MITHI, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Pakistan’s drought-hit Tharparkar district, which has seen no significant rain since November, needs investment in water reservoirs and wells to deal with increasingly unreliable rainfall, development officials say.
The southern desert region, one of the country’s poorest, has seen as least 100 deaths and widespread loss of livestock in recent weeks, district officials say. Relief efforts are now underway, but there has been little discussion about long-term planning to avoid a recurrence of the disaster, local experts say.
Asif Akram, deputy commissioner for Tharparkar, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that long-term projects to adapt to the changing conditions are not being planned yet “as all our focus at the moment is to deal with the present situation.”
Humanitarian organisations working in Tharparkar have put the death toll of children from the crisis at over 100, while government officials claim only 71 children have died since December. The deaths have been caused by drought, malnutrition and disease, officials said.
Rural families in the region say they have been moving to urban areas to find food and water, as most of the relief operations remain limited to towns and urban areas.
Aarti Khatoon, a 35-year-old widow with her two children, was one of those arriving to Mithi, the capital of Tharparkar district.
“My children are hungry for the last three days as we have consumed all the food at home,” she said, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
She comes from Sengario village, one of the worst-hit in the district, and one that has been largely abandoned by families seeking safer places for themselves and their livestock, Khatoon said.
Right now, “there is no food and drinking water for human beings, let alone fodder and water for animals,” she said. “I sold all my 12 sheep in the last six months to get some food for my children,” she said, adding that she was ready to do anything to keep her children alive.
Tharparkar is located some 400 kilometers from Karachi, the port city of Pakistan, and is spread over 22,000 square kilometers. Much of the population depends on livestock farming and small plantings of wheat and beans.
Shortly after reports about deaths of children due to drought and malnutrition emerged in the national media, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the area and announced a relief package of 100 million Pakistani rupees (around $1 million).
Kamran Zia, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview that relief teams with military, civil administration, health and livestock expertise have been visiting homes in Tharparkar urban areas to provide food, water and fodder.
“We are also trying to reach out to rural and remote villages but our first priority is the worst-hit areas,” he said.
The disaster authority is providing 97,000 food packs (50 kilograms each) to people in the region, along with 120,000 50-kilo bags of wheat, Zia said. The 429 million Pakistani rupees ($4.3 million) in aid is being mobilized by the provincial government, he said.
Authorities have also sent 24 mobile vaccination teams into the area to deal with an outbreak of animal diseases caused by lack of food and water, he said. So far 2.1 million of the region’s estimated six million animals have been vaccinated against sheep pox, he said.
Pakistan’s army also has set up six medical camps in the worst-hit areas and as many as 15,596 patients have been treated so far, he said. Deaths of children in the area have been attributed to not only lack of food and water but also pneumonia, diarrhea and unhygienic births, he said.
Akram said the provincial government also has released 30 million Pakistani rupees ($302,000) to District Hospital Mithi for medicine and other help with the crisis, and the government will provide 200,000 rupees ($2,000) in compensation for each child that has died as a result of the crisis.
A drought advisory released by Pakistan Meteorological Department says that Mithi received a third less rainfall than usual from March 2013 to February 2014. No significant rainfall has been recorded in Tharparkar district from November 2013 until now, it said.
The report predicts rainfall in the area during second half of March but it may not contribute significantly to improving the situation in the region, the meteorological department warned.
Ahsan Iqbal, federal minister for planning and development, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that Pakistan faces growing water shortages across the country, in part because of a lack of development planning.
He said that half of the country eventually might face a situation similar to Tharparkar if authorities do not start managing the country’s resources more effectively. “The whole country is faced with acute shortage of water and a serious food security issue may arise in the next 15 years,” he said.
Kisham Sharma, president of the Tharparkar District Development Association, said building water reservoirs should be a major focus for spending in the area, particularly as people are too poor to afford drilling wells to access water that is 250 to 300 feet underground.
Sindh’s agriculture department also needs to help farmers get access to seeds that are resilient to droughts and other extreme weather, he said.
Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com