BAHAWALPUR: The drought-like conditions in the absence of rains prevail across Cholistan, the 6.6 million acre desert home to about 200,000 people and 2 million livestock.
A media team visited Cholistan on Thursday and found the area in the grip of a prolonged spell of dry weather. The situation has resulted in the displacement of inhabitants and their cattle from the desert to green belt areas to meet the shortage of drinking water and fodder as the rainwater accumulating open ponds have dried up.
The living places around these ponds were found deserted. The media team noticed the presence of human and cattle population around the dried-up ponds of Tharoola and Qasaiwala. The only things found in huts were some empty clay pitchers, a few pairs of shoes and heaps of wood.
The team also found a skeleton of an animal, an indication of the severe unavailability of drinking water.
Dawn learnt that there were 1,200 water ponds across the desert, supplying water to humans and animals. Of the 1,200 ponds, Kataniwali, Khokhranwali, Barsati, Drindowali, Bahala, Akmalwala, Bhochran, Takkiwali, Kamalwali and Kharani were the places, where the ponds had completely dried.
A non-government organisation (NGO) official, Riaz Baloch, involved with the Cholistan Development Authority (CDA) to provide water to the Cholistanis, alleged the serious situation arose due to the negligence of the CDA.
He said the authority had failed to clear sedimentation from the ponds. The NGO official observed that if the ponds had been cleared of the silt under a phased-programme by the CDA with its budgetary allocation, the rainwater accumulated in ponds would serve the Cholistanis and their animal for a long period.
The team also saw the Tharoowala pond, which was built to store 400,000 gallons of water. The pond in question was in a need of desiltation.
It is learnt that native Cholistanis live around these ponds as long as the drinking water is available to their herds. As this basic facility diminishes in a pond, they move to the next nearest pond. Every herd owner is to pay tax for the grazing of their animal. This tax is called ‘Tirini’ which is levied at the rate of Rs5, 10 and 18 per sheep, cow and camel and is collected by the officials of the Forest Department from the owners.
A number of Cholistanis living near the crumbling Derwar Fort also protested at the non-availability of drinking water to them and their cattle and demanded the clearance of water ponds from sediments. They also demanded the brick lining of the ponds to minimise the seepage. They said CDA's water supply system through pipelines were inefficient and limited to few areas.
CDA Managing Director Mian Aftab Peerzada was reportedly away from his office in connection with the visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Khutri. A CDA official, however, claimed that the cleanliness of the ponds was carried out. He added that it was a phased activity being carried out annually. He said that every year under a programme, the ponds were cleared and in the upcoming summer season, the cleanliness drive would be launched provided the Punjab government sanctioned a substantial budget for the purpose.
He said the Cholistanis always preferred to settle in those places where both water and grazing facilities were available during the dry spell.
Cholistan is rich in the milk and beef production and the government also earns millions of rupees annually from contracts of khar, a plant used for washing of leather and bones of animal.
According to the available statistics, over 400,000 litres of milk is collected from the desert while this year the CDA auctioned khar contract for Rs17.5 million.