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Zulfiqar Kunbhar

Arab News

Published Date: Apr 16, 2021

Poverty driven by climate change linked to suicide spike in Pakistani desert region

MITHI, Sindh: Last year, two cousins who wanted to marry each other in a town hemmed in the rolling dunes of Pakistan’s Thar desert took their own lives by hanging themselves from a tree because they did not have the money to arrange their wedding.

Just a few years earlier, the girl’s father had also killed himself due to financial troubles.

Earlier this month, at a bus stop near the multibillion-dollar Thar Coal Power Project, Amru Kohli, the couple’s 60-year-old grandmother waited in the scorching heat for the next bus to arrive, hoping to collect some charity — her only source of income in a region where poverty driven by climate change is increasingly pushing people to suicide.

“With no livelihood available and my family with debt of more than 100,000 (Pakistani) rupees ($654), I have no option but to beg,” Kohli told Arab News.

Six people in her village had committed suicide in the last two years. “The main reason was extreme poverty,” she said.

The UN Development Program’s Multidimensional Poverty Index for Pakistan reported that 87 percent of the population in Thar lived in poverty. And climate change was now pushing locals into more deprivation.

Between 2016 to 2020, the Sindh Mental Health Authority (SMHA), an arm of the provincial government, said 767 suicides were recorded in Sindh, out of which the highest number, 79 cases, occurred in Tharparkar district in the Thar desert and another 64 cases were reported in the desert’s Umerkot district.

With a total of 143 cases registered in Thar, one in every five suicides in Sindh occurs in the desert region, authority officials said.

The non-governmental organization, the Association for Water, Applied Education, and Renewable Energy (Aware), put total deaths by suicide in Thar at 348 between 2016 and 2020.

“With every passing day, suicide cases are rising in the desert,” Ali Akbar Rahimoo, Aware’s executive director, told Arab News.

“In the first three months of 2021, suicide cases in Tharparkar district reported in mainstream media were 20 cases, out of which 13 were women.”

While the SMHA report cites mental illness, domestic issues, and poverty as the main reasons for suicides throughout the province, researchers have linked the spike in suicide rates in the Thar region to droughts brought about by climate change.

“After the 1970s, the area has witnessed prolonged droughts and famine coming more frequently than in the past.

“Nowadays, even if there are rains, they are erratic and delayed, which reduces their effects on the area whose economic cycle and agriculture is solely dependent upon rainfall. Each drought takes locals five years back,” Rahimoo said.

Dr. Lakesh Khatri, a Mirpurkhas-based psychiatrist who has worked in Thar, said mental health issues linked to droughts and their effect on household incomes were contributing to rising suicide rates in the desert.

“Thar’s economy is dependent on rainfall as there is no comprehensive river water supply in the desert or any other major livelihood source.

“Prolonged droughts shrink available means of income. Hence, lack of livelihood opportunities and inaccessibility to resources triggers inhabitants toward depression, ultimately to taking their own lives,” he added.

Locals have also protested Chinese-funded schemes such as the Thar Coal Power Project, with its estimated 175 billion tons of coal, saying the program will pollute their water and threaten their ancestral lands. But construction has continued.

“Locals don’t see any trickle-down effect coming to them from the mega projects built on natural sources they are the owners of,” Rahimoo added.

Maryam Shabbir, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute, told Arab News that climate-change-driven poverty was a new addition to the impoverished region’s problems, with “extreme weather patterns” increasing people’s vulnerability.

“It could be handled through pre-policy making. If this is not addressed, it could turn into a political, social, and economic disaster of international scale,” she said.