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Tharparkar tragedy: Extending beyond human lives

March 31, 2014


Villagers lead livestock from the drought-hit Tharparkar district on March 11, 2014. –Photo by AFP
Villagers lead livestock from the drought-hit Tharparkar district on March 11, 2014. –Photo by AFP

As death and disease continue to stalk the people of Tharparkar, one thing has become increasingly clear – that unless the indigenous people make lifestyle adjustments in the face of climate change, the delicate balance of desert life will be lost forever.

With the desert getting hotter and rainfall unlikely to improve, stress on resources (water and grazing ground) due to increased human and animal population will exacerbate.

Signs of the changing weather pattern have already begun to show.

Take Ramjee for instance. Till a few months back, he was one of the more prosperous herdsmen of his village of Prah, in Diplo, one of the six talukas (others being Mithi, Islamkot, Dihly, Nagarparkar and Chahchro) of the Tharparkar district. He had as many as 80 to 90 sheep, but save for a dozen or so, all died of sheep pox last month. "When I saw the signs of sickness, I got all my sheep vaccinated," he said.

But it was too late; the disease had taken its toll.

According to the official 2006 livestock census, Tharparkar had 4.6 million big and small animals. But Dr Jhaman Doongrani, research officer at the Central veterinary Diagnostic sub-centre in Mithi, states the figure today could have reached an estimated six million.

For such a large animal population, according to Doongrani, there should be a veterinary hospital in each of the six talukas; a veterinary dispensary each in the 63 union councils, a vaccinator each in the 250 dehs.

Instead, what we have is just 18 dispensaries of which only 11 are working and two vaccinators in the entire Tharparkar district.

The vaccination costs Rs 1 and Rs 2 for every small and big animal (although since the onset of drought, the government is vaccinating all animals for free).

"Usually a vaccination schedule is announced through radio and repeated," said Musawir Ahmed of Radio Pakistan, but Doongrani conceded the awareness is still very low and fewer people get their livestock inoculated. Ramjee said he never did.

Often these radio announcements fail to reach the very remote villages. In Ramjee's villages they are unable to catch the radio signal.

"While it's become easier to spread the word through cell phones, the proper way would be for the mobile vaccinators to go door-to-door and raise awareness about vaccination for disease prevention, as well as vaccinating the animals," said Doongrani, adding,

What's the point of getting their animals vaccinated when they are already sick?

"People need to be made aware that it is prudent to keep fewer but healthier livestock than sick and weak. They need to be told when to vaccinate their animals and how," said Bharumal Amrani, a native of Tharparkar, who works with the Society for Protection and Conservation of Environment (SCOPE), a non-governmental organisation.

 –Photo by Malika Abbas
–Photo by Malika Abbas

Amrani has seen unprecedented damage of the desert and how gowchers (community grazing lands), which were earlier protected by the community have been degraded and encroached upon for agricultural use. "While livestock production has multiplied, there is less forage for the animals now," he said.

SCOPE has been working in Tharparkar on dryland management issues including combating desertification, since 2003.

In addition, said Amrani, increased use of fuel has resulted in chopping up of valuable trees like Rohrio and Kaandi by the locals. "These trees were never used for firewood, only in the construction of houses, that too sparingly," he said adding: "During famine, one Kaandi tree can feed four goats."

Also read: A preventable tragedy

He lamented the loss of the old order and how traditional wisdom has not been passed on. "I remember the strict social system that was observed for protection of the environment. If people cut trees unnecessarily, a panchayat would be held and a social boycott would be observed, but nobody cares now."

But along with training in livestock management, experts believe local communities will have to adopt innovative and improved agriculture practices and water conservation techniques. In the long run, they warn, they may have to seek alternatives to agriculture for their livelihood.

Soon Ramjee and several male members of his village (comprising between 40 to 45 households) all from the Bheel community, will begin their annual trek towards the barrage areas. This migration coincides with the wheat harvesting season there. The Barrage area is that part of Sindh where farming is carried out by the irrigation system. However, the nomadic tribes also migrate when the harvesting of rice begins. If not as farmhands, they are sure to find work as daily wage earners, at roadside restaurants, or as labourers in factories, etc.

"They will now return when rainy season begins in June or July," said Amrani. Over time, due to increased scarcity of food and fodder entire families have left with their livestock, but they always return.

Also read: Tharparkar Crisis: Overview, Response, Damages

Interestingly, villagers of Bandhlas, in Chachro, also in the grip of drought, stopped migrating to the barrage area some seven years ago. This is because they have learnt to conserve and manage the rainwater. Today, they are far more food secure and less dependent on the erratic and infrequent rainfall to irrigate their land.

"In 2004, we helped them dig several wells around their land. These were 60 feet deep and they found water at 35 feet which is still easy for them to pull," pointed out Amrani.

"If one dries up, we use the next and then the next. When it rains, the water in all the wells is recharged," says Jorio Bhuro, picking at his few remaining teeth, sitting under a tree, looking around contentedly. He also had 15 goats of which five died due to disease last month. Like Ramjee, he did not find it necessary to get them vaccinated.

There are eight families living in the village of Bandhlas and altogether they have less than five acres of land that they cultivate. SCOPE also helped them in improved kitchen garden practices.

"We grow spinach, onions, aubergines that we eat ourselves and we sell our fruit – lemons, cheeku, pomegranate, beir and papaya," added Jani Myno, another villager. One patch of land is kept for growing grass and trees to be used as fodder. The species grown is not just highly palatable but also more nutritious.

While their meal is simple and they only eat twice a day, it more wholesome and nutritious from the earlier fare of chapati dipped in chutney (made of chillies) and downed with lassi, to having it with cooked vegetables now.

Amrani found that sharing the virtues of natural resource management and an initial hand-holding was all that was needed to stem malnourishment.

"We have supported 50 other villages in kitchen farming and now they are on their own. In addition, there are 15 villages which have replicated these and used other improved agricultural techniques after seeing our model," he said.

In addition, SCOPE also holds informal awareness raising talks about how weather pattern affects crops and how to cope with it; what climate change is; the benefits of good quality seed, what a seed bank is and how to store seeds for better production; introduced drought tolerant and high yielding seeds of crops like millet and sorghum they were already growing and the techniques and usefulness of pitcher irrigation, drip irrigation and kitchen gardening techniques.