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Averting disaster
By: Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

It is not possible to avoid natural calamities, but with the
right set of policies and practices, it is always possible to stop these
calamities from turning into human disasters.  The same can be said about
the tragedy in Tharparkar, where despite low rainfall, famine and loss of
cattle could have been avoided. Thar has remained a focus of policymakers for
quite some time now, but that attention pertained to its coal reserves. This
time, the desert is in global headlines because of chronic food insecurity and
malnutrition.

I am using the word chronic very responsibly. Readers may
recall a report by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and
World Food Program (WFP), titled ‘State of Rural Food Insecurity in Pakistan 2003’.
Tharparkar was the most food-insecure district of Pakistan at that time.
Another SDPI report in 2009-10 said Thar was one of the most food-insecure
areas of Pakistan and the most food-insecure area in Sindh. The National
Nutrition Survey of 2011 declared Sindh as the most malnourished province of
Pakistan, and Thar was a major contributor to the malnourishment figures in
Sindh. The situation has not changed much, and as per a forthcoming report by
the SDPI titled ‘State of Food Security 2013’, Thar is yet again one of the
most caloric-deficit and malnourished regions of Pakistan.

A drought was declared only in March. By then, Thar was
already hit by famine and pneumonia

Despite the fact that Thar was the constituency of a chief
minister (Arbab Ghulam Rahim) and a prime minister (Shaukat Aziz), there is no
letup for Thari voters. One should not forget that Makhdoom Shah Mahmood
Qureshi has a large number of spiritual followers in the area, which has most
recently been managed by the Makhdooms of Hala. No Makhdoom could undo the
curse on Thar.

Until recently, the Revenue Department used to declare Thar
a calamity-hit area if it did not receive 300mm of rain by 15th August. In
2013, Thar received only 5-7% of this amount. There were no subsequent rains in
September, October and November. The cattle started dying, which is a clear
indication of drought, but there was institutional confusion. Who would declare
a drought? There is a National Disaster Management Authority to tackle disasters.
It is supported by Provincial Disaster Management Authorities. There is a
Provincial Relief Ministry (run by another Makhdoom until recently), the
Provincial Health Department, the Provincial Food Department, and the district
administration. Each one of these institutions operates (if at all) in their
own silos, often competing and more often neglecting the existence of other
institutions. Thus the drought was declared only in March, and that too after
the media started highlighting the plight of Thar, which was hit by drought,
famine, and pneumonia by then.  The relief could not be mobilized until a
blame game between the federal government and the provincial government
started. Apparently, the chief minister’s direction for the release of wheat in
the first week of March could not be complied with because the district
administration had defaulted on previous payments to carriage contractors.

Lack of fodder and water is the primary cause of death among
livestock in dry months. The death of cattle negatively affects the
already-poor food supply and aggravates malnourishment, which in turn reduces
the immunity of the inhabitants. In this context, severe winters and a lack of
health facilities in Thar desert leads to pneumonia – a disease that can be
easily controlled through vaccination. Fortunately, there are no incidents of
Taliban attacking vaccinating teams in that part of Pakistan.

Keeping in view the prevailing poverty in Thar, I am
assuming that a majority of households should be BISP beneficiaries. Poverty
score card data could have been easily used to assess the requirements of
pneumonia vaccination and where to administer it. Vaccination is not a response
to food insecurity, but would have saved many precious lives – a
policy-practice response to natural calamity.

Unfortunately, a majority of the population of Thar is
excluded and marginalized by virtue of being a religious minority.  There
is no political will at the top and people are too excluded to get their
demands heard. Where would they have gone to report their miseries? The elected
MPA from Thar, former chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim, does not attend Sindh
Assembly sessions, the district administration is out of reach, and
nongovernmental organizations are overburdened and fatigued. Perhaps things
would have been slightly different if there were an elected local government.
However, our political parties are too insecure to organize local government
elections.

Now that Thar is finally a focus of attention, I hope the
Prime Ministers’ promised 1 billion will be released very soon. But what can be
done to avoid such a situation in future? Amirtya Sen once said that there is
no apolitical famine. We need political wisdom to tackle this tragic situation.
Politicization of such events will not bring any relief to the survivors.
Political wisdom requires both long term and short term measures at macro and
meso levels.

First thing first – monitoring and overseeing the relief
effort may be a noble deed but you will suffer a major blow from institutional
chaos. The Sindh Government/NDMA/PDMA should immediately mobilize local support
groups who may ensure the delivery of relief items beyond district Head
Quarters.

Second, the poverty score card data should be utilized to
identify the most vulnerable areas and their access to relief should be
ensured. Free pneumonia vaccination should be part of the health protocol in
Mirpur Khas Division. The PPP government had taken the initiative of
micro-health insurance (MHI) for BISP beneficiaries. The Sindh government
should use MHI to control the spread of pneumonia through public-private
partnership.

Thirdly, the Sindh government should pilot the “Zero Hunger
Pakistan Program”, an initiative launched by the then PM Gilani, to provide
mid-day school meals at public schools in Thar. The plan also envisaged a
supply of ready to use fortified food for breast feeding mothers and pregnant
women in these districts. The initiative could never take off in PPP’s era, but
the Sindh government should use this occasion to implement the policies that
the PPP federal government could not implement due to certain constraints.

Fourthly, the Provincial Relief Department should ensure
timely distribution of food and feed stocks in case of future droughts.

The federal government would have to play a proactive role
to fulfil its obligations under article 38(d) of the constitution of Pakistan,
which says, "The state shall provide basic necessities of life, such as food,
clothing, housing, education and medical relief for all such citizens, irrespective
of sex, caste, creed or race, as are permanently or temporarily unable to earn
their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness or unemployment". The plight
of Thar reveals that the federal government failed to fulfil its constitutional
obligations.

Last but not the least, I would request the vibrant media to
keep on highlighting the plight of Thar, because there is fear that very soon
the focus of attention may move to another, possibly bigger, disaster.

This article was originally published at:

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.