutive years.
The drought conditions also tie in with concerns of food insecurity. Due to food shortage in such times, Thari women suffering from malnutrition deliver underweight babies. The infant mortality rate in the area is also on the decline.
Recently, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah was given a briefing on newborn deaths in Thar. He was told that in 2018, 505 babies died; in 2017, 345; in 2016, 479; and in 2015, 398 deaths were reported in state-run hospitals in Thar. The numbers have gone up on a yearly basis and climate change is aggravating the already complex situation.
Dr Sahib Dino, a pediatrician at a government hospital in Islamkot agrees that maternal health needs special attention. “If women are given proper food, the death ratio will drop,” he says.
In 2016, the provincial government of Sindh started the Nutrition Support Programme. It is currently under the care of People’s Primary Healthcare Initiative (PPHI) and will be continue till October.
The Sindh government has also announced that it will distribute wheat with the help of NADRA to 200,000 families of Tharparkar. According to Khatau Jani, the government gave 50kg wheat bags to families in the first phase, and “the second phase of wheat distribution has not started yet”.
To overcome water shortage, the Sindh government had also installed over 500 Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants in Tharparkar district. However, later when the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto action, it was found that over 90 percent of the RO plants were non-functional.