Apart from different reasons including less than normal rainfall during monsoon last year, extended winter and delay by the government to declare the region as calamity-hit, the people of Thar connect the current famine-like situation in Thar with the deaths of animals.
The drought has killed 154 children under five years of age by now as reported by the Sindhi media. The first victim of drought were animals and though the livestock department has yet to count the number of animals that died in the region, locals say around 20 per cent of the sheep population has perished in recent months.
In the recent past the desert witnessed much severer droughts but those droughts had not affected human population. This year there was acute shortage of fodder for animals, which is a major source of food and livelihood for the Thari people. When animals died in huge number, situation became alarming. With around 5 million livestock, Thar meets more than 70 per cent meat, milk and leather requirement of the province — Karachi included. The residents of Thar Desert believe that if animals keep dying at this speed, Karachi and the entire province may face acute shortage of meat and milk in near future.
Whenever there is less rainfall in the subtropical Thar, herdsmen take their livestock to the north in the barrage areas on the country’s largest river, Indus, where they spend months searching for fodder for their livestock and livelihood for themselves by working as temporary agriculture workers.
“In 2010 there was mild drought and the Thari people rushed to the barrage areas. But at that time those areas were witnessing history’s worst floods, so they could not find any fodder for their animals or work for themselves. This happened again in 2011 and 2012 when neighbouring deserts including Badin were witnessing floods,” said Bahumal Amrani, a social worker of Mithi town.
Local people do not have much choice in food. They largely take milk and its by-products such as yogurt and butter in meal and sell their animals whenever they need cash.
This year, when initially the sheep population fell victim to sheep pox due to lack of grass and fodder, media started reporting about the diseases which led to drastic fall in the prices of animals. “The cut in prices hit the herdsmen most. The shepherds didn’t have money for the treatment of their animals,” said Muhammad Usman, a resident of Peeloro village.
Initially, a meteorological drought, which the officials of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) deny, created a series of droughts — socio-economic, agricultural droughts and also caused a famine-like situation. It is not the-first-of-its-kind-drought in Thar’s history.
The Sindh Relief Department’s official data reveals that Thar witnessed five severe droughts, 8 moderate and 11 mild droughts since 1965. But except the 1985 drought that continued for three consecutive years and the 1999 drought which lasted for two years but was more severe, the situation never reached a point of starvation.
In the past the types and intensity of disasters were severe and difficult to handle. Even after more than the average monsoon rains, the people of Thar had faced different kinds of disasters. Their standing crops were attacked by rodents and locusts. “When I was young, severe locust attacks were so common that the government used aerial spray to stop them, but no such attack has been seen for over a decade now,” said an elderly resident Jeand Saand.
People used home remedies to treat their loved ones and their animals in case of a viral disease. There was no medicine for several diseases. In the absence of roads and other means of communication, the distances were greater than they are now. News of a disaster would reach the people and the government outside the desert after several days, so there were less chances of relief in those days.
As compared to the past, today the situation is much better. Almost every major city of Thar is connected with the other through roads, and the desert has road connection with neighbouring districts. There are cellular networks, internet facilities, electricity and to some extent there is basic healthcare facility, which was not available in the past. Despite a much better infrastructure than in the past, advanced medicine to treat humans and livestock, availability of vaccines to prevent diseases, how come so many children died in Thar this time?
“I believe the government is fully responsible for this situation. When there was no rain till August 15, the area should have been declared as ‘calamity-hit’ and the government should have started relief work, but the government was nowhere in sight,” said Abdul Qadir Mangi, former district commissioner Tharparkar.
He said when there are no rains before August 15, the district management can easily gauge the intensity of the upcoming drought by calculating the market demand for different goods, complaints by people and many other indicators, something that was not observed last year by the district government.
“There was no planning at all at the government level. Almost every alternate year, government declares Thar as calamity-hit area but has done nothing on a permanent basis, except sending a few thousand bags of wheat at subsidised rates,” said Ali Akbar Rahimoon, head of the Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE). He said the famine hit the district long before the deaths of minor children but despite local media’s continuous reports on initial symptoms of drought-like situation, the government took no notice.
There were green pastures everywhere in the desert in the past, locally known as Gauchar, which were owned by the government and had a lot of trees and bushes, used as livestock grazing areas during droughts. These pastures have disappeared in recent years because of massive tree cutting by the local influentials. This has also contributed to the situation.
Experts believe that changes in weather pattern are another reason that has affected rainfall in Thar.
The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) still does not believe that it was a meteorological drought. Defining the word drought, Director PMD Muhammad Hanif told TNS that it is internationally recognised that if it does not rain in an area for 60 to 90 days it results in acute shortage of water and food. This is called drought, but in the case of Thar this is not a meteorological drought.
“Last year, the entire country received less than normal rainfall and in Thar Desert the rainfall was only 20 per cent less than normal. The meteorological index for Thar Desert states that if there is less than 40 per cent rainfall than normal, it can cause a moderate drought. Thus, it was expected to cause only mild drought, which is normal in this area,” he said.
Rahimoon counters his statement. He quotes the past record in Thar Desert that if there is no rain before August 15, there will be no grass for animals and crop for humans.
Bharumal Amrani demands that to reduce the impact of drought in future, government must open a branch of Pakistan Agriculture Research Council in Tharparkar and introduce new seeds for crops and grasses according to the local requirement.
“There must be a fodder bank in the desert managed by government on a permanent basis, which can help the herdsmen in any drought- like situation, so that animals get fodder on time. The local population can be saved from severe repercussions of droughts,” he said.