Drought in Thar
28 February, 2006
By Amir Latif
At a time when Sindh Chief Minister Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, a dweller of Thar Desert, is enjoying the air-conditioned atmosphere of the sprawling Chief Minister?s House in Karachi, where lavish food and mineral water are available, his poor voters are facing one of the worst droughts of the decade.
Squeezed by an acute shortage of food and water, Tharis (residents of Thar Desert), are waiting for the attention of the "son of their soil" who has spared his time for two businesses -- to suppress his political rivals and organize the weekly Dars-i-Quran at the mosque of the Chief Minister?s House.
A continuous and widespread drought is giving a tough time to Tharis. Failure of monsoon saw all the four Talukas of the district reeling from drought, causing severe shortage of food, fodder, drinking water and employment opportunities.
People along with their cattle have started migrating from Chachro, Nangarparkar and Mithi Talukas as fodder and drinking water are becoming scarce. People are migrating to the neighbouring districts of Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Sanghar, Nawabshah and other major cities like Hyderabad and Karachi in search of work.
According to newspaper reports, scores of people are returning from these districts as wages have decreased in these areas making it difficult for the Thari migrant labour to survive.
Reports received from various sources state that there has been considerable reduction in the hemoglobin level of pregnant women and the weight of children below the age of five.
There are areas where people have not experienced even one proper shower during the whole monsoon period. Last year seemed to be an extremely bad year for farmers, already hit by drought in the previous couple of years. With little output in 2003, this is the third continuous drought year in the region and all the Talukas of the district are affected.
Thar desert received only 72mm rainfall up to December 15, 2005, against the normal of 300mm of the overall monsoon. The overall rainfall deficit is 76 per cent and the rainfall deviation ranges from 89.67 per cent in Diplo Taluka to 76 per cent in Nangarparkar Taluka.
As per the latest data, 36 out of 45 union councils fall in scanty rainfall category (-90 per cent or less) and nine union councils fall in deficient rainfall category (55 per cent to 59 per cent).
Mamchero, Harro, Pethapur, Tugosar, Singaro, Khario Gulam Shah, Tar Dos and Tar Ahmed union councils received considerable rainfall in the month of July.
The situation has been further compounded by the fact that water level has receded dramatically and traditional water catchments have gone dry. Practicing rain-fed agriculture has become increasingly difficult.
Pastoralists and agriculturalists alike face a real threat to their food security and many who have lost everything are reduced to taking high interest loans from moneylenders, making their situation all the more precarious. The distress sale of livestock has been rampant. In Thar a cow that would cost about Rs20,000 is available for a fourth of the
price. Similarly, goat and sheep that would cost between Rs2,000 to Rs2,500 in normal times are now available for Rs700 to Rs900.
The drought has also led to considerable migration from villages and nomadic herdsmen have lost most of their cattle, the only source of their livelihood in these arid regions.
Approximately 0.8 million people and 3.6 million livestock have been affected this year alone. Livestock is dying of hunger and thirst. People have started abandoning their cattle, finding no water and fodder to maintain them. Migration to cities and other adjoining districts is up. Social structures in the villages have suffered. Weddings have been postponed indefinitely.
The fact that rainfall pattern in different ecological zones of Tharparkar is not consistent, predisposes serious boundaries in determining an overall trend. Showers may be scarce in some areas and plenty in others with great variation of time and scale. So the same year can be better for people of one area than those living in the adjacent
According to a report issued by Participatory Village Development Programme (PVDP), an NGO working in Thar for the last several years, the scale of rainfall over the last nine years has significantly declined. It was only in 1997, 1998 and 2003 that Tharparkar received substantial rain, and the produce was enough to secure subsistence of an average household for the course of a year.
This arid region is situated mainly in the Tharparkar district, popularly called Thar Desert. Located in the southern part of the province, it is bounded to the south-west by Badin, to the north-west by Mirpurkhas and Umerkot district and to the east and south by India?s Rajasthan and Gujarat states.
It occupies an area of around 22,000 square kilometres or 15.61 per cent of the total geographical area of the province and has a population of about one million people. The population of the district is a mix of Muslim and Hindu. The region is distinguished by its low and erratic rainfall, high atmospheric aridity, abundant sunshine and heat. High sand dunes and sandy plains cover 70 per cent of its surface. According to the World Food Programme, it is the most ?food insecure? among Pakistan?s 120 districts, whereas the UNDP rates it as having the third lowest level of human development of all districts.
The region is gifted with a large variety of natural vegetation with over 700 species of grasses, shrubs and trees. The perennial amongst these are hardy, tenacious enough to withstand extended drought, efficient builders of biomass and yet nutritious as a feed. But the problem is not lack of good species but their overexploitation leading to a greatly depleted cover.
In Thar, the monsoon season starts from the second week of June and continues till the middle of September. The annual rainfall over Thar is between 200-250 millimetres and nearly 93 per cent of the rainfall comes in the form of few spells confined to the monsoon season that lasts for 65-75 days from the month of June to the middle of September. If rain does not fall during this period, a drought-like situation arises resulting in acute shortage of food and fodder.
Arising from large international variability of rainfall, the incidence of droughts is greater in arid zones then in other parts of the country. According to one study, out of 10 years, four years are witnessed as drought, three years are seen as moderate ones, and three years have been noticed as normal. Though common people tend to believe in an accentuation of desiccation, long-term data does not support it. However, one thing is certain that impact of drought has certainly increased manifold, as there are a lot more people and livestock to be fed and served with drinking water.
Drought is a recurring phenomenon in Thar Desert. Two or three years of continuous low rainfall coupled with a variety of economic, social and political factors has had a devastating effect on the lives of thousands of people across Tharparkar. With the smaller population of the past and larger holding, most farming families used to have reserve of fodder to last beyond a year and a half. Not able to afford fodder, even with subsidy, the farmers abandon their less productive or aged cattle or make a distress sale. The current and previous droughts have resulted also in a sizable migration of most of the able-bodied men in search of work, leaving women, children and the aged to fend for themselves.
Droughts have profound effects on social environment through increased indebtedness, strain on traditional clan and community relation, poor attendance and large dropouts from schools, postponement of construction of houses and family activities and so on. Women are particularly hard hit during droughts.
With men moving out in search of jobs to near and far places, women have to take over all the responsibilities of running the households in addition to their work burden of fetching drinking water and gathering fuel wood.
There is severe drinking water scarcity in all the 36 drought-affected union councils of the district, and the situation will further worsen in the coming summer months. Water ponds, wells and hand pumps that have gone dry are making life miserable for the poor section of the society. About 30 per cent of the wells have gone dry in Chachro and Nangarparkar. Women have to walk long distances to fetch water. Water rates have gone up. Tanker Kekra (GMC truck) are charging extremely high prices. One tanker on tractor with 1,000 litres of water costs from Rs1,200 to Rs1,500 depending on location and distance.
Crops are also being adversely affected due to the sporadic rainfall this winter. This year due to scanty moisture content in soil, only about 500,000 hectares area is sown under different crops in comparison to 928,188 hectares of good year?s season. In 2,000 villages, the damage to crops is more than 90 per cent and in the remaining 350 villages the damage to crops is between 50-74 per cent. Due to these hostile conditions, 4.5 lakh hectares of crop out of the total cropped area of five lakh hectares have been damaged severely with an estimated financial loss of Rs3,129 million.
Cattle and other livestock are the most significant foundations of livelihood after agriculture in Thar Desert, particularly for the poor. Animal husbandry contributes over 19 per cent to the net domestic product. Tharparkar has, in fact, the highest livestock population in Sindh province, contributing nearly 20 per cent of wool production and 10 per cent of all milk production in the country.
In the wake of the drought, cattle population of Thar Desert has severely been affected, especially due to acute scarcity of fodder and water in the district. Fodder scarcity for cattle and small animals particularly in Diplo, Mithi and Chachro (except four northern union councils) Talukas of Tharparkar district is a major concern for the Tharis. Animal
carcasses can be seen in the above Talukas along the roadsides. The situation in some villages of Nangarparkar and of northern union councils of Chachro Taluka is a bit better in terms of fodder security as people may have some fodder till January 2006.
No concrete measures have so far been taken by the provincial and district governments as well as the NGOs to provide nutritional feed to the cattle population. The health status of the animals is thus decreasing and will be a major cause of mortality in the coming months.
Another major concern is the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in certain pockets of southern Thar. The administrations in these districts have not taken any major step to vaccinate the animals against the outbreak of this disease.
Social impact of drought
Social impacts of drought mainly include public safety, health, education, conflicts between water users, reduced quality of life, and inequalities in the distribution of impacts and disaster relief (IUCN, 2004) among various sections of the population.
In Tharparkar district, issues of public safety were not significant, as the region has remained peaceful throughout the period. However, drought in Tharparkar district is conspicuous for unequal distribution of impacts affecting women and children more severely particularly their health and education status.
In order to analyze the impact of drought on the health of residents, its effect at the household level was examined. At least 46 per cent of the overall households have no land, posses less than 10 heads of livestock, take loan for subsistence and offer labour as sharecropper (OXFAM, 2000).
Due to frequent crop failures, poor households, particularly low-caste Bheels and Kohlis migrated to the irrigation areas of the adjoining district. Another equally serious impact of migration is on the education sector in the form of large ratio of dropout from primary schools. These schoolchildren drop out of their schools to work as labourers to supplement family income or to migrate with their families. Most of the low-castes such as Bheels and Kohlis migrate to assured-irrigation areas with their cattle and settle in grazing or forest plantation areas, where fodder for livestock is easily available.
However, these settlements lack infrastructure facilities such as schools. Very credible anecdotal evidence suggested that very large number of children miss out school during period of migration and very few come back to attend school once the effects of drought are over.
This development can be understood in the light of large dropout ratio and poor literacy rate in low-caste communities, particularly Bheels, Kohlis and Meghwars. Tharparkar is considered to be the most deprived district in Sindh.
The villagers argue that due to migration, the social cohesion of households and communities has been affected due to splintering of families and geographical dislocation. It has become difficult for family members to unite on occasions of family bereavement or festivals. Most of the planned marriages have been delayed due to drought.
Year: 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Rainfall: 186 210 60 24 80 8 350 58.1 72
Brief description of Thar Desert
District Headquarters: Mithi
Population (?000s in 1998-99): 914,000
Population Growth Rate: 3.13
Area (?000 sq. km): 22,000
Arable Land (acres): 2,292,000
Land less population 46 per cent
Females per 1,000 males (1998-99): 937
Average per acre yield (kg): 160-200
Principal Language: Sindhi and Dhatki
Definition of drought
Droughts have been historically associated with Shelian countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia, etc). Drought is considered to be a major instrument that drives people into chronic poverty and keeps them in that state for many years even after the breaking of the drought (Lwange-Ntale and McClean 2004). It demonstrates that rehabilitation process in case of drought is slow and painful due to the fact that it covers large area and population unlike other natural disaster like floods and earthquakes that are localized in intensity in most of the cases.
Types and characteristics of drought
According to National Commission of Agriculture (1976), droughts are of three types:
1. Meteorological Drought: It causes a significant decrease (more than 25 per cent) in rainfall in relation to the normal rainfall in an area. It precedes other droughts.Perhaps it can be declared as the onset or developing of subsequent droughts in terms of severity and intensity.
2. Hydrological Drought: When meteorological drought is prolonged, it results in substantial depletion of surface water, resulting in drying up of reservoirs, lakes, streams and rivers and fall in ground water level.
3. Agricultural Drought: It is a stage when soil moisture and rainfall are inadequate during the cropping season leading to stress, crop wilting and failure which in turn causes food security and insecurity. In terms of severity, agriculture drought leaves drastic impact on the livelihood of the landless and small landholders particularly.
Areas affected by drought
* According to the recommendation letter sent by the district coordination officer, Tharparkar, to the relief commissioner for drought declaration, all union councils, except seven dehs of irrigated area, are in the grip of drought. A total number of about 2,000 of 2,300 Thar villages have been declared as severely affected.
* The affected human population is nearly 0.8 million, whereas the livestock affected is nearly 3.6 million. This accounts for 2.54 per cent of the total human population of 31.4 million of Sindh province that is fighting a losing battle against this disaster for the second year in succession.
* There have been high temperatures and inadequate rainfall with long spells of dry weather during the months of August 2005, which is still continuing.
* There has been a skewed distribution of rainfall in Thar Desert with Diplo and Chachro Talukas receiving less than 89 per cent from the normal.
* In the other two Talukas of Mithi and Nangarparkar, the rainfall is deficient by 76 per cent from the normal.
* As many as nine union councils out of the total of 45 in the district have received rainfall deficient by 59 per cent from the normal distribution.
* Drinking water has become severely scarce in rural as well as urban areas across the district.
* Increase in food insecurity for medium-small farmers and for agriculture labourers is feared.
* Increased mortality of animals in the coming months is predicted due to unavailability of fodder and health care measures.