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Politics of drought

The death of 270 children in less than a year foretells of deep-seated problems peculiar to Tharparker

Politics of drought

Thar, a unique desert of Sindh, which is subtropical but fertile and transforms into lush green when it rains, is now facing continuous droughts for the last three years. This causes starvation, which is killing children, livestock, birds and wild animals.

Besides hundreds of peafowl, sheep and goats, around 270 children under the age of five have died since January 2014 and these figures are officially accepted by the Sindh government.

Locals claim the actual number of deaths could be much higher but it is not being reported as human settlements are scattered in the district and there is no communication. Women, a majority of whom were expecting mothers, and adult males have also died but their deaths are not reported.

Despite media reports and confirmations by different official committees of the Sindh government, the PPP-led provincial government was initially not ready to accept that so many people, majority of them children, have died in Tharparkar. After the pressure by the national media, the Sindh government admitted to these deaths but didn’t accept these people died due to starvation. Sindh chief minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah claimed that these children died not because of hunger but due to maternity-related complications.

Surprisingly, in an area where children were dying due to maternity complications, the provincial government started distributing wheat. After presiding the Sindh cabinet meeting in Mithi on Wednesday, Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah said that in the fourth phase of wheat distribution, the provincial government allocated Rs3.36 billion and so far his government had distributed 0.5 million bags of wheat in Tharparkar.

Though Syed Qaim Ali Shah claims the facilities at district hospital Mithi are much better than any hospital in Karachi, the District Health Officer (DHO) Tharparkar Abdul Jaleel Bhurgari tells TNS that since January 2014, they have referred 293 children under five years of age in critical conditions to Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and other cities of the province due to lack of facilities including incubator and neonatal nursery. However, local residents said that they deliberately referred these children to other cities, so in case of any death media may not count them.

Also read: What happened in Thar

The drought that started in 2011 claimed the lives of 588 children in 2013. This year, according to the committee constituted by Sindh government led by Justice Zahid Kurban Alavi, 270 children died just in district hospital Mithi.

The situation has not only disturbed the health indicators, but has also caused an increase in the seasonal migration of locals towards the nearby districts that get river water.

After the media reports about the severity of the drought and deaths of children, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Sindh chief minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah and many provincial minister have visited the area and announced different packages but not many of those announcements have materialised so far.

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Sindh CM Qaim Ali Shah has frequently visited the district but locals claim his visit is a nuisance since the entire bureaucracy and district administration, instead of focusing on relief work, attends to him. District hospital Mithi, the only major hospital in the district, is closed during Shah’s visit as a security measure, causing a lot of problems for the people coming from remote areas with their ailing children.

To understand the severity of drought, which the media has not reported properly so far, one has to understand the topography, culture and the permanent problems faced by the local population.

The subtropical Thar Desert is scattered on either side of Pakistan-India border. On the Pakistani side, the Tharparkar district has 1.47 million people living across its 77,000 square miles (fewer than 17 people per square mile).

With two seats of National assembly and four of provincial assembly seats, Tharparkar has six Talukas (sub-districts) including Mithi, Nangarparkar, Islamkot, Diplo, Chhachhro and Daheli and 58 notified union council (smallest administrative units) and according to official record of the district government there are around 2325 registered villages (or settlements, which are officially declared as village or human settlement by district government). Around 95 per cent of the total population of district lives in these small villages or settlements and are dependent on livestock and rain-fed agriculture. Both the sources of their livelihood are dependent on rainfall; if there is enough rain, they get grass as fodder for their animals and also plough their fields for agriculture. According to Livestock Department Sindh, the district is the home of around 7.3 million livestock population including goats, sheep, cows and camels.

Traditionally, local people borrow seed and other agriculture inputs from the local businessmen for their rain-fed agriculture. But when there is no rain, there is no agriculture and thus they are unable to return these loans. This is happening for the last three years. Expecting rains, locals bought seed and other inputs, but drought has destroyed their hopes and now the local businessmen are not giving them loans at all, as they have not returned the previous loans. This has also worsened the situation, as locals also borrow food items from these businessmen.

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Despite the fatalities, the PPP-led government has continued downplaying the magnitude of the situation. National media criticised Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon’s statement in which he said everyday 600 children die across Pakistan but media is just focusing on Thar Desert alone.

The Sindh government has finally agreed to constitute a committee of parliamentarians to ascertain the actual number and reason of deaths in Tharparkar. Also the provincial government has announced to appoint doctors, specialists, lady doctors, paediatricians and sanctioned budgets for the Basic Health Units (BHUs) and government dispensaries, which were non functional due to the lack of the budget or staff and doctors.

The chief minister has also announced to continue the wheat distribution among the drought-affected people and announced to hire paediatric consultants and gynaecologists and to launch mobile Medical units in each Taluka. He has promised to launch another mobile health facility with 28 four-wheel vehicles and 50 motorcycles to ensure vaccination and nutrition to the children and infants in the entire district at their door steps with the help of USAID.

After holding the cabinet meeting in Mithi, the government has announced to expedite ongoing execution work and ensure the installation of 750 solar energised RO (River Osmosis) plants at the cost of Rs5.4 billion by the June 2015.

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