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Plan for Thar
By: Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

Through a right set of policies and procedures, a natural calamity can be stopped from turning into a human disaster

Plan for Thar

Thar is once again being discussed in the media — yet again, for drought, famine, and loss of precious lives.

In Thar, this is the third consecutive drought and thirteenth in the
last two decades. One of the manifestations of changing climate, that is
reduced frequency and intensity of rain, is eroding resilience among
people and socio-economic system of Thar.

Thar is facing chronic food insecurity and is among the worst 10 food
insecure districts of Pakistan. It has the lowest human development
index in Pakistan. A significant section of population of 250,000
families (roughly 1.7 million) is marginalised by virtue of being a
religious minority. The population of Thar is scattered across 2,300
villages and few towns.

The source of drinking water for Mithi town (district headquarter) is
canal water that is supplied through a pipeline. Mithi receives 2,000
litres of water for two hours per month. It also receives 1,000 litre of
brackish water (unfit for drinking) every alternate day.

However, this special privilege is for 40,000 inhabitants of Mithi
only. Rest of the Thar still relies on Tobas, traditional ponds where
rainwater is stored.

During the British Raj, the deputy commissioner used to declare
famine and drought if Thar had not received at least 300mm of rainfall
by mid-August. This was a clear signal for drought-affected winters, and
people would start moving toward the barrage.

Thar is the best place to observe the climate-induced migration.
Almost 25 per cent of Thar inhabitants migrate during drought. Many
would tell you that it is a historic practice. However, I would say that
this displacement is not a coping strategy to a changing climate but an
effect of weather extremes.

Thar is a classical case where insecurity is breeding further
insecurities. Here, a combination of exclusion, poverty,
marginalisation, geological features, arid climate, and mal-governance
is culminating into human disaster.

Both the globalisation and climate change have impacted livelihood
patterns of Thar. Livestock rearing which is a traditional means of
livelihood is on decline. Till 1980s, selling milk was a taboo in Mithi.
Today, a multinational company collects milk for Rs30 per litre and
people buy it back for Rs 30 per one-quarter litre of milk for their
daily usage.

Malnutrition and severe winter further exacerbates the vulnerabilities among children, elderly and expectant mothers.

Also read: Politics of drought

Ironically, politicians such as former Chief Minister Sindh Arbab
Ghulam Rahim and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz have represented this area.
Both got elected from Thar but could do nothing much for their voters.
Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi has a large number of spiritual followers
in the area as well. Makhdooms of Hala has also managed Thar. But no one
could undo the curse on Thar.

The elected MPA from Thar, Arbab Ghulam Rahim does not attend Sindh
Assembly sessions. The district administration remains out-of-reach and
non-governmental organisations are overburdened and exhausted.

It is argued that death of infants during dry winter is not a rare
phenomenon for Thar. The ancient Hindi name of Thar desert is Marusthali (Land
of the Dead). And, it is usual for the desert to turn deadly in every
dry season. But to me this is an inhumane argument. People of Thar are
not children of a lesser god. They are not destined to suffer; and why
should they suffer for wrong policies and practices that are out of
their control.

After much uproar in media on the fate of Thar during last winter,
both the federal and provincial governments, after engaging in a
blame-game, announced relief packages. The prime minister and chief
minister of Sindh visited the area. It was expected that this time the
drought would be better managed.

To be fair, this year, the government has managed to slightly improve
the situation. The area was declared “calamity hit” in March 2014,
after media highlighted the plight of dying children and cattle. This
year, the area was declared the same in October. Fifty doctors were
appointed on contract basis in District Hospital Mithi to meet the
increased healthcare demands. Reportedly, now a paediatrician and women
medical officer works round the clock in Mithi hospital. Free wheat (50
Kgs per household) is being distributed on the orders of the provincial

But, this is not sufficient. 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 is a collective manifestation of infirmity,
sickness, and unemployment — and thus reveals that the federal
government failed to fulfil its constitutional obligations.

To cope with the Thar tragedy, which like monsoon floods has become a
regular feature for Pakistan, we need to take some short and long-term
measures urgently.

The first short-term measures would be to put an effective checks and
balances mechanism in place on free wheat distribution, as various
scams have already been unearthed. In the absence of local checks and
balances mechanism, the distributer (read local governments)
of relief gets more benefits than the receiver. The provincial
government needs to announce a district level monitoring committee
comprising of some representatives of media and civil society
organisations, along with others to monitor the distribution of wheat.

Second short-term measure would be to take all possible preventive
measures for pneumonia, which proved fatal for children and elderly
persons last winter. It is important to administer pneumonia vaccine.
Humanitarian organisations should focus on distribution of warm clothing
for inhabitants of Thar for low nighttime temperature in desert during
winters. This would also help in prevention against pneumonia.

Additional supply of drinking water from canal to Mithi every week
instead of every month and then supply of this additional water to other
nearby towns of Mithi is another short-term measure to cope with the

On medium to long-term basis, both the federal and provincial
governments should work together to ensure supply of improved drinking
water to people of Thar. Solar powered reverse osmosis plants that may
improve the quality of brackish water may be one of the options.

The Sindh government should pilot the “Zero Hunger Pakistan Program”,
an initiative launched by former 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 breastfeeding and expectant mothers in
these districts. The initiative though announced by the PPP government
could never take off. The Sindh government should use this occasion to
implement the policies that the PPP federal government could not
implement due to certain constraints. This would help in combating
malnutrition in Thar.

Another medium-term measure is to evaluate the effectiveness of micro
health insurance scheme, which was initiated under the Union
Council-based Poverty Reduction Program through a local NGO TRDP. The
governments may like to make micro health insurance as part of federal
and/or provincial PSDP. This would encourage introduction of private
sector hospitals and doctors in Thar and the burden on district
headquarter hospital would get reduced.

To meet local health demands, Lady Health Workers (LHW) be
effectively used in Thar. Many of them already trained in primary
healthcare. They may be of great help to cope with outbreak of diseases.

Finally, the Thar economy must be made more resilient to rapidly
changing climate through collective efforts – of federal, provincial and
local governments, public-private partnerships and national and
international non-governmental development sector.

Through a right set of policies and procedures, a natural calamity can be stopped from turning into human disaster.

Time to avert another human disaster in Thar is running fast.

Source :

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.