Thar
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While the country is focused on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Syria, there exists a forsaken land-Tharparkar, where abject poverty and an acute humanitarian crisis has resulted in thousands of deaths, since 2011.

According to the latest statistics, the first quarter of 2017, recorded 87 deaths while the aggregate number of deaths recorded in previous year of 2016 was 479, surpassing the death toll in the recent six years from 1500. On average 300 to 400 children are admitted in hospitals each month. Out of which 15% succumb to malnutrition and  other chronical diseases.

In spite of a marginal fall in the intensity of deaths since the first time the crisis emerged in 2011, death continues to prevail over life in this far flung area of Sindh.

This points towards the fact that both the provincial and federal governments have so far failed to take measures to improve the plight of thousands of inhabitants of this desert region.

Sindh High court expressed deep resentment on the report presented in May, this year, over the intractable dilemma in Thar. The report discussed the multidimensional causes of the crisis and referred the absence of basic health facilities , unfair wheat distribution, contaminated water resources with excessive fluoride leading dental and skeletal diseases and orthodox social tradition of early marriage as the substantive problems.

The report on the other hand, also pointed out that the non-functional Sindh Public Service commission, despite orders of the Apex Court have barred the Provincial health sector from deploying adequate numbers of doctors for an approximate population of 1308,368, spread throughout the region of 22,000 sq. km.

Read more: Why Pakistan’s feudal class is not worried about the water crisis?

The socio-economic factors

In addition to the socio-economic disparity of the region, the prevalent orthodox societal norms of early marriage and resistance to embracing the codes of family planning are some of the major factors resulting in hundreds of deaths each year.

Combined with early marriages, which brings the females as early at the age of 12 to reproductive phase, along side denunciation of the family planning, by the people, results in huge number of family members.

While 47% of the families are already living under the poverty line, the undernourished mother is not healthy enough to produce a well-nourished baby, resulting either in the death of a newborn or mother during the process.

A UN survey in 2016 found that, 90% of the women were underweight in Tharparkar. According to WHO guidelines, if Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) among women and children is above 15 percent then it is an emergency situation. While GAM in Thar touches the figure of 22%, the Chornic Malnutrition currently stands at around 45.9% which produce stunted babies.

Due to this complex phenomenon, the region records the highest under-five mortality rate.

On the other hand UNICEF also reported that, total of 14,503 children are suffering from severe malnutrition while around 55,732 children falls under moderate malnutrition. To utter dismay, it is also reported that among the total population of children hardly 33% percent of children receive vaccination in Thar.

With a non-existent irrigation system, Tharparkar is purely a rain- fed agricultural region. Agriculture thrives in monsoon season only. Hence, livestock consumes half of the earning for the families leaving them with little or no money to spend on a sick child or mother. Long dry spells and inadequate showers have drastically depleted sources of income for the people in the region.

In 2014, 88% percent of the households in Tharparkar had no income and relied upon their livestock but the dry season since than accounted for the death of 300,000 livestock.

The data of the three consecutive years from 2014-17 has recorded an estimate of about 259,947 families along with 40% of the livestock that have been affected by the desertification and drought.

More so, the worsening drought conditions could potentially affect an estimated 300,000 vulnerable groups including 192,680 children, according to a report released by UNOCHA in June 2017.

Read more: No Water? You must be talking of Karachi; No its Islamabad…

Dysfunctional bureaucracy

One of the major problems that have exacerbated the crisis is the issue of accessibility to medical health and basic facilities. A UN funded survey found that around 30% of the women and children in the region have to travel long distances simply to collect drinkable water. Moreover, some patients had to be transported to hospitals hundreds of kilometers away, which often results in deaths.

While UNICEF, on the other hand claims that the average distance that lies between the population and nearest medical health facility has been estimated to be 17 km.

The statistics of infant mortality rate is based on the children dying in the five government hospitals including the only moderately equipped big Civil Hospital in Mithi. However, there is no official data for the death taking place outside these five locations.

The next big health facility for the population of Thar lies approximately 400 km away in Hyderabad and then further away in Karachi.

The hospital in the border area of Nagarparkar, with almost the capacity for 25 bed, serves to the surrounding population of 272,000 and it often takes people two days to reach this hospital.

Instead of taking responsibility and taking measures to improve the living conditions in this area, the Sindh government makes tall claims of how it has successfully prevented this crisis from exacerbating. However, the figures are enough to refute all such claims.

The assessment of the health facilities is not at all encouraging. The health management in Sindh is working under a dual system; PPHI (A Public-Private partnership, People Primary Health Institute) and Provincial Health department.

Region of Thar currently have 256 health facilities. 21% of the population in the region is catered by PPHI through 49 facilities ,31 Basic Health Units and 18 dispensaries.

Provincial Health Units manages, six rural health centers, the prominent one is Mithi Tharparkar and Chachro Taluka Hospital.

Surprisingly, 69% of health unit facilities managed by the provincial government are non-functional due to bureaucratic politics.

For more than, 500,000 children in the region, there are just 6 pediatricians and six gynecologists. Overall, there are 22 specialists across the district for entire population. This includes 6 pediatricians, 1 opthalopthamologists, 2 Anesthetists, 1 cardiologist, 5 chest specialists, 1 skin specialist and 1 pathologist.

It is also estimated that 40% of the disease in the under-five children in the region are water-borne. To deal with the water contamination, the government has installed just 400 reverse osmosis plants against the need of 700 plants that could optimally meet the needs.

Owing to corruption and dysfunctional bureaucracy, almost 70% of the facilities in the region provided by the Provincial government including health units and reverse osmosis plants are dysfunctional.

While Federal Government is focusing only on the ‘Thar Coal Power Project’ to satisfy the energy needs of the country, the burgeoning humanitarian crisis either deliberately or unintentionally has been completely ignored by the federal government.

Read more: Is Pakistan making a conscious choice: removing energy crisis vs environmental…

Corrective Mechanism

 A relief package of RS 1 bn was announced by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit in 2014. Following this, the people of Thar received limited relief from the government. Around 3583.3 tonnes of wheat, 201 tonnes of rice and 1483.7 tonnes of emergency food were distributed, since then no major relief work was done to deal with the crisis.

Recently it was reported that Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company, in an effort to address the issues of the poverty in the region, hired 30 women out of 77 total applications submitted, to drive heavy vehicles like-dumpers.

According to the company, they have created some space for women empowerment in the region despite being strictly a male-dominated society. The project, however, misses the long-term plans, while women too are in the mood to leave the job after few months.

Careless agricultural practices in addition to global warming and rising temperatures have resulted in desertification of the previously fertile areas in Thar region.

Under these circumstances, it is imperative to take into consideration the irreversible ecological damage the coal-mining project would bring in the area. The implications of wind pollution and changing underground water reserves due to the extraction of coal might exacerbate the water crisis.

Where the people in the region are skilled in agriculture and women in hand embroidery, measures should be directed to capitalize economy on the possessed set of skills by the people there.

Read more: Pakistan and ‘Saaf Pani’ projects: Failed projects or merely a hoax?

The Global Ideas

Countries around the globe have devised tactics to convert deserts into lush green fields. Israel, for example, has over the years, used technology to irrigate vast swaths of desert land converting it into fertile fields. UAE and now even India is planning to use the same technology for similar purposes.

People from all over the world come to the research center to study how Israeli researchers and farmers grow vegetables, fruits, and date trees in the desert, and how to fight desertification.

Innovative Israeli water technologies, like the use of brackish water in agriculture, are now being introduced in many parts of the world, including in the state of California, which has been plagued by a serious drought in recent years.

In 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Governor Jerry Brown of California signed a memorandum of understanding that facilitated more joint Israeli-Californian projects in the field of water conservation and agricultural technology. Israel is the world leader in recycling wastewater, as 85 percent of its domestic wastewater is recycled and used for agriculture.

The brackish water is injected underneath the plant “so that it goes directly to the roots and doesn’t touch the upper parts. Even India is in pursuit of Israel’s technology of flower plantation that has turned their deserts into Pink and White.

Much can be done, in Thar to save the human life, however, this entails real determination and proper allocation of resources before the human life becomes extinct in the region.

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