Drought and disease afflict desert region of Pakistan

Experts warn of further disaster in poverty-hit area with 40 per cent Hindu population struck by lack of rainfall and death of livestock

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 5:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 5:13am


As the death toll from the latest outbreak of poverty-driven diseases in Pakistan's Thar desert nears 100 children, experts are warning that corruption and a dysfunctional political system make a repeat of the disaster almost inevitable.

The desert region in Tharparkar, one of Pakistan's poorest districts, spreads over nearly 20,000 square kilometres in the country's southeast. It is home to some 1.3 million people, including a large population of minority Hindus.

Between March 2013 and February this year, rainfall was 30 per cent below usual, according to government data, with the worst-hit towns of Diplo, Chacro and Islamkot barely touched by a drop of water for months.

Asif Ikram, the second most senior administration official in the district, said on Thursday that the death toll from diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis since December 1 had risen to 161 people, including 97 children.

Life in the desert is closely tied to rain-dependent crops and animals, with farmers relying on beans, wheat and sesame seeds for survival, bartering surplus in exchange for livestock.

The drought is not the only reason for the recent deaths. Observers say they have come about as a result of endemic poverty, exacerbated by the drought and an outbreak of disease killing livestock.

Authorities have been busy handing out food aid and sending medics to attend to the sick following visits by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who leads the Pakistan People's Party which rules the province.

But observers say the relief work fails to address the root causes of such disasters and warn they are likely to be repeated.

Zafar Junejo, chief executive of Thardeep Rural Development Programme, says the region has long been ignored by Karachi, the provincial capital, because it is not considered an important constituency politically.

According to the last census, Hindus make up 40 per cent of the district's population, unlike most of Pakistan which is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Junejo said the authorities had little concern for the suffering of minority communities. "We are fortunately or unfortunately a mixed Hindu and Muslim population," he said.

"Fortunate because we are living in peace and harmony unlike the rest of the country where radicalisation is in vogue.

"But also unfortunate because being Hindu and being secular we do not fit in the official ideological definition of the country," he added.

Javed Jabbar, founder of Banh Beli non-government organisation, added: "When you have Karachi with 18 million people, Tharparkar is relatively less important from a political radar point of view."

Jabbar, a former federal information minister, added that the district had fallen victim to "a failure to enforce accountability due to considerations of partisanship" that had afflicted the province for years.

Residents and activists say the effects of drought can be mitigated by global lessons in dry regions, such as the conservation of rainwater.

Jairam Das, a livestock farmer who lost 10 sheep and two goats to the recent outbreak of animal disease, said he and other villagers were envious of Indian villages just across the border.

"In the bordering town of India there is greenery all around as their government has spread a network of irrigation and piped drinking water," Das said.

"We have a similar climate but the lack of water is a major hurdle," Das said.