Living and dying for water in Thar

Published November 10, 2014
ONE of the small padlocked water storage tanks dotting the Chhachhro area.
—Photo by Yusuf Nagori
ONE of the small padlocked water storage tanks dotting the Chhachhro area. —Photo by Yusuf Nagori

CHHACHHRO: For the people of Char Nore village in Saringyar union council, Chhachhro taluka of Tharparkar district, water is so precious a commodity that they keep their small water storage tanks padlocked to prevent water theft or use by other community fellows. Even otherwise it requires a team effort on part of a household to fetch groundwater.

“You need a camel or a pair of donkeys to pull a bucket of water from around 250-foot-deep wells in our and other villages as otherwise it’s not possible for anyone to throw a bucket deep into a well and single-handedly pull it out,” explains 40-something Sahib Dino Samejo smilingly as other villagers gather to hear the conversation.

Also read: Thar drought

Char Nore village has around four to five such wells for over 200 households. Donkeys supplement a family’s effort in fetching water, says development activist Jan Mohammad Samoon, who works with a local non-profit organisation, adding that one of definitions of poverty in Thar is that this or that man doesn’t even have a pair of donkeys.

With a rope around its neck, a camel slowly treads — guided by a young boy or a girl — away from the well at a distance equivalent to its depth enabling villagers to get a bucketful of water. The bucket is usually made of rubber. A man holds the bucket and empties it in a portion, while another villager sucks air from pipe’s other end to make the water flow right into tank, built paces away from the well.

“We spend three to four hours to fetch between 10 and 12 litres of water. One family can’t fill their tank in a day as others get their turn as well,” says Samejo.

People padlock such tanks to ensure that someone is not able to use or steal it for domestic consumption. Samejo and his likes consider water more precious than any gold ornament that in case of urban settlements is usually kept in bank lockers.

Rains feed such wells in Tharparkar and in the absence of rain, water levels drops further. There have been no rains in the area for the past two years, while locals say that the rains received in 2012 didn’t benefit population and crop as well.Tharparkar is currently witnessing a dry spell, triggering large-scale migration. But Senator Taj Hyder, who heads Sindh government relief operations, insists it is seasonal migration. It is witnessed twice every year one at the time of Rabi crops sowing season and the other at the time harvesting of Kharif crops, he adds.

Piped water is available in Mithi, which is supplied from Naukot, Diplo and Islamkot, but residents say they get drinking water for an hour once a month and brackish water on alternate days. Army installations, however, get piped water.

Rain that Thar receives in May, followed by two more spells between June and July, is considered highly beneficial for crops cultivation. Once these months are over without monsoon rains, fears lurk in the hearts of locals that severity of drought is to increase with each passing day. In line with colonial era’s tradition, relevant authorities such as deputy commissioner is supposed to declare the area calamity hit after Aug 15.

Currently, people of this arid region are faced with the impact of two successive droughts, leading to deaths among newborns and infants mainly due to malnourishment.

Groundwater in Tharparkar is largely brackish, unfit for human consumption, yet people in absence of drinking water sometimes consume it. Analysis of water samples collected from parts of Tharparkar suggest presence of fluoride content that is harmful for human health and eventually lead to illness or bone deformation.

‘Only 7pc Tharis get water from RO plants’

According to Ali Akbar Rahimoon, who heads a local NGO, Aware (Association for Water Applied Association and Renewable Energy), a study facilitated by his organisation and launched in 2008 showed fluoride’s content of varying degrees in water. It was as high as 32 mg/litre and as low as 4 mg/litre against World Health Organisation’s permissible limit of 1.5mg/litre.

“Just seven percent of Thar’s population has access to water supply from reverse osmosis plants and in terms of area only 17 per cent of Thar has water as per required standards of the WHO,” he says.

Not only fluoride but arsenic content is also harmful for public health. According to noted Hyderabad-based water technologist Dr Ahsan Siddiqui, consumption of water with arsenic content can cause skin cancer. “During November 2013 water sampling for chemical analysis within a radius of 10kms to 15kms of Mithi, Thar’s district headquarters, we found values of arsenic and fluoride on higher side,” he says. Arsenic value was 20 mg/litre higher than its recommended value of 10mg/litre, he explains. Likewise, he adds, fluoride was 13mg/liter to 14mg/litre.

RO plant is altogether a new phenomenon introduced only a decade back in some parts of the desert. This technology best suits the area under given circumstances as well as climatic changes. ROs are now being fast established by Sindh government that plans to take its number to 900 by May 2015.

“Currently, 60 ROs exist in Thar and by this Dec 27 we will have another 363 followed by installation of another 400 by May 2015,” says Senator Hyder.

He adds that the RO plants will have production capacity between 80,000 and 100,000 gallons a day. All the ROs will eventually be operated on solar energy, he says. “We have already converted one of the 60 ROs to solar energy. Forty five others are run on diesel, making their dependent on fuel availability,” he says.

Rahimoon, however, says his organisation had installed an RO plant with 6,000 gallons a day production capacity in village Samoon Rind in 2008 at a cost of Rs614,000. “There is no need of installing ROs with such a huge capacity. I think a plant with 15,000 gallons capacity will be sufficient for an average village that will reduce its cost, too. There is greater need of technological transfer of plant to ensure community ownership so that it is managed by villagers themselves,” he explains.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2014

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