Hanif 70, has decided to migrate with his family and livestock to canal-irrigated areas in search of food, fodder and water. “If it was n’t a matter of survival in Thar, we would never take our women and children to strange new places.”
Previously, they could grow and harvest grain after the rains and store enough fodder to last them a year. Since the past ten years, climate change and increasing population has heavily burdened limited resources.
Desertification, droughts and deforestation have washed away flora and fauna, forcing thousands of people each year to migrate from district Tharparkar, Umerkot, Sanghar, Kachho and Kohistan to irrigated areas.
In quest of food and livelihood, rural communities pursue land management and cultivation practices which deplete the soil. Trees are cut for fuel wood but not replanted. The result is flash floods, water logging, deforestation, loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, salinity, loss of carbon sequestration capacity and biodiversity; much worsened by scarcity of water, frequent droughts and mismanagement of land resources.
Hanif says people who used to protect trees in the past, now heartlessly chop them to sell wood in the market.
The arid zones which constitute 68 per cent of Sindh are classified as subtropical deserts. The entire province receives only an average of 200mm of rain per annum with the evaporation rate of water being higher than the rate of precipitation. Hence water scarcity is a critical issue as these areas fall outside the canal-irrigation system. Since desertification has affected soil productivity, communities have increased livestock. This results in overgrazing which makes it difficult for rangeland to regenerate as soil stabilisation is destroyed.
In Thar, wind erosion leads to further desertification as fertile land turns to a barren desert when fertile soil is blown away. The use of tractor causes further soil erosion and land degradation.
In 2010, the ministry of environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) declared seven arid zones, the Thar desert being one of them. Plants of rare species including (Gugral) Camiphera mukul, (Kandi) Prosopis cineraria, (Jar) Calligonum polygonoldes (Phog) salvadora oleoidesq are found here as researched by the Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), Tharparkar.
Declared a Ramsar site in 2002, the total population of Tharparkar is 1.4 million out of which 80 per cent is dependent on livestock and vegetation including trees and plants.
Out of the seven routes for migratory birds in Central Asia, the Indus green route passes through the Thar Desert. According to an estimate by the Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), abodes of about 40000 migratory birds have been destroyed in the few trees that were left in Thar .
One-third area of Chhachhro and three union councils of Umerkot have been affected by desertification. Toxic trees, bushes and plants including Akk or calotropis, Devi or Prosopis juliflora and San Lasiurus sindicus which are harmful for the jaws and digestive system of livestock are found growing in these areas. These hinder the growth of grass and other bushes.
Previously there was the Gaucher (cow pastures) in Thar for grazing of livestock, but not any more due to encroachment and cultivation.
According to Nasir Ali Panhwar, Programme Coordinator WWF, “A high percentage of dust found in the air causes skin, eye and lung diseases like allergies and asthma. Those suffering from TB find their condition aggravated. In the absence of shady trees, people suffer diarrhea and dehydration by working in the sun for prolonged periods of time.”
Presently there is no university in Sindh that offers guidance for agriculture in arid zones. There is no research being done, no dedicated department, no policies nor awareness among people about desertification and droughts; its causes, impacts and solutions and management.