The year began in Tharparkar — Pakistan’s biggest arid region with large human and livestock populations — with inhabitants facing drought yet again.

Droughts and famines are a regular feature of life in Tharparkar. Barring a few pockets that received rainfall in 2017, the rest of the area has not been getting any rain for the last four years. Locals believe droughts usually come to an end with enough rainfall that enables the farming community to grow seasonal crops and produce sufficient fodder for livestock, which is their prime asset.

Thar’s agro-pastoral life revolves around water and fodder. Provincial and federal governments tend to address the issues faced by the local population using a relief-based approach. A sustainable, institutional oversight has so far eluded this least developed region where people endure harsh conditions regularly. This is despite the fact that Thar is blessed with a fascinating landscape that mesmerises tourists after every monsoon rainfall.

Climate change has also affected the rainfall cycle in Thar, which receives the annual drizzle around August-September. But the May-July period is considered ideal for the sowing of crops as farmers hope to have better per-acre yields in the seasonal crops like bajra. Late sowing in September leads to lower yields.

No permanent arrangement to ensure fodder availability exists in Thar, although livestock plays a central role in sustaining economic life in the area

Every drought triggers migration among communities. This migration is in addition to the seasonal ones that take place at the time of cotton-picking or sugar cane and wheat harvesting. Groundwater levels drop considerably in the absence of rainfall. Livestock, which is the community’s only source of livelihood, forces them to leave their area in search of fodder and water in canal command areas.

No permanent arrangement for fodder availability, like fodder banks, exists in Tharparkar during the drought. This is despite the fact that livestock plays a central role in sustaining economic life in the area. It provides them with milk and butter, but animals suffer a loss of immunity during every drought. As a result, milk production drops considerably, causing undernourishment especially among expecting mothers. This makes the survival of malnourished newborns difficult.

Based on the projected animal population number and the human population of 1.6 million as per the latest census, one individual maintains around four animals in Tharparkar. Immunity loss necessitates preventive vaccination among animals, but its coverage is hardly 20pc in Sindh for want of resources, an official admitted.

The livestock sector has a share of 58.92pc within the country’s agriculture sector, which contributed 18.9pc to GDP as per the 2017-18 Economic Survey of Pakistan. The estimated livestock population in 2017 was 41.68m in Sindh. About 6m of them were in Tharparkar, according to Sindh’s livestock department. It makes Thar the district with the highest livestock population.

“We get hardly 25pc vaccination coverage in Sindh and the same goes for Thar,” said a senior livestock department officer. “But there has luckily been no major disaster as the livestock department has hired additional manpower and resources from other districts for vaccination. That’s why the department didn’t draw the ire of the chief justice of Pakistan,” he added.

Changing climatic conditions are causing multiple challenges for Tharparkar, which calls for a paradigm shift at the policy level. The Sindh government needs to look beyond hurried livestock vaccination, wheat distribution and reverse osmosis plants. An increase in livestock’s budgetary allocations — currently Rs1.3bn — is badly needed.

The Punjab government’s initiatives in the arid region of Cholistan offer a cue. As opposed to Thar, Cholistan seems relatively better managed. This is why it has not had any disaster of the kind that Thar has witnessed. The Cholistan area, consisting of 29,000 square kilometres, is spread over Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Rahimyar Khan. The Punjab government has also established the Cholistan University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Bahawalpur, which is affiliated with Glasgow University.

Cholistan, however, had a smaller estimated human population of roughly 220,000 in 2017 along with 1.6m heads of livestock. The Punjab government’s Cholistan Development Authority (CDA) deals with this area exclusively. Within the provincial livestock department, a directorate looks after the affairs of Cholistan.

Dr Ali Raza Abbasi, CDA’s directorate head, considers the drought an opportunity. “We provide livestock farmers with wanda (feed supplement) on a cost-to-cost basis throughout the year at fixed entry/exit points,” he said. He added that ponds are built in the area for human and livestock populations in addition to an old natural waterway that is connected with pumping stations.

Since 2018, he said, his department has been buying camel milk for Rs42 per litre and keeping it in chillers. It is then sold for Rs120 per litre in Lahore. He said that the department also purchased cattle milk in 2010. But the private firms’ intervention jacked up the market price, which benefited farmers. “The animal vaccination coverage in 100pc,” he remarked.

Around 17 chillers (out of 153 in Sindh) were set up in Thar. But those were part of the foreign-funded Sindh Agriculture Growth Project (SAGP). Reportedly, only three of them are functioning. Since a large number of livestock left Thar for want for fodder, milk could not be collected in the rest of the chillers. The provincial livestock department has provided three livestock farmers with solar-powered submersible pumps to lift groundwater and grow fodder on an experimental basis.

India’s Rajasthan and Pakistan’s Thar and Cholistan are part of the same region, said former chairman of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Dr Mohammad Ashraf. He said reverse osmosis plants are not a solution to Thar’s woes. “Managing these plants is difficult even in urban areas. The Sindh government needs to focus more on rainwater harvesting projects in Thar,” he said.

A draft of the Sindh Drought and Disaster Mitigation Policy 2014 was prepared following the 2014 drought. It proposed that a Thar Development Authority be set up in the area along the lines of CDA. The Sindh Assembly’s relevant committee has okayed the policy, but it still needs the legislature’s nod.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 14th, 2019