Helping the poorest of Balochistan

October 28, 2019

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Once a waterway, Chaghi, Balochistan.
Once a waterway, Chaghi, Balochistan.

Nestled among the dry, arid hills of Amuri, almost four hours of drive from Dalbadin, Ali Dost’s fields produced scarcely enough wheat and vegetables in a good rainy year to sustain his family through the next harvest. For cash, he would work as a ‘daily wager’ in Dalbadin or Taftan, the border town famous for illegal trade between Pakistan and Iran. But that was a few years ago.

Today Ali Dost, in his mid-50s, harvests a hefty wheat crop and grows vegetables throughout the year even in times of poor rainfall and drought. “I no longer have to worry about feeding my family or leave home for work in the city. I now harvest enough wheat and vegetables to feed my family and sell the surplus in the market for cash,” he told a group of journalists from Lahore during a visit to the area earlier this month. “A surplus crop saves me Rs80,000 in cash a year.”

What changed his fortunes? A few small, inexpensive but sustainable interventions and training in irrigation water management by an independent non-profit, Islamic Relief Pakistan (IRP), have brought about dramatic changes in the lives of poor farmers. IRP was founded in 1984 by postgraduate Muslim students in the United Kingdom. It is headquartered in Birmingham and is operating in over 30 countries.

It has helped farmers scattered over scores of small villages across the drought-prone Chaghi, the largest but poorest district of Balochistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran that hit headlines internationally when Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests in its mountains in 1998. The IRP has been working in different drought-hit parts of the province, mostly in Chaghi, which is ranked among the poorest, least developed regions of the world, for more than last two decades.

The non-profit organisation Islamic Relief Pakistan has spent Rs250m to implement sustainable interventions to improve irrigation in drought-prone Chaghi

The organisation has been supporting the local communities facing an acute water scarcity to enhance their agriculture output and household income by using modern techniques like drip irrigation, adopting drought-resilient seed varieties and crops, and establishing olive, date, grape and pomegranate orchids under their Drought Resilient Agriculture Modelling (Dram) project. Under this programme, it has helped more than 24,000 individuals with a funding of Rs250 million spent over three years.

The villagers are also helped in damming rainwater to store it for a longer-term for drinking, irrigation, household usage and recharging the groundwater table. The charity has established community-based organisations and provided them with solar water pumps, green tunnels to grow off-season vegetables in a controlled environment and solar dryers to dry their surplus.

Furthermore, unsold vegetables and fruit are offered for sale during the off-season, poultry is distributed for domestic and commercial use, linkages are established with the market for earning a fair profit on their produce and solar electricity provided to their homes. Treatment for blindness, which is common in the area, is also arranged.

“We operate in areas where neither the government nor any other non-profit has reached to avoid duplication,” said IRP programme manager in Balochistan Muhammad Essa Tahir, adding his organisation works closely with the provincial government and its departments to ensure the long-term sustainability of the interventions. The communities have to contribute to programme interventions by donating land required and providing labour to ensure their ownership of the projects.

“Our need-based interventions have protected livelihoods of the communities we work with, enhanced their household income levels, enabled them to send their children to schools where the facility is available, spend more on their health, raised social awareness and helped check migration caused by desertification of large patches of drought-hit farmland. There are villages where women no longer have to walk miles to fetch water from the wells; we have brought water through pipes at their doorsteps.”

The desert climate of Balochistan is generally arid with some regions like the Chaghi district receiving an average annual rainfall as low as 50 millimetres (the average annual precipitation in Balochistan varies between 50mm and 500 mm and evaporation rates generally vary from 1,830mm to 1,930mm per annum).

Long spells of drought in parts of the province have led to the desertification of agriculture land and forced communities to migrate to cities, reduction in the size of livestock, loss of livelihoods and spread of disease. The groundwater table across the province, including cities like Quetta, has drastically depleted because of heavy pumping and drought over the last 30 years. The government either does not have enough money to help the affected village communities scattered in far-flung areas or is unable to reach them because of rough terrain or the poor law and order conditions.

In some districts the water scarcity has reached an alarming level because of a lack of planning to combat the impact of the changing climate that has dried up the traditional irrigation system, karez, threatening the livelihoods of a large number of people dependent on agriculture and livestock. At least two-thirds of the province is deprived of drinking water and more than 58 per cent of its land is uncultivable owing to water scarcity.

“Recurring spells of drought have dealt a serious blow to farmers, leading to mass migration in some parts of this district. Poverty, unemployment, harsh weather, smaller, scattered pockets of population, and a lack of education and healthcare facilities and awareness are major problems of Chaghi and most other parts of the province,” asserted Zahoor Shah, deputy director at the agriculture department in Chaghi.

He agrees that there is a dire need for introducing drought-resistant crops and promoting efficient irrigation methods and practices to help villagers. “Prolonged drought spells have badly affected rainwater dependent agriculture and livestock. The widespread use of solar pumps (encouraged by falling prices of solar equipment) to mindlessly draw groundwater across the province is developing into yet another disaster: it is dramatically depleting the groundwater table.”

A senior journalist from Quetta, Shahzada Zulfikar, points out that it is a major governance crisis in the province that has led to the current situation. “The government does not have the capacity to handle the environmental challenges and combat the threat of climate change facing the province and destroying livelihoods of poor farmers. It is more about efficient governance and planning than a shortage of funds. Efficient use of whatever money the government has and effective planning will go a long way in helping the poor farmers affected by long spells of drought.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 28th, 2019