Pakistan’s Thar residents living on the edge

In the southeastern desert, a reported ‘famine’ appears to be another name for structural poverty on an extreme scale.

Relief goods have flooded into Tharparkar in response to the perception of a "drought", but residents say problems run much deeper than immediate food shortages [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Mithi, Pakistan – There are reports of a very strange drought-induced famine taking place in southeastern Pakistan’s Thar Desert, where there has technically been neither a “drought” nor “famine”, yet people continue to suffer from severe malnutrition, experts and residents told Al Jazeera.

Since March 7, when the story of the “famine” first broke in the national press, the area has been declared “calamity-hit” by the government, with a Rs1bn ($10m) relief package announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a visit to Mithi, the Tharparkar district headquarters, one of a flurry of visits by political leaders.

Pakistan drought relief ‘not enough’

In the past week, Tharparkar has seen the delivery of 3,582.3 tonnes of wheat (worth approximately $2.5m), 201 tonnes of rice, and 1,483.7 tonnes of emergency food packs and other food aid, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

It has also seen 58 medical staff deployed on emergency duty to Mithi, located about 350km east of Karachi, and 5,318 people treated at emergency medical relief camps. The government has also promised investments of Rs30m ($302,000) in the town’s health facilities, and compensation of Rs200,000 ($2,000) to the families of each of the 70 infants who have died in Tharparkar district since December.

And yet, there is no “drought” here in Tharparkar.

While this has been a moderately drier year than average, by about 30 percent, the Pakistan Meteorological Department says that this does not fit the criteria of a “drought”, instead declaring it a “socioeconomic disaster”. There has been no rainfall in the district since November – but, this being the dry season, no significant rainfall was expected either.

As for the “famine”, food remains as available in the district’s markets as it ever has been during these lean winter months, although residents’ stores of grain built-up from the summer’s subsistence farming may have run out earlier than normal, locals say.

As many as 47 percent of Tharparkar’s infants have been estimated to be acutely malnourished by the WFP. The infant mortality rate in Tharparkar is 87 per 1,000 live births, compared with the national average of 69.

The Mithi hospital has been overrun with people since the relief and compensation packages were announced by the government, with wards overflowing with patients [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

“The cases have increased since the reporting [of the situation in the news], but malnutrition was definitely there from before,” says Chetan Das, a doctor at the government-run Mithi civil hospital, the main medical facility in the district. “Even from before, lower Sindh province [where Tharparkar is located] has 23 percent malnutrition […] This is a high-risk area definitely. It is a deserted area, and there have definitely been further shortages in food which have increased malnutrition.”

Since it was established in September 2013, Mithi’s nutrition stabilisation ward has seen 91 children admitted, doctors say, at a rate of about 13 per month. Since the reporting of the “drought”, that number has increased, but not very much, they say. Only one child, significantly, has died of malnutrition at the hospital – in contradiction to widespread public opinion about the “drought”. Most of the deaths have been either due to pneumonia or gastroenterological complaints.

“There are about 25 to 30 children sick in my village, it’s all because of disease [not a drought]. I don’t know what disease,” said 60-year-old Ganga Bibi, from the village of Miajuthar, about 50km from Mithi. Ganga’s 18-month-old granddaughter Deepa had been admitted to the ward, but most of Mithi’s overflowing child wards were filled with patients with respiratory infection-related complaints, Al Jazeera found.

The numbers of infant deaths, when compared with the year before, seem to bear out the theory that what one is seeing in Tharparkar is not a drought, just a severely poverty-stricken community, with limited access to healthcare and welfare support. As one resident put it, access to those services is “simply non-existent”.

“There is malnutrition, here,” says Ramesh Kumar, a native of Mithi, “but for those who earn Rs3,000-4,000 ($30-40) a month […] they cannot buy food. There is also a water issue here, the water from the wells is turning saline”.

‘Nothing to eat’

Zaffar Junejo, who heads the TRDP, and has been working in the social research and poverty alleviation sector in Tharparkar for the last 20 years, says the current situation is the result of a community of people living on the very edge of survival.

“Here, the climate conditions or bio-geographical [conditions], the people are living right on the edge,” he told Al Jazeera. “Even a little bit of pressure, with regards to climate, pushes them towards poverty and malnutrition. […]These people have been living in a condition that should in no condition be acceptable. They are in extreme poverty.”

Livestock farming in Tharparkar has historically survived in conjunction with the seasonal migration that most residents would undertake in the dry winter months to more fertile areas of the province – both to work as farm labourers and to take their animals to areas where more fodder was available.

The practice of allowing livestock to migrate seasonally, however, has been restricted by the government, and with the depletion of stores in Tharparkar, many animals have been dying of hunger or disease.

Many residents have been forced to drastically alter their diets due to food, water and income shortages                                [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Nalo Malhar, 38, says that he is being forced to sell his goats in order to make ends meet for his family of 12 during this lean period.

“I am going to sell these goats,” he says, pointing to eight animals around him, “because I have no money to pay for my household expenses. This is the only way to earn right now. […] When the rain doesn’t fall, we have to feed our children somehow. We have to sell them.”

The seasonal migration of villagers, however, continues, with some families sending a family member to permanently look for work in other settled areas of the province.

“Obviously when we have nothing, we can’t have tea, or water or food. So if there is nothing at home, we are worried,” says Aemina Bibi, 35, a mother of seven whose husband works in the nearby town of Badin and sends home Rs3,000 ($30) a month. “When the men earn, we are happy, but otherwise we remain in a state of worry.”

Aemina says that food was easier to afford during the rainy season, but that since the dry season started, “for a while there has been nothing” to eat. Members of her family eat a roti with gravy made from crushed chilli peppers and water, for meals these days.

Her husband isn’t the only one to have left their village of Bhujakar, either. Almost half of the village’s 20 households have abandoned their homes, says Allah Johrio, 70, the patriarch of the family.

Ecological safety nets failing

Junejo says that the lack of ecological safety nets and the degradation of traditional practices (such as leaving certain fields fallow and allowing a common plot for grazing lands) have left Tharparkar’s population more exposed.

“Ecological safety nets […] have definitely been disturbed very rapidly. [They were such] that they would support people’s livelihoods. There would be a common land, where they would keep their livestock. That land has now either been seized by someone else, or come under cultivation or a house has been made on it. […] Also, the most important thing is that there has not been work on alternatives. If there was work done on alternative [livelihoods and mechanisms], then obviously people would have options to get by, and the issue of malnutrition would be addressed in some way,” he said.

Relief camps have also been set up in the main square of Mithi, with goods coming in from all over the country [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

TRDP’s researchers argue that structural changes and access to alternative livelihoods are required to combat the issues that Tharparkar’s at-risk communities are facing, not emergency wheat bags and high-energy biscuits.

“If this issue of food insecurity is there, the way to address it is to work on livelihood options. […]You can’t control the rain – other than rain harvesting – therefore you either increase people’s skills or work on livestock, to improve things,” says Junejo.

That’s a view shared by Oxfam, the UK-based charity which has carried out work in this region on how climate change affects the community.

“While providing rapid emergency assistance to the affected people, we should not forget to address root causes of the crisis”, said Arif Jabbar Khan, Oxfam’s Pakistan country director, in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera. “There is no dearth of food, but persistent economic inequalities, timely public policy action, unaccountable governance, unfair distribution of resources and control on decision-making by few are the major causes, which if not addressed, would further aggravate the situation.” 

Taj Hyder, a former Pakistani senator, has been appointed by the provincial government to coordinate relief work in Tharparkar, in the wake of the latest public outcry over the “drought”. He accepts that the government failed to release food in a timely fashion to some people, and that malnutrition is present in both mothers and infants in this area, but blames the media for what he says is inaccurate reporting of a seasonal phenomenon.

“There was a lapse, but that lapse did not result in loss of life, or the migration of anybody. So that is the actual situation. We are calling it an MMD: a media-made disaster,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hyder says the government is working on both one-year and five-year programmes to provide longer term relief to the residents of Tharparkar.

Nevertheless, life for villagers like 58-year-old Muhammad Malook, from Posakho, remains precarious. Asked whether he thought his village could sustain itself if there were another few dry years, his answer was simple:

“Five or 10 years is a long time. Within a year or two years, we will be forced to either migrate away from here, or to eat each other.”

Follow Asad Hashim in Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera