Thar: Dry as dust

Updated March 27, 2016


The thirst of Thar’s most-vulnerable is yet to be quenched: while there are exceptions, Tharis still struggle to access clean water despite the government’s ambitious Rs7 billion Reverse-Osmosis plant project

The land of the missing river

by Moniza Imam

Thar is associated with drought and misery but historically it has been known for its mysticism and beauty

A girl in Bolri Bheel draws water from the well to carry home -Photos by Faisal Mujeeb / White Star
A girl in Bolri Bheel draws water from the well to carry home -Photos by Faisal Mujeeb / White Star

Folklore has it that Thar was once known as ‘the land of sand, camels, clasps and mystics’. It is also believed that the mighty River Sarswati once flowed through it. But now that it has disappeared, the terrain is called the ‘land of the people whose river has gone missing’.

The rich multifaceted culture of Thar is a blend of Gujarti, Rajasthani and Sindhi heritage, folk legends, and culture which are shared and celebrated by its populace belonging to different religions and castes. In fact, the roots of spiritual tranquillity in Sindhi culture can be traced back to this barren region.

Even now Thar is far more diverse than other parts of the country: despite being one of the poorest of Pakistan’s 120 districts, (it has the lowest Human Development Index), Thar is an oasis of peace and religious harmony where, according to the 1998 census, the demographic balance was 64pc Muslims and 36pc Hindus.

Many artists, poets and writers have been drawn to Thar, including the wandering Sufi poet and philosopher, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, who was inspired by the sheer beauty and culture of the desert and its inhabitants. One of his poems, Raga Marvi, captures what lured so many to Thar at one time:

“Rainfall made desert cool / Cattle grazes ample, / Heart misses kinsfolk, / Longing since last night, / Undo chains of enfeebled, / Please! Make peace, / Rendezvous with compeers; / at meadows, in monsoon.”

(translated by Mushtaq Ali Shah)

Yet reality in Thar is a far cry from the legends and poems it has inspired: its people face crushing poverty, live in cone-shaped huts, drink brackish water and struggle to survive on wild plants and herbs. The majority are cattle herders and subsistence farmers who have little or no resources to afford goods and commodities sold in nearby towns.

Even now Thar is far more diverse than other parts of the country: despite being one of the poorest of Pakistan’s 120 districts, (it has the lowest Human Development Index), Thar is an oasis of peace and religious harmony where, according to the 1998 census, the demographic balance was 64pc Muslims and 36pc Hindus.

“Nearly 80pc people are engaged in animal husbandry and about 20pc in agriculture which is entirely dependent on rains,” says Karim Samejo, the district coordinator working in Hands.

The destitution in Thar has been a subject of extensive media coverage of late; reports of tragic deaths of children — due to malnourishment — and cattle from livestock diseases have filled the airwaves and newspaper headlines. The death toll of cattle has reached 0.4 million, among which 0.35m include sheep, explains Sameejo. The unrelenting drought (which is in its third consecutive year) has further deprived Tharis of sustenance.

Then, of course, there are reports of mass corruption in the local government and the Rs70 billion mega corruption scandal of Reverse Osmosis plants (see Not a drop to drink for more details).

Activists and NGOs have pointed out that the Thar Coal Resettlement Policy 2015, which has forced indigenous people off their land so that coal power plants can be constructed, shall add further strain to already scarce water resources.

Ali Akbar, a development worker affiliated with an NGO, Aware, explains further: “The communities of six villages have been affected due to the excavations. The villagers’ livelihood is connected with land and forests which are compromised now and they are not hired to work on these projects on the pretext of lack of technical skills.”

As widely reported in the national press, the provincial government vehemently denies the issues highlighted in the press and accuses the media of exaggeration while claiming it’s doing all it can to mitigate the suffering of Tharis.

Today, the district’s residents still depend upon rainwater for their sustenance — which is only available during the monsoon season. In addition to affecting their livelihoods, the drought and water scarcity has changed the dynamics of the family structure: many of Thar’s youth now migrate out of the region in search of jobs.

Most residents still live in cone-shaped huts: a view of a village in Thar -Photos by Faisal Mujeeb / White Star
Most residents still live in cone-shaped huts: a view of a village in Thar -Photos by Faisal Mujeeb / White Star

Families have begun sending their young boys to Hyderabad and other towns across Sindh to work as domestic workers — in roadside hotels and workshops in search of new avenues of income as old sources dry up.

“The annual migration of people to the settled ‘barrage’ districts [Mirpurkhas, Sanghar, Hyderabad etc.] all over Sindh … usually starts in March or April and they come back after monsoon rains,” says Dr Sono Khangharani, chief executive officer of Hisaar Foundation.

One wonders why, in a province that has an allocated budget of Rs800 billion, 30-40pc of Thar’s population migrate annually, often as far as 800 km from their homes and families.

Deputy commissioner district Tharparkar, Nisar Ahmed Memon, however, denies that large-scale migration is taking place. “Some families migrate annually which has been a very old practice in the region,” adds Memon.

The government can and should do more and one doesn’t have to look far to see that simple and feasible solutions are possible. While similar climatic conditions are also prevalent on the Indian side of the desert, a canal network has been developed to make their desert region more fertile and hospitable.

This 1,649km long Indira Gandhi Canal has ensured that the desert isn’t a wasteland (as it has become on the Pakistani side) but an agriculturally productive area. Other basic facilities — such as electricity — also seem to have been provided by the Indian government.

“If you fly over the desert at night, the Pakistani side will be all dark and the Indian side will be brightly lit as electricity [is available] either [through the] national grid or [the] solar system,” says Shaikh Tanveer Ahmed, chief executive of the NGO Hands.

Going against the grain

There are many alternative systems to the current Reverse Osmosis Plants scheme that Tharis and the government could explore

While Reverse Osmosis (RO) Plants have been touted as the go-to solution for Thar’s water crisis by successive governments, alternative systems and solutions abound. Many different technologies that have been implemented on the ground by NGOs working in the area seem to be cost-effective and impactful. Here we take a look at these alternatives and highlight case studies.

Solar-powered motors

The solar panels that provide energy to solar-powered wells
The solar panels that provide energy to solar-powered wells

The efficiency and energy generated by the power of solar panels have increased by leaps and bounds over the past decade — so it’s no surprise that solar-powered motors and generators are now being used in Tharparkar.

For instance, 1,200 residents of Borli Bheel village (located in Taluka Mithi) are luckier than their neighbours; the water that they receive is sweet and one of the two wells that the Hisaar Foundation has installed is run by a solar-powered motor. Borli Bheel’s residents say that if more such motors could be installed, it would be immensely beneficial; they could do more kitchen gardening and provide children with better, alternative food choices.

While in some villages animals are still used to draw water from the wells, many now have motors. “Depending on the water generating capacity of the motor the cost differs; the average motors that are installed cost Rs400,000-Rs500,000,” says Dr Sono Khangharani. One wonders why the government isn’t working to install more solar-powered motors, given that they are much cheaper than RO plants.

Ali Akbar of Aware is of the view that the government should work on availability and accessibility of water. “Water constraints in Thar can be mitigated by rainwater harvesting and storage through construction of small dams,” he adds.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is a very traditional way of collecting water and can be very effective. Thar receives about 12 to 15 inches of rain (in the non-drought years) so there is ample opportunity to collect enough water for basic needs.

Bharumal Amerani, an environmentalist working in Thar, explains that in areas where the soil is sandy, rain water is absorbed in the soil, but in hilly areas such as in Nagarparkar, rain water can be collected and can then be provided to villages through pipelines.

According to a study conducted by the Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR), the entire Thar Desert receives around one trillion litres of rain annually and that “even if 0.25pc of the rainwater is conserved or harvested, it can meet the domestic water needs of the entire human population and livestock of the area”. But unfortunately, more than 95pc of it is lost under sand dunes or evaporates in the intense summer heat due to inadequate storage and rainwater harvesting facilities.

Karim Samejo, Hands’ district coordinator in Mithi, points out the people have tried to work around this problem: in some areas people have made tanks or ponds around their homes by flattening and cementing the floor so that when it rains, the water fills in the tank; due to the cemented floor the water doesn’t seep into the soil. The sides are fenced to keep animals at bay.

But there’s a catch: While Tharis do prepare tarais or artificial ponds in villages where rain water can collect; this water only lasts for three to four months. People say that if someone could help them make larger ponds they would have fresh water for six to eight months but there hasn’t been much support from the government.

Non-profits, however, have stepped in to assist Thari: Sukaar Foundation is helping the villagers build rainwater harvesting ponds that substantially reduce evaporation. These are circular in shape as this reduces evaporation (square or rectangular ponds have higher evaporation rates.) Also, there are plans to plant shrubs and bushes outside the pond’s wall, as this too helps reduce evaporation.


Another alternative is to build canals to supply water for irrigation. Canal water is available till Naukot and it shouldn’t be too difficult for the government to build it south of this taluka. “Canals can be dug to irrigate the area for agriculture and kitchen gardening, and [drinking] water can be filtered and supplied to Nagarparkar,” Amerani said.

A tanker takes water from a pumping station in Mithi
A tanker takes water from a pumping station in Mithi

The best example of how effective this is can be found at the other side of the border: the Indra Gandhi canal in Rajasthan has transformed the desert in India into rich fields of mustard, cotton and wheat. The canal starts from Harike barrage in Ferozepur, a few kilometres from the confluence of Sutlej and Beas rivers in India, and terminates in irrigation facilities in the Thar desert.

“In 1989-1990 the public health department prepared a feasibility report to supply fresh water to Mithi from Naukot through pipelines at a cost of Rs750 million but the government shelved the report on the plea that it does not have sufficient funds. But in 2001, during the Musharraf era, working on the same feasibility report, a pipeline was brought till Mithi at a cost of Rs250 million,” Kathau Jani, a journalist, said.

The line broke down for about four km during the 2010-2011 rains and hasn’t been made functional yet. Water from this canal, for instance, can be supplied through pipelines to Mithi and Diplo; there is even no need to dig canals.

Check Dams

Barriers constructed in ponds or canals can be used to conserve water further and make water collection more efficient. For instance, Ranpur Dam, a check dam, has been constructed near Nagarparkar in which water from the hilly areas of Karoonjhar is stored. But unfortunately, water from this dam is not supplied to Nagarparkar and the water evaporates under the desert sun, though it could be used for cultivation as the land in that area is fertile. — Rizwana Naqvi

A tale of two villages

A case study shows the gendered impact of installing a solar-powered well

A solar-powered well in Bolri Bheel has changed the lives of  its residents
A solar-powered well in Bolri Bheel has changed the lives of its residents

Bolri Bheel and Lobhar are two water-stressed villages in Tharparkar district near Mithi, where a prolonged drought is in its third consecutive year. There is a fundamental difference between the two though as Bolri Bheel has a solar-powered well which provides sweet drinking water whereas in Lobhar, women and girls have to walk long distances to fetch water.

The availability of water has changed the social dynamics and livelihood indicators in Bolri Bheel especially for women and girls, who use, provide and manage water, hygiene and sanitation in their households.

In Lobhar women and girls walk for miles fetching and carrying the back-breaking weight of water. Such norms highlight the lack of women empowerment and skewed power dynamics in this highly patriarchal and caste-ridden community. In this arid region water is a resource which has a clout of its own and it is used as leverage to gain power and status.

Ramla Bai, a 40-something-year-old grandmother from Bolri Bheel describes her ordeal: “Before the installation of solar-powered wells in our village, I used to fetch water twice a day from a deep well with a long rope, a pulley and a pair of donkeys”. Bai points out that it was an arduous and monotonous task, and the water was brackish but they had no alternatives, so they used it.

Dr Sono Khangharani, the chief executive officer of Hisaar Foundation says that water derived from the pipes is always safer to use as there is a slim chance of contamination and it reduces the incidence of diarrhoea and water-borne diseases which are very common in the region and a main cause of child mortality.

Moreover, Thar has arsenic water which has perilous effects on skin, bladder, lung, liver, colon, kidney, blood pressure and stomach. Shaikh Tanveer Ahmed, the chief executive of Hands, an organisation working on women’s health in the district says that due to the contaminated water, women are also at risk of diarrhoea, hepatitis A and leptospirosis, a bacterial infection which is often transmitted through animal urine.

Rukmani, a young mother and Lobhar resident, who lost her newborn last December feels that her arduous journey to fetch water was partly to blame for the tragedy: “I put so many hours in bringing water that I was unable to give time to my child who was born as an underweight baby”.

She added that her two elder children are also malnourished due to lack of clean drinking water, she adds. The sanitation conditions in the village are also very pathetic and water remains a priced commodity.

Jadal, a 30-year-old woman who looks older than her age says, “Fetching water from long distances is not without risks as we always go in groups to avoid security hazards and harassment.”

Lewanti Bai, a lady health worker who visits many villages for her work, opines that in order to manage the water resources more effectively, the government should made conscious efforts to bring women into decision-making positions regarding the use of water.

Tech-based interventions as evident in the case of Bolri Bheel make life easier for women who are the most oppressed and overworked segment of this desert.

Khatau Jani, a Mithi-based journalist who covers these issues extensively, explains that if women get water delivered closer to their homes, through Reverse Osmosis plants and solar-powered wells, they can find more time for leisure activities and socialising, and can also participate in income-generating activities; a life-changing opportunity for those living at or below the poverty line.

For instance, Rahdha, a young woman from Bolri Bheel, adds that the well has entirely changed their lives as now they have more time on their hands — they are able to give more time to their children who can also now attend school as they don’t have to accompany the women to the wells.

Rahdha also manages a small kitchen garden, keeps some hens and a goat, and in her spare time embroiders and make quilts for a handicraft shop in Mithi. She uses this additional income on her children.

There are no cases of malnourishment and hunger in Bolri Bheel, and all children and women look healthier than earlier when they didn’t have solar-powered wells.

Jani points out that these kind of wells have a tremendous impact: “Even sanitary conditions improve tremendously with additional water and they also recycle used water for their kitchen gardens that enhances their calorie intake. The easy availability of water is a win-win situation for all.”

Kanta Kumari who has been working for the Thardeep Rural Development Programme in the arid region for the last 14 years, agrees that close access to water can be empowering for women: “The health, nutrition and sanitation conditions in this village have established this close correlation … yet again.” — Moniza Inam

Not a drop to drink

by Rizwana Naqvi

The government-installed Reverse Osmosis plants have failed to solve the water crisis in Thar

Women walk long distances to fetch water
Women walk long distances to fetch water

One of the most frequents sights — as one drives around Thar — are groups of children and women, clad in vibrant and colourful dresses, carrying pitchers on their heads and in their arms. Spotting such a group, our photographer draws closer to them and as he does so, a teenage girl tries to hide behind the bushes and the older ones draw the veil on their faces. Conversation with them is difficult as they hardly understand or speak Urdu.

Their woes, however, are known to all. They’re Thari women who leave their homes at the crack of dawn to fetch water, sometimes from wells miles away. Only a few villages are lucky to have sweet water — otherwise mostly the water is brackish and unfit for human consumption.

Even where the water is sweet, it is a tedious task to draw it from the well as the water level is quite low. And in the absence of rain — which feeds the wells dug at a depth of 100-200 feet — the water level has dropped further. Either the women draw the water manually or they take the help of camels and donkeys for this purpose — in either case they spend an astounding four to six hours every day to fetch four to five pots that they’ll need.

Rains have always been important for Thar’s water supply, but for the past 30 years — due to climate change — the pattern of rainfall is changing and becoming more erratic, Bharumal Amerani, an environmentalist working in Thar explains. “Either the rainfall isn’t sufficient or the monsoons start late. For the past four years the drought is persistent. Previously the drought would take place after two to three years and even then it wasn’t that it wouldn’t rain at all — it would rain but lesser than needed,” he says.

Amerani points out that the best pattern of rain for water collection and agriculture in Thar is when it rains between July and September. “If there is no rain till August 14, it is considered drought. If in a month it rains about 500mm and doesn’t rain again, it’s not sufficient; the normal pattern is that it rains 300-500mm between July and September with intervals,” Amerani said.

Last year even when it did rain — two months after the monsoon ended — no grass grew. The villagers had prepared the ground in anticipation of rain and had planted the seeds; but according to the locals, the downpour was so heavy that it washed away the grass and crop seeds.

But even when Tharis are able to find water, it’s often not of very good quality. The region’s groundwater is saline to brackish and has a high concentration of various salts and minerals, which are dangerous to human health. According to the US Geological Survey, many experts consider water to be brackish if the concentration of salt is between 1,000-10,000 mg/L; at the extreme end of this would be seawater, which is anything above 35,000 mg/L.

In most parts of Thar, the total soluble salts of ground water is far above the 1,000 ppm (one milligram of salt per litre of water) recommended by WHO; in some places it is around 3,000ppm.

For instance, a 2010 joint study by Dow University of Health Sciences, the Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and a local NGO, Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (Aware) found that over 80pc of groundwater in the district is unfit for human consumption. Another study conducted by Aware, titled Underground Water Quality of Thar: A Detailed Analysis 2003-08, found that more than 50pc of the population use water with total dissolved solvents of over 5,000 mg/L.

In the wake of the water crisis, the Sindh government announced the installation of Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants. The RO is a process which removes impurities from water by filtration, using membrane technology in various parts of Thar.

Use of brackish water, which at many places has higher levels of fluoride as well, affects the health of Tharis — drinking salt water can lead to several diseases like tooth decay, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, kidney diseases, etc. Young children are especially vulnerable as they are more likely to suffer from diarrhoea — this leaves them malnourished, and at risk of further diseases.

In the wake of the water crisis, the Sindh government announced the installation of Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants. The RO is a process which removes impurities from water by filtration, using membrane technology in various parts of Thar. The process started about a decade ago when 30 RO plants were installed during 2004-2007 when Arabab Ghulam Rahim was Sindh’s chief minister.

The present government’s plans are big — about 700 RO plants at a cost of Rs7 billion are to be installed out of which 350 have been installed in various villages. In January 2015, the hybrid solar desalination plant was set up at a cost of Rs 934million in Mithi. It is supposed to process two million gallons of water per day which will be supplied to the Mithi and Islamkot talukas and nearly 150 villages around them. Claimed to be the largest in Asia, at present it is only supplying 50,000 gallons per day.

Dr Sono Khangharani, chief executive officer of Hisaar Foundation, says that “there is a conflict in supply and demand; there is enough solar power available to run the plant eight hours a day but the plant does not have enough capacity”. He adds that maintaining the plant requires a lot of meticulous care: “The membrane has to be changed frequently but one can’t be sure whether it is being done regularly or not”.

Ali Akbar, a social activist working for Aware which runs projects in districts Tharparkar and Umerkot, revealed that plants both in Chachro and Diplo face problems such as erratic fuel supply and technical issues due to which the plants are often not operational.

“The problem is that people operating the plants aren’t trained; they may not properly use the chemicals that are needed for water treatment. This affects the taste and odour of water and results in people, especially children, suffering from diarrhoea, though there are no major health issues,” Akbar says.

But for Tharis who have to walk long distances to fetch water, it is a case of something being better than nothing. When they get piped water through a motor they tend to use it for all purposes.

However, Nisar Ahmed Memon, deputy commissioner, Mithi, denies the allegations that the RO plants aren’t working efficiently. “The RO plants are expensive, their maintenance is also expensive and it takes time to repair in case of any faults,” he says in an informal discussion with Dawn.

Akbar also points out the negative environmental impact of the RO plants: “The amount of water that’s pulled from underground — almost 40pc of it is rejected and wasted. These impurities and contaminates are flushed down the drain. Though these ought to be disposed of in a manner that they are evaporated, they are absorbed in the soil and mix with the sub-soil water.”

Tharis may also be paying more than they should for the filtered water. Dr Khangharani alleges that water tankers pipe away the water filtered by the RO plants and sell it onwards for Rs3, 500 a tanker — small fortune for many Thari residents.

“Mithi is supplied by piped water only twice or thrice a month; people store this water to last as long as they can but the tanker mafia is becoming active in cities; they take water from the reservoirs or the RO plant and supply it in the city,” Dr Khangharani points out.

Sustainability and long-term viability is another concern for the experts. “The whole project is contracted out. The company is responsible for running and maintaining the plant. A major problem can arise if the company one day decides to pack up and leave [since] they haven’t transferred the technology,” Akbar says.

Akbar feels one way to ensure longevity of RO plants and promote the local economy would be to involve the community. “No local department is taking responsibility for the company; the provincial government is dealing with it directly. It would have been better if Thar’s youth were trained and given responsibility,” he says.

When asked about the involvement of the Thari communities, Memon says that while the RO plants are currently run by the government, the locals can be more involved: “By and large communities do not share the responsibility of maintaining the plants, and expect the government to do everything though they should also share the responsibility,” he says.

Many villages now use solar-powered motors to draw water from wells — often a more feasible and cheaper alternative to RO plants according to NGO workers on the ground.

For instance, the Hisaar Foundation has installed solar-powered motors in some villages where they have trained the locals to run the motors (See A tale of two villages for more details).

As to who bears the cost of maintenance, Dr Khangharani explains that “the motors come with one year warrantee; if it causes trouble during this time, the company repairs it. Usually if the motors runs trouble-free for one year, it works for six to seven years. The local people are ready to bear the cost which is usually not more than Rs5,000-7,000 as water is very important for them.”

But Memon, disagrees and says that installing wells is not feasible as they provide brackish water which is unfit for human consumption. “The RO plants are the need of the hour as they purify and treat the water. As fuel is expensive, we are now installing new plants that run on solar energy. Besides that, diesel-operated plants are difficult to maintain and repair.”

His argument may have some weight but when the RO plants are not providing sufficient water and are proving to be expensive, alternatives have to be explored (See Going against the grain for more details). Till then Tharis may still be running from pillar to post in search of water that isn’t too saline or brackish.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 27th, 2016