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The desert of despair

Pulsating with frequenting VIPs, Tharparkar is in limelight these days but not for a reason to celebrate. Thar needs long term sustainable solution and not just a momentary relief operation

The desert of despair
Dying for food.

The current crisis in Thar is actually a famine of good governance. Tharparkar, its northern extension to White Desert in Sanghar, Nara Desert in Khairpur Mirs and parts of adjoining Umerkot and Badin districts are facing severe drought. Tharparkar is the worst hit where morbidity and mortality has engulfed several villages and food scarcity is gnawing people and animals.

The Sindh government woke up after a media outburst when people started going down like ninepins and more than 150 children succumbed to inexorable morbidity. Although mainstream media emphatically used terms like drought, famine and disaster interchangeably without any recourse to lexicology of technical definitions; it was certainly an appalling human catastrophe. Irrespective of its definition, the intensity is undeniably horrific.

Sprawled over 22,000 sq. kms, Thar desert is a mosaic of miseries. With merely one-tenth under canal command, the landscape is dominated by perennially thirsty sand dunes. Tharparkar is a district in Thar desert with a total area of 10,638 square kilometer. The area is characterised by arid climate, sparse vegetation and recalcitrant poverty. Rainfall is scant, water table is too deep to pull buckets through human effort and require camels to haul water. Rain-fed agriculture is the major source of livelihood.

A population of over 1.3 million possesses five million cattle heads, to sustain their dietary needs and a frugal household economy. In other words, below-normal rainfall can spark an imminent drought, which can culminate into a nutritional hemorrhage potentially leading to a cataclysm if not confronted at early stage.

Drought is a pernicious disaster. However, even a cursory observation of rainfall pattern can help determine the ominous situation brewing up ahead. The current situation in Thar could easily have been forecasted and forestalled with little diligence.

A land bestowed with plethora of natural resources and a glorious history has been turned into a hell for its residents. While the Sindh CM has sheepishly admitted the remiss on part of his government, discourse should veer towards sustainable solution.

According to Pakistan Metrological Department, monsoon rainfall between the months of June and September is the main source of water for Tharparkar region in which 87 per cent of annual rainfall is observed. During monsoon 2013, Tharparkar region received 30 per cent less than normal rainfall. Local variations ranged from only 6 per cent deficit in Chhor to 54 per cent less in Mitthi. From March 2013 to February 2014, a significant 31 per cent less rainfall was recorded in Mithi, which received 189 mm of rainfall against normal of 277.2 mm. Alarmingly, no significant rainfall has been recorded in Tharparkar district since November 2013.

This deficit of rainfall caused depletion of water table and localised loss of crops and fodder. It gripped a large part of Thar in drought and resulted in proliferation of morbidity and mortality among livestock, which in turn deprived women and children of their only source of nutrition i.e. dairy products.

It is outrageous that the wheat dispatched by the provincial government in September last year remained dumped in warehouses to stale and could not be distributed. The government’s blithe excuse of unavailability of transport budget is a hilarious explanation. It indicates the magnitude of an unfathomable apathy and an unpardonable negligence on part of indolent government functionaries.

Relatively harsh winter aggravated the situation particularly for malnourished lactating mothers and infants. Their immunity plummeted due to lack of nutrition and disabled them to sustain hunger and cold wave. When scores of children started pouring into the hospital of Mithi, it lacked adequate staff, medicine, beds and other facilities to withstand this deluge of patients. Most of the deaths reported from Mithi are caused by lack of proper medical facilities.

Tharparkar is a badly neglected district. According to an official document Development Statistics of Sindh 2010, the district has only three civil/taluka hospitals with 124 beds and 32 Basic Health Units with only 68 beds. The district has only 139 doctors (i.e. one doctor approx per 10,000 people) and 8 LHVs/Technicians. Local communities claim that many of these doctors do not attend their duties. Due to abject poverty and long distances, clutches of death often reach before a health facility.

Impoverished local communities in a cash-strapped local economy lose all their means and resort to migrate to barrage areas called “Sindh” in parlance of arid zones of the province. Apart from food scarcity, skyrocketing prices of commodities break their backbones.

According to a study “Food Price Crisis in District Tharparkar” conducted a few years ago by Thardeep, a local non-governmental organisation, prices soar beyond the reach of poor communities. The study reveals that prices of wheat, rice, pulses and vegetables respectively increased by 90 per cent 160 per cent, 90 per cent, and 80 per cent in just one year. In such a situation, only a proper intervention by the government can fetch some succor to emaciated communities.

Because of a variety of deprivations, Tharparkar lags behind in key indicators of human development. A recently released official document “Millennium Development Goals Report-2013” provides district-level ranking on various human development indicators. According to the report, Tharparkar was ranked as second last in fully immunised children among 23 districts of the province where only 45.9 per cent children were immunised. Similarly, the district was on 20th number out of 23 districts on immunisation of children against Measles, which shows only 61.7 per cent coverage.

The district had 6th highest number of under five-year children who suffered from diarrhea. Only 13.6 per cent births are attended by skilled birth-attendants placing the district in bottom within the province. The gap can be compared with 87.8 in Karachi ranked at the top. Concomitant to that just 44.6 per cent pregnant women received antenatal care consultation ranking it as 5th lowest in Sindh.

Another report Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2003-04 also revealed that only 31 per cent deliveries are managed through institutions in Tharparkar compared to 73 per cent in Karachi. Similarly, infant mortality rate in the district was 87 out of 1000 live births, higher than the national average of 74.

According to the MGD-2013 report, the district was the last on access to improved sources of dirking water and sanitation with only 17.2 and 7 per cent coverage. Regrettably, government officials and ministers inaptly scrambled to justify infant mortality by comparing it with previous years’ mortality toll. The figures of the yester years were equally abominable and should have been a source of consternation rather than a justification.

A mission of UN agencies recently released a report, which provides useful insight to understand the reasons behind this tragic situation. The report mentions that more than 64 per cent deaths occurred in the neonatal phase and 60 per cent of the children admitted at District Head Quarter hospital were malnourished (54 per cent moderate & 9 per cent severe malnutrition). According to the report, there are inadequate mother and child health services due to non-availability of female health staff. Whereas insufficient human resource and limited budget for medicines makes it difficult for the existing system to work and deliver efficiently. The report also highlighted that difficult terrain and poor infrastructure makes it difficult for the people to access health facilities.

All these factors snowball into a crisis that takes its toll with all cruelty at its disposal. Poverty, lack of infrastructure, dearth of social services and administrative inefficiency collude to unleash havoc for Tharris.

An accumulated development deficit and administrative negligence have brought torment for local people and ignominy for the government. A tad of political commitment and administrative efficiency could have averted the catastrophe at early stage.

Pulsating with frequenting VIPs, Tharparkar is in limelight these days but not for a reason to celebrate. An exasperating callousness was demonstrated by serving sumptuous buffet for the Sindh chief minister and his coterie. This is a glaring example of poor governance in Sindh, where ubiquitous cronyism has nurtured a meritless administrative web. A listless and lethargic bureaucracy rules the province, which is coddled by ruling elite. An unholy alliance of rapacious politicians and a wicked bureaucracy is ruining Sindh. A land bestowed with plethora of natural resources and a glorious history has been turned into a hell for its residents. While the chief minister of Sindh has sheepishly admitted the remiss on part of his government, discourse should veer towards sustainable solution. Flurry of accusations and condemnations fully justified though, will not serve the purpose alone.

The recent experience had highlighted some urgent actions. Some of these needs to include effective mechanism to monitor rainfall pattern and concomitant relief supplies of staple and fodder, a functioning network of health services, potable water supply schemes for communities, extending road network to enable communities to reach emergency facilities in shortest possible time and special nutritional supplies for pregnant women, lactating mothers and infants. Thar needs long term sustainable solution and not just a momentary relief operation.


Read also: Time to act by Zulfiqar Shah


  • Yes the author is right this is a crisis of bad governance and UNDP is part of that bad governance. Take example of the SLMP Sustainable Land Management Project in Tharparkar. Although a lot could and must be done for managing land for trees cover. Good tree cover if planned wisely definitely helps the poor in such emergencies. Alas UNDP outmaneuvers the government and exploits the existing weaknesses of the government and manages SLPMP through the officers that suit UNDP who know nothing on the subject, SLMP planned nothing on sustainable basis for such emergencies and today UNDP is gagged despite having highly paid professionals in its environment section.
    The recent report of UNDP on Thar crisis is also silent on why UNDP failed to address this through the heavily funded on ground project the multi million Dollars SLMP

  • We as nation are not sensitive to the sufferings of others. People in government are also from us having no sense of responsibility. It is because our system of education and character building is completely destroyed.We learn Quran in Arabic. but dont need to under stand its message. Secular education is also imparted in foreign language which is not understood by majority of students. only a small number of lucky students studying in
    high class English schools and colleges are able to get solid education but they lose contact with their language, religion , and culture , have little love for their country and people.These are people because if their wealth, better education and good command over English rule this country and that is why we so many tragedies because of bad governance.and self centered rulers.

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