Pastoralists and others in Pakistan’s desert regions of Cholistan in the southern Punjab and Tharparkar in Sindh are facing a grave crisis: Their livestock are dying, their children are malnourished, and when families move to less drought-affected areas they often get a hostile reception.
Aid workers say the drought is widespread, and large-scale help is required. “This is the worst drought we have encountered since 1998,” Aamir Yousuf, programme coordinator of the Al Sadiq Desert Welfare Organization based in Cholistan, told IRIN.
The coordinator for relief operations for the Sindh government, Taj Haider, told IRIN 201 deaths were reported in Tharparkar from 1 December 2013 to 28 March 2014 of which 51 were men, 34 women and 116 children. He said rather than starvation, sickness was the main cause of these deaths.
“Starvation is not usually a direct cause of death [in severe drought situations],” Saleem Uddin, who has worked in the Thar area at charitable clinics, told IRIN. “But children who are severely malnourished, such as those coming into Tharparkar hospitals, fall sick faster and fail to recover, unlike healthy children.”
Drinking contaminated water as supplies ran short also contributed to disease, he said, with “water often shared by animals and humans”.
The World Food Programme says the drought has added to the malnutrition crisis in Tharparkar District. To help combat it, the organization is increasing its ongoing nutrition support to cover the entire district, “in order to cater to the immediate needs of the children and pregnant and lactating women,” Lola Castro, country director, told IRIN.
The request for support had come from the health and nutrition departments of Sindh. “Over 18,000 children with moderate or acute malnutrition and nearly 16,000 malnourished pregnant and lactating women in all union councils of Tharparkar will benefit from the nutrition programme,” said Castro.
As a result of the drought in Cholistan, more than 90 percent of the 1,100 ponds and 155 underground storage tanks in the region, spread over 26,300 square kilometres, had gone dry, said Yousuf. As a result almost 90 percent of people had left their homes and almost every family had been affected. Cholistan has an estimated population of 190,000.
Government partly to blame?
“The drought is one of the worst we have faced in a very long time - probably since at least 2002,” Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon told IRIN. While accusing the media of exaggerating the issue, he said the situation could have been “handled better” by the authorities, but he said the issues were now being “managed by the Sindh government with committees set up to oversee relief efforts”.
The Supreme Court has accused the Sindh provincial government of failing to truthfully report the facts and the chief minister of the province has admitted major administrative flaws, notably the failure last December to distribute 60,000 bags of wheat flour allocated for the region, which remained in warehouses reportedly because payments were not made to transporters.
The Sindh High Court has also noted that the failure to fill 271 posts for doctors at government hospitals in Umerkot, one of the towns serving Thar, contributed to inadequate health care for sick people, especially children.
“The media is citing 221 deaths since January this year, based on hospital data. But these deaths began in October, and the figure is higher,” Ali Akbar, executive director of the Association for Water Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), told IRIN from the town of Chachro in Tharparkar. He also said there had been “no significant change” in the situation since relief efforts began, mainly because the government is distributing wheat flour, but not “food required by infants, pregnant and lactating mothers, such as milk.” The lack of dietary balance meant the malnutrition crisis was continuing, Akbar said.
According to the Sindh Relief Department’s official data, this is the first drought in Thar since 1999 when there was starvation or near-starvation.
Displacement - without animals
“Livestock is closely related to human life in Thar,” said Naseer Memon, chief executive of the Islamabad-based Strengthening Participatory Organization. He said that because pregnant and lactating mothers depended essentially for their food needs on milk and milk products obtained from their animals, the death of cattle and sheep contributed to acute malnutrition among them and consequently their young children.
“The current crisis in Thar and adjoining desert areas is actually a result of gross mismanagement and criminal negligence on part of administration,” Memon said. The failure to distribute wheat and medicines in time and the lack of medical staff and services “resulted in alarmingly high infant mortality”, he added.
“Government hospitals are now turning away pregnant mothers and newborns, because very young children make up the largest group of the dead, and they do not want this figure to rise. This would happen if newborns died in hospitals and deaths had to be officially recorded,” said Akbar.
The current crisis could have been averted by a careful monitoring of rainfall data in 2013 which “could have raised alarm of a drought”, Memon said. “That it was not, is the real tragedy.”
In Cholistan, over 100,000 people living around dried out ponds have moved, mainly to towns and cities, according to Yousuf of the Al Sadiq Desert Welfare Organization. The displaced are vulnerable because of their loss of livelihoods and security.
“Here in Bhawalpur, it just feels so unsafe. We do not know anyone around. People are hostile to us and I cannot find work. All my sheep died so we have nothing to live on,” said Ahmed Alam, who is currently living with his family of seven in a shanty area some 100km from his home in Cholistan.
Alam is also concerned that the land and house he has been forced to leave behind could be robbed in the family’s absence.
According to Yousuf, nearly 200,000 cattle have died in Cholistan. The figure for Tharparkar is unclear, with the Thardeep Rural Development Programme NGO saying 42,000 sheep have died mainly due to disease.
Locals report devastating livestock losses, with Raju Bheel from the town of Diplo saying 12 of his 40 cattle had died in the last two months. “I now need to find fodder for them so that they can survive and my family can too.” He and his family have moved several times to find sources of water for themselves and their animals.
“My pregnant wife is sick; water everywhere is contaminated, and I am very concerned about her,” said Bheel.