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Drought in Thar: Some more broken promises

Updated September 19, 2014

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Crime, previously negligible in Thar, and suicide is now on the rise, as the social bonds holding communities together dry up in the heat of an arid monsoon season. -Photo courtesy of the Al Mustafa Welfare Trust
Crime, previously negligible in Thar, and suicide is now on the rise, as the social bonds holding communities together dry up in the heat of an arid monsoon season. -Photo courtesy of the Al Mustafa Welfare Trust

The 1.2 million people and five million livestock in district Tharparkar are once again in the grip of a severe drought.

Due to inadequate and sporadic rainfall this year, it is expected that Thar and parts of Umerkot District will not produce any crops or fodder this year. Indeed, the lack of rain has further reduced the moisture in an already dry soil, killing whatever grass and vegetation had remained.

As heralds of the upcoming drought and resultant food insecurity, pockets of grasslands can already be seen eroding.

With food prices increasing and rainfall disappearing, a populace wholly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and livestock as their major source of income slides further into poverty. With more than half of the populace in District Tharparkar already without assets, the effects of this year’s drought may dwarf previous droughts.


Population migration


For communities already on the brink, the effects will be disastrous: visible decreases in school attendance and child health, and affected parents forced to send malnourished children to work. Indeed, incidence of crime, previously negligible in Thar, is now on the rise, with abuse of women and suicide also increasing as the social bonds holding communities together dry up in the heat of an arid monsoon season.

Historically, in a normal year, between 15 and 20 per cent of poor families migrate towards areas of Sindh which have barrages — such as Badin, Sanghar, Mirpurkhas, Hyderabad, Tando Allahyar and Tando Mohammad Khan — for seasonal labour and other livelihood opportunities. The droughts see as much as 25 to 35 per cent of the population migrating to friendlier environments.

Read on: Migration seen through the prism of climate change

This year, about 40 to 50 per cent families are expected to migrate towards barrage areas. Most of these people will settle for any work at any wages, leaving them with little bargaining power and especially susceptible to exploitation by their employers.


Damage to livestock


The human costs are just one aspect. Livestock is also expected to take a significant hit in the upcoming drought.

As the fodder depletes, livestock are fed on dry grass, leading to a host of digestive problems such as diarrhea, toxemia and metabolic disorders; compromising their immune systems and affecting milk production. This adds to the woes of livestock owners, who depend on the milk their cattle produce, both for their own children and for whatever income it may provide.

As weak and diseased livestock migrate with their owners to barrage areas, a collapse in livestock prices is also likely, with a once healthy goat that sold for Rs 5,000 now weakened and worth only Rs 1,500.

Read on: Four more Thar newborns die from drought-related causes

Nutritious fodder, vaccines and livestock sanctuaries must be established to prevent the migration and death of livestock during droughts. The responsibility to implement these measures lies with the Livestock Department, which must drastically improve its governance, systems and policies if it is to provide any relief at all to the people.


Coordinated efforts must replace broken promises


Indeed, effective preparations and social safety nets, supported by policies grounded in an understanding of drought can mitigate some of the effects of drought. Policies must prioritise the health and nutrition of children; establish systems for early warning, equitable distribution of relief for humans and livestock, ensuring water security in the specific environmental context of Thar; and a rigorous monitoring and accountability mechanism.

Unfortunately, in Tharparkar, this planning is lacking. After the last severe drought hit Tharparkar in 1999 and 2000, despite promises and pledges to the contrary; both the public sector and civil society failed to live up to their words, with the Thari people ultimately paying the price.

Take a look: Thar drought

Following media coverage of the drought in Tharparkar earlier this year, similar promises resurfaced.

This time, we have no excuse to ignore the way forward and must re-affirm our commitment to end drought emergencies through a sustainable long-term approach that ensures every step will be taken to support the people of Thar. This will require close coordination, initiative and engagement from both the myriad of NGOs working in the area, and government departments.

Unfortunately, as the people of Thar have witnessed all too often, failure to do so can result in catastrophic human and environmental tragedies.