Held every year on March 22 since 1993, World Water Day celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water across the globe.
The theme of this year's celebration is “valuing water”.
And in Pakistan, who can “value” water more than an ordinary inhabitant of Thar?
Many in Achhro Thar, which literally translates to the white desert, are unaware about the significance of the day. For dwellers like Jeo Hingorjo — a resident of the Hathungo part of Achhro Thar — taking care of livestock trumps all else.
And rightly so. That's because their survival depends on livestock rearing. Sweet water is just a luxury for them.
Herds of goats and camels graze the lands freely in all directions of the desert. Huts or chauhnras — made of thatched straw — dot the landscape and complement the white desert's serene beauty.
Traversing through sand dunes and large tracts of the unending desert in a modern 4x4 vehicle like we did is no less a joy ride compared to the locals’ routine mode of travel: overcrowded jeeps whose engines break down often.
These jeeps are used by residents to reach the barrage areas for different chores.
A much more recent phenomenon, jeeps are now commonly used to transport locals and their livestock. Before them, the rickety kekras — old US Army trucks — were the most common mode of transport for humans, livestock and goods alike. Now, these trucks are used mostly to transport goods.
Facing India’s Rajasthan desert in the east and spread around 4,800 square kilometres, Achhro Thar stretches from Khairpur and Ghotki, both districts on the left bank of the Indus, in upper Sindh, to Khipro and Sanghar talukas of Sanghar district in lower Sindh.
Sanghar is a barrage area and a highly rated cotton-producing district; though cotton production has now been facing a countrywide decline for the last several years.
Achhro Thar is named so because of the colour of its soil that makes it distinctive from other parts of Thar. The white desert has large swathes of clean sand dunes, known in local parlance as draih. According to the Sindh irrigation department’s estimates, the area has 95 per cent brackish subsoil water.
“But it [Achhro Thar’s soil] is not culturable or fertile. Only small pockets of land have potential for crop cultivation after monsoon rains, like any other parts of the desert district of Mithi,” says Nawaz Kumbhar, who often writes on the area’s issues.
Fetching water at a distance of several kilometres is not unusual. Not to mention, it requires serious effort to lift water from a well which can be somewhere between 24.3 metres to 61 metres deep. I watched as three to four people, including women and young girls, collected water from one such well.
But waterborne diseases from consumption of brackish water are a common phenomenon here.
Symptoms of Fluorosis – a cosmetic condition that affects the teeth and is caused by overexposure to fluoride during the first eight years of life – were evident on the teeth of unkempt Thari children and adults with poverty writ large on their faces.
“We need a long rope and a bucket and obviously a pair of donkeys or one camel to bring water to our home from the well," says Jeo. “Pulling the rope from a well is not an easy job. It requires strength. So our camels or donkeys make this task achievable,” he says.
Jeo lives in the village of Asodar, with an estimated 100 households and population of 700 people, in the Khipro taluka.
The total dissolved solids in well water here are as high as 1,800 parts per million (ppm) versus safe limits of 1,000 ppm as per National Environmental Quality Standards and 500ppm recommended by the World Health Organisation.
“Taste-wise water looks good but it has started causing pain in [my] back and joints of [the] body,” says Jeo, adding that a number of residents have become bed-ridden or physically incapacitated.
Since soil in Achhro Thar doesn’t suit crop cultivation, the economic cycle of residents revolves around livestock — their bread and butter.
Locals cherish their livestock because it rescues them from hardship and ensures their survival when drought sets in. “We sell a few goats to bring ration for [the] household,” quips Ameer Bux Higorjo as he joins the conversation.
“Since our goats are weak, they don’t get a better price [in the] piri (cattle bazaar). I sell a goat for Rs8,000 or so,” he says.
Sanghar district has the second-highest livestock population as per the Sindh livestock department’s projected 2018 figures – 1.260 million goats, 238,624 sheep and 1.182m cows and buffaloes. Livestock holdings also vary from household to household.
To quote Khuman Singh Sodho, a social activist and resident of Jinhar, some residents here have 500 goats and others have 200. “So the size of livestock holding is different,” he says.
Travelling longer distances for treatment of medical ailments, more often than not a result of consuming brackish water, puts additional financial burden on residents. Having to go to Khipro city for even the most common illnesses doesn’t worry them as much as the Rs200 fare. And in cases of emergency, it costs more.
“We pay Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 to shift an expecting mother to a health facility located either in Khipro or near our border,” says Jeo.
Sodho believes the government needs to encourage people here to cultivate crops after some experiments. “Unless people shift to agriculture in areas where potential for crop cultivation exists, things won’t change. We will keep suffering. People are not willing to leave their abodes,” he says in a confident tone.
Ray of hope
But it seems all is not lost.
People in another area of Achhro Thar are somewhat lucky. Lately, they have been provided with the Indus river’s sweet water through a multi-billion rupee project thanks to the efforts of Shazia Marri, a young and energetic lower house member from Sanghar.
Marri won a directly contested seat from Sanghar, first in 2013 and then in 2018, to dent the stronghold of Pir Pagara whose political party, Pakistan Muslim League – Functional, had been ruling the roost until 2008. The PML-F did not bring any proposal to solve the area’s water woes.
Marri, PPP’s central information secretary, worked on a water supply project for Achhro Thar, which falls in her constituency, in collaboration with the Sindh irrigation department. It started in 2015 and was completed in 2018 when PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari inaugurated it on March 31, 2018.
These water supply schemes cater to the need of a population of approximately 30,000 humans and 25,000 livestock in 101 villages. The project, with a 5.85 million gallon storage in two settlements tanks and ponds, is connected to a solar-powered energy system in Jamalabad.
Water is then supplied to villages through underground tanks. If not wonders, the scheme has certainly brought a great degree of change in the lives of the population, lessening expenditures incurred on health with villagers no longer needing to travel to far-off places to fetch water.
“We don’t need to travel to far-off areas from our village like five to six kilometers. We get canal water in or near our villages,” says Rahim of Kak village, dominated by the Rajar community.
“We and our livestock drink the same water through underground storage,” he says.
Rahim and other villagers agree that their health is changing as they no longer depend on subsoil groundwater that was the only source of water for them since the country's inception.
Nara Canal, one of the seven main and lengthiest canals of Sukkur Barrage, is the main source of water supply for this scheme. Water is stored at zero point in Jamalabad area, according to irrigation officer Mansoor Memon, who was part of project’s execution.
Villagers living in the right and left catchments of storage tanks get water through pipelines. Air valves are also established at smaller distances to drop water from the valve which is then consumed by herds of goat, sheep, camel, and cattle.
Perhaps, other parts of Achhro Thar can also be connected with piped water supply through the same Nara Canal after its realignment is completed, conditional on the irrigation department getting the government’s nod.
Till then, residents of the white desert will continue to suffer from polluted water in harsh weather conditions, aggravated further by climate change.
Header image: A man drinks water from a well in Achhro Thar, Khipro, Sindh. — Photo by Umair Ali