The metalled road leading to Taftan border through Chagai district is known as the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) Road. It was developed for promoting trade and cooperation between Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The route is also used by pilgrims for going to Iran, Iraq and other historic and religious destinations.
For decades, this road has also been used as a conduit by human smugglers to take people to the other side of the Pakistani border with Iran. Once there they become the responsibility of agents who help them sneak into Turkey. The next leg of their journey is dangerous – to Europe – where they try to enter illegally at the risk of losing their lives.
Though the official claim is that this road no more serves this purpose, the locals claim otherwise. However, they agree the numbers have come down and the human smuggling rackets are now using other less used routes in Balochistan to carry people to Iran.
Travellers on this road can see vast tracts of uninhabited and uncultivated lands on both sides with rocky hills at places forming a natural boundary. One rarely sees pieces of land with green cover, which otherwise is a rugged terrain with cracks due to desertification.
This is a picture of Chagai district, bearing an acute water shortage due to long dry spells and depletion of underground water because of over extraction, etc. A large number of people in Chagai have quit farming and agriculture and migrated to distant urban centres for want of livelihood, which is never an easy decision to make. They also used to rear livestock but when water resources depleted they had no option but to move. Their lands became uncultivable and livestock died leaving them with hardly any resources. Sale of animals, sometimes for even a few hundred rupees, is quite common in such situations.
What makes the situation even worse is that populations are scattered and villages located at long distances from each other. This makes it difficult for the government and non-governmental organisations to access communities when logistical costs are phenomenally high.
Interventions are required in infrastructure, such as construction of wells, launching of water schemes, introduction of renewable energy models, adoption of water-efficient irrigation technologies, etc, which limits the number of NGOs and INGOs working here. The UK-based Islamic Relief is one of the organisations which have worked in backward districts of Balochistan while striving to bring positive changes in the lives of the people. There are projects where this organisation and government departments and institutions have worked together.
Muhammad Essa Tahir, Programme Manager Balochistan, Islamic Relief terms huge distances between human settlements in the province and lack of road linkages as major challenges. He says Balochistan, the smallest province in terms of population (12.3 million as per 2017 census) covers 44 percent of the total area of Pakistan and has 62 percent of coastal areas in the country. It has a total of 32 districts of which Chagai is the largest area-wise, covering 44,748 square kilometres. “You will be surprised to know that Amuri union council where we have projects is above 14,000 square kilometres in area.”
He says Balochistan is vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, soil erosion, air pollution and water shortages due to over extraction of underground water, etc. The main source of income for the locals, he says, is agriculture and livestock-rearing which are not possible without water. The literacy rate is also very low and around 60 percent of the province’s population lives below the poverty line that limits employment opportunities and increases their dependence of agriculture, livestock and manual labour in urban areas and at the Taftan border between Pakistan and Iran.
For instance, the Drought Resilient Agriculture Modeling (DRAM) project is an initiative to address the above-mentioned environmental issues. With a duration spanning 30 months, the project targets 24,196 beneficiaries in the fields of water resource management, livelihood, advocacy, and disaster risk reduction. Green tunnel farming, kitchen gardening, horticulture promotion grants for orchards, promotion of drought resistant crop varieties, provision of solar dryer for food preservation and processing are other components of the project.
The scribe who was part of a journalists’ field visit to Chagai’s remote districts got a chance to visit a water supply project in a village called Killi Daulat Ghat in union coucil Amuri. People there have abandoned their migration plans because of some timely interventions. The constructions of a check dam to store rainwater for recharge and installation of solar-powered water pump have made their life easy. To avoid over-extraction of water, a sensor has been fitted in the water tank that stops the pump once water reaches a certain level. People do not worry about the quantity of water drawn from ground by solar pumps because the electricity is free.
Underground pipes have been laid in the village to carry this water from the elevated water storage tank to the locality with the help of gravity. This has saved women from travelling long distances to fetch water. In village Johar Karez, drip irrigation technique is helping farmers grow crops using a fraction of water quantity as compared to what they would use earlier in flood irrigation method.
Zahoor Shah, Deputy Director Agriculture, Chagai district tells TNS that the Balochistan government is aware of the challenges and trying its best to meet them despite resource constraints. For example, he says, the government-backed agricultural institutions are introducing drought-resistant crop and seed varieties and promoting efficient irrigation methods among farmers. Efforts to bring about behavioural changes in people and inculcating a sense to conserve precious natural resources are also on.
Shah says the work done by non-governmental organisations is commendable and the government can scale up the successful initiatives they have taken.
Local journalists say there are scores of environmental issues that remain unreported or under-reported because of the lack of resources required to make field visits to almost inaccessible part of the province. They say even Quetta is a victim of environmental disasters, what to talk of the remote areas of the province. They say Quetta is slowly sinking because of over-extraction of underground water. Its air is polluted because of the use of improperly treated petrol from Iran and construction of housing societies at 14 water recharge points in and around the city.
Deforestation by displaced populations and Afghan refugees to establish their settlements have added to the environmental woes. Furthermore, they say poor governance is also a reason as the concerned departments have failed to enforce environmental laws, rules and procedures to protect environment.
One example of this is that people can dig as many wells as they want to, irrespective of the fact that there is a restriction on having a particular distance between them.
The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]