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Not a drop to drink: Sindh's forgotten fishing village fights on

Updated Jul 05, 2015 06:29pm
A boat anchored on the creek by Siddique Roonjho village.— Yumna Rafi
A boat anchored on the creek by Siddique Roonjho village.— Yumna Rafi

Humein roti, kapra aur makaan nahi mila, to hum ne chai, pakora aur paan pe guzara karna seekh lia hai,” (We never received 'bread, clothing and housing' [PPP slogan] so we have learnt to survive on tea, fritters and betel leaves) says fisherman Ali Raza.

Hailing from Siddique Roonjho village in Sindh, the 35-year-old manages a small smile, incongruous with the frown edged on his forehead; a young face deepened with early lines of stress.

Ali has lived his life on the water, hunting fish for his family since he was a teenager. His village is almost an island in the middle of the Indus River that provides livelihood for the entire village, but ironically there is not a drop for them to drink.

Ali and the rest of the villagers have spent a greater part of their lives in search of drinking water.

The village is nestled on the left bank of River Indus, in Taluka Kharo Chan of Sindh’s Thatta district. It is a five hour journey from Karachi and an hour long boat ride to the little hamlet. Aloof from the mainland, the village is physically cut off from land and surrounded by water on three sides.

The island itself is an arid plain. There is no electricity, no hospital, no school; no human contact for miles. The population of 140 own only two boats for fishing.

One of the two boats that the village owns.— Yumna Rafi
One of the two boats that the village owns.— Yumna Rafi

“We migrated from Sokhi Bander near the Indus Delta years ago because there was no more fresh water available there. The land dried up. We only used to get salty water,” says 40-year-old Zulfiqar. “Our families settled here at Siddique Roonjho but now we are facing the same problem here.”

The sea's intrusion into the Indus has caused hundreds of villagers living around the river's creeks scrambling to find sweet water. Hoping to ease their plight, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan came up with a solution for the water shortage. A reservoir has been built to store fresh water from rain and the Indus Delta during the monsoon months.

“This system works because there are natural fresh water flows during from June to September, which lessens their dependency on rain. The stored water is then used for the next six months,” explains Muhammad Tahir Abbasi, site coordinator at WWF-Pakistan. “We have also installed bio-sand filters that reduce the impurity in the water by 40 to 55 per cent.”

The murky water of the WWF reservoir.— Adeel Ahmed
The murky water of the WWF reservoir.— Adeel Ahmed

This alone has not curbed the water shortage however. The villagers say the stored water is insufficient, forcing them to travel to the nearest town, Gharo, to fill water cans for Rs 20.

Zero literacy rate

The WWF is trying to solve the water crisis, but development and progress in the village continues to be nil.

The literacy rate is zero, though all the men do own mobile phones. None of them know how to type a text or save a contact number except for few village leaders who are able to read some Sindhi.

“We sometimes warn them about an approaching storm through text. At least the leaders are able to communicate that to the rest of the fishermen,” says Muhammad Tahir.

"WWF - Pakistan and other NGOs has provided solar energy units in some communities. The communities who have solar panels installed at their home can charge their cell phones at home while the other who don't have solar panels can get recharge their cell phones from a nearby town i.e. Kharo Chan. A one time full recharge cost them around Rs 15 to 20."

For every little commodity, even fetching sweets for children, the men have to hop on to their boats and make their way to the nearest town and walk a long distance to finally reach the marketplace.

Hidden from sight

When it comes to the women, they are largely invisible to visitors, instructed to stay in by the men; only females are allowed to approach their homes.

A light summer breeze blows through a small compound, shaded by huge swaying trees. The women are welcoming with broad smiles and handshakes, dressed in their best self-embroidered dresses. Inside the huts, there is no furniture aside from a straw sheet.

In the cool environs of the houses, all agree to be photographed. Women wait for their portraits to be taken and men who had previously been reluctant, happily oversee the photo session.

A group of children are close by; little girls, dressed in brightly coloured, embellished clothes and dupattas on their heads, carried with perfection. The boys sport vibrant, summer shades of shalwar kameez.

Group of women welcome female journalists.— Yumna Rafi
Group of women welcome female journalists.— Yumna Rafi
The decorated interior of one of the houses.— Yumna Rafi
The decorated interior of one of the houses.— Yumna Rafi

The women are quick to point out their most pressing difficulty: a lack of emergency facilities.

“In case of health emergencies, especially during childbirth complications, we have to go all the way to Ibrahim Hyderi which is more than seven hours away on the outskirts of Karachi,” says 65-year-old Asiya, who has never stepped out of her village all her life.

65-year-old Asiya says she has never stepped out of her village all her life.— Yumna Rafi
65-year-old Asiya says she has never stepped out of her village all her life.— Yumna Rafi

The health conditions are indeed dismal but villagers do not actively try to overcome them either. It is hard to miss the eroding, discoloured teeth of all the women as they speak, their mouths constantly chewing on gutka. The women say they give the dangerous stimulant, known to cause severe health issues, to their children to stop them from crying.

It puts the children at ease, they claim.

“We have heard of cases in other villages about mouth cancer, we know it’s harmful but we are just not able to stop having it,” admits Asiya, other women solemnly nod in agreement.

It is painfully clear that the government has failed to better the lives of people in villages like this. The villagers share with an almost comical tenor how a politician, a certain Mr Tappi, had sent a generator in the village prior to the General Elections in 2013. The generator was set up, then taken back from the village post elections.

The villagers were once steadfast Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) loyalists, but not anymore. The small village, perched on dry land next to the serene river has been let down, abandoned. The residents will continue to catch fish in their two boats, cook on logs, chew gutka and search daily for sweet water.

Would the villagers ever consider leaving this life for an urban centre like Karachi?

“What would we do in Karachi? Fishing is the only thing we know”, Zulfiqar says.

A straightforward "No" is his answer.


Exploring Siddique Roonjho

The literacy rate is zero at the village, yet all the men do own mobile phones.— Yumna Rafi
The literacy rate is zero at the village, yet all the men do own mobile phones.— Yumna Rafi
Children are often given gutka by their mothers when they don't stop crying. —Adeel Ahmed
Children are often given gutka by their mothers when they don't stop crying. —Adeel Ahmed
A blue painted hut serves as a mosque.— Yumna Rafi
A blue painted hut serves as a mosque.— Yumna Rafi
The village women wear self-embroidered dresses.— Yumna Rafi
The village women wear self-embroidered dresses.— Yumna Rafi
The reservoir constructed by WWF.— Adeel Ahmed
The reservoir constructed by WWF.— Adeel Ahmed
Villagers seeing off the journalists.— Yumna Rafi
Villagers seeing off the journalists.— Yumna Rafi
A mosque at Gharo, the nearest town from Siddique Roonjho village.— Adeel Ahmed
A mosque at Gharo, the nearest town from Siddique Roonjho village.— Adeel Ahmed