A prolonged lockdown imposed by the Pakistani government to check the spread of the novel coronavirus poses a potential threat to the survival of hundreds of thousands of livestock in the country’s southeastern Thar desert, local residents and experts say.
The crippling restrictions have not only stopped the traditional annual migration of the desert-dwellers, or Tharis, to adjoining districts in search of water and fodder for the livestock – their main source of livelihood, accounting for 80 percent of the local economy – but have also barred the transportation of fodder in the region.
From April to June, the three driest months in the region, thousands of Tharis migrate to the districts of Mirpurkhas, Badin and Sanghar, where they find water and fodder for their cattle, as well as temporary jobs for themselves as harvesters on farmlands.
The Thar desert, which forms a natural boundary with neighbouring India, covers a region of 200,000 square km (77,000 square miles), has a population of 1.5 million and is ranked by the UN World Food Programme as the most food-insecure region in the country. Its annual rainfall is 250mm (10 inches).
While the Tharis have been able to struggle through previous droughts, each year makes the situation more desperate as more of their traditional sources of water go dry.
“At present, overall conditions are tough, due to the ongoing lockdown. But the situation concerning the livestock is harder,” Nashad Samoon, a resident of a remote village in the town of Mithi, told Anadolu news agency.
He said the administration was not allowing traditional migrants to move to the irrigated districts, while the unavailability of transport has led to an acute shortage of fodder and water.
Many of those who attempted to travel to the nearby districts were forcibly sent back by the security forces, said Samoon. “We have been left with no other choice but the rationing of fodder for our cattle,” he said.
“There might be alternative sources of income in other parts of the country. But here for us, there is no alternative source besides livestock,” he added.
“If this [source of income] is wiped out, that means everything is destroyed for us.”
Khatau Jani, a local journalist, said a lingering drought coupled with untimely rains and a recent onslaught by locusts in the region has led to a severe shortage of water and fodder for the livestock.
“Thar is one of Pakistan’s poorest regions, where 95 percent of the population lives in remote villages with only a single source of income,” he said.
“No other area has been affected by this lockdown more than Thar.”
Many Tharis trudged through the hot sand and roads to get to the adjoining districts days before the lockdown was imposed, but thousands are still waiting for the restrictions to ease, according to Samoon.
“Even those who managed to move are also facing troubles. Some have been forced to return while others are still stranded at different points,” he said.
Ali Akbar Rahimoo, head of Aware, a local non-governmental organisation which deals with water and livestock issues, fears a water and fodder crisis could affect the breeding of animals in the region in the months to come.
“Shortage of fodder and water will have a cascading effect on the breeding of cattle, which will eventually hit the region’s already weak economy,” Rahimoo told Anadolu.
He added that the closure of several cattle markets in Thar and adjoining districts due to the lockdown has compounded the economic hardships of the local communities.
Rahimoo said Thar’s cattle account for 15 percent of the country’s livestock.
“Wheat harvesting is still continuing [in nearby districts]. They can still find jobs for themselves and fodder for their cattle at the farmlands if the [lockdown] restrictions for them are eased immediately,” he said.
“Livestock is everything for Tharis. It’s a source of income, nutrition and property. Immediate actions need to be taken to save that.” said Rahimoo.
Pakistan has been under lockdown since late last month and will continue until May 9 as the country reported more than 13,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 281 deaths so far.