THARPARKAR, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A worst-in-a-decade famine in Pakistan’s southern desert district has killed at least 100 people and is leading to migration out of the area as families watch their crops and livestock die, humanitarian officials say.
A prolonged drought – the third in the region since 2011 – is pushing a growing number of families to flee parched Tharparkar district with their surviving cattle to water storage barrage areas in the north of Sindh province, where water and grazing is available.
Government officials in the Sindh Relief Department say some 100 people have died. But local civil society members and journalists insist the toll has surged beyond 300, with the majority of victims children, and say slow government response has played a role in the deaths.
The current drought began in August 2013, officials say.
According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), last year’s monsoon rains were 30 percent below the normal. But in some areas of the vast Tharparkar desert district, rainfall was critically low, officials said.
The Thar Desert receives between 260 and 280 mm (1.0-1.1 inches) of rainfall annually, 90 percent of it during monsoon season from June to September, according to the meteorological department.
Of the six towns in the district, Islamkot, Diplo, Mithi and Chachro have been severely hit by drought, said Hanif Khoso, a coordinator at Baanhn Beli (“Helping Hand”), a non-governmental humanitarian organization.
Poor rains in southern Tharparkar and low or no rains in the north, have “played havoc” with agriculture and livestock, and “exposed people and their cattle to starvation and diseases,” Khoso told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Nagarparkar, a town in the eastern part of Tharparkar district.
In particular, animals stressed by drought and lack of food have been hit by viral infections, causing huge losses, Khoso said.
Sitting on a wooden cot under a near-dry Khejri tree inside his cattle pen, Tharparkar resident Sadder-ud-Din Samejo, 51, said he lost 500 out of his 700 sheep to sheep pox viral infection last month. He is deeply worried about fate of his remaining 200 sheep, saying they are too frail to survive for want of fodder and water.
“Death of my sheep has caused me financial losses of $25,000. Now, I do not have even enough money to buy fodder for the surviving sheep,” a forlorn Samejo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Sheep pox, worsened by malnutrition and reduce water intake, is a highly contagious disease that can lower the resistance of animals to other diseases as well.
DEATHS AND MIGRATION
For Farmer Santosh Menghawar, who lives in a remote village of Morey-Ji-Wandh, the drought has brought even higher costs.
“I borrowed $3,000 from a private money lender to grow guar and pulses on my four-hectare plot. But poor monsoon rains last year dashed my hopes for any harvest, landing me in a debt trap,” the distraught farmer said, narrating his ordeal and he walked with his wife and children toward a barrage area.
With tears trickling down his bony cheeks, Menghawar,35, recalled how heart-wrenching it was for him to bury his two newborn twin babies, who died of mal-nutrition in early February.
“Now, I cannot bear seeing my two surviving children and wife die of hunger and thirst,” he said firmly. “I’ve decided to migrate to the barrage area to find farm labour and feed my family.”
An estimated 175,000 families have fled the catastrophe, a senior official in the Sindh Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) said.
Sindh information minister Sharjeel Memon says around 900,000 people have been hit by lack of food.
Tharparker, some 430 kilometres from the port city of Karachi, is spread over 22,000 square kilometres and has a population of over 1.5 million, many of them extremely poor and vulnerable to malnutrition.
Local officials said the plight of people in Tharparker has been worsened by lack of response from higher level authorities in the region.
Officials in the Tharparkar Deputy Commissioner’s office claim they had advised the Sindh provincial government about the risk of famine in mid-August last year, and had sought to have the desert district declared a disaster area. But they had no response, they said.
Traditionally, Tharparkar is declared a disaster area immediately after August 15 if already scant monsoon precipitation is below normal. Then arrangements for food, fodder, water and medicines are made in the district with the help of the provincial government.
“But this time, nothing like this happened thanks to official lethargy,” charged Khatau Jani, a 40-year-old local journalist who has reported on similar droughts and famines in the area.
“The provincial government woke up only when the calamity became more visible in the shape of spiraling numbers of human and animal deaths through starvation and diseases,” he said.
National and provincial authorities have now responded to the worsening situation. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah announced $10 million and $1 million in emergency relief aid, respectively, in the second week of March.
The Sindh chief minister also has directed the provincial government to distribute free-of-charge 60,000 bags of wheat among starving people and spend money to provide healthcare, medicines, clean water and livestock fodder to struggling families.
He has blamed Tharparkar district officials for failing to alert the provincial government to the situation earlier. But he also fired Hakhdoom Jameez-uz-Zaman, the Sindh minister for relief and revenue, citing his failure to act in Tharparker.
What is needed to deal with such crises in the future is deft advanced planning and a swift response to drought predictions, said Ghulam Rasul, senior climate scientist and meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
“Building up as many water reservoirs as possible of varying sizes to harvest rainwater can prove an effective solution to cope with recurring droughts and ensuing famines in the desert district,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview in his office in Islamabad. “This would help contain outward migration and mass displacement, shortages of food and water, and outbreaks of human and livestock diseases.”
Khoso, the coordinator at Baanhn Beli humanitarian organisation, said over 80 percent of people in the drought-hit area eke out livelihoods from farming and livestock rearing. But both are highly vulnerable to recurring droughts and famines, he said.
“Diversifying livelihoods by arranging trainings about alternative incoming-generating trades for people, particularly women, including embroidery, tailoring and mobile phone repair, and helping them start small businesses in their villages can help them tackle drought effects in future,” he suggested.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate and development correspondents based in Islamabad.