A Stitch in Time Could Have Saved at least 62 Lives

Tharis in drought season (Credit: Fayyaz Naich)
Tharis in drought season
(Credit: Fayyaz Naich)

As global average temperatures rise, scientific models indicate that human society will suffer increased heat-related illness and death, food insecurity, water stress and spread of infectious diseases, in addition to increased climate related disasters. Pakistan is, in fact, increasingly vulnerable to floods and droughts caused by a changing climate.

At first glance it appears that the recent deaths of at least 62 children in the southern district of Tharparkar in Sindh have been caused by drought; but actually the desert region is not in the grips of a severe famine as has been reported by some sections of the media.

According to the head of the National Disaster Management Authority, “Only a mild drought was indicated in Cholistan, Tharparkar, Sukkur and Khairpur areas by the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD)”. The PMD’s National Drought Monitoring Centre has released a press statement dated March 7, 2014, stating that “In the wake of recent disaster confronting Tharparkar district, meteorological data has been analysed that depict that current disaster may be termed as ‘socio-economic disaster’ rather than simply drought because seasonal and annual rainfall were moderately below than climatic averages. The disaster may have occurred by moderately below average rains coupled with some epidemic and weak socio-economic settings of the area”.

The PMD’s statement further clarified that “During monsoon 2013, Tharparkar region received 70pc of its normal rainfall in which Chor received 94pc of rainfall while Mithi receive 46pc of rainfall. However, 60mm rainfall was recorded in Mithi during October 2013 that compensated the monsoon deficit in the area.” The amount of annual rainfall in the desert is generally low and around 90pc of the total annual rainfall occurs during the monsoon, from July to September. Hence the rains did not fail last year, although they fell in pockets over the district that spreads over 22,000 square km, with some Talukas receiving more and others less.

The winter months are generally a dry season in the desert and the local community copes by migrating with its livestock to the barrage-irrigated parts of Sindh to seek work as farm labourers to harvest the wheat crop. According to Zafar Junejo, the chief executive officer of the Thardeep Rural Development Programme that works in the district with local communities, “These deaths occurred from December to March and not just in one month. There is no drought as such. I attribute the deaths to a combination of factors: malnutrition, pneumonia, premature birth, low birth weight … all born to mothers who are anaemic (deficient in iron).”

He adds, “The mothers all suffer from neglected reproductive health issues. They have six to seven children each by the age of 40 and are suffering from a host of problems: anaemia, illiteracy and food insecurity, since in this district you have only one crop a year (the rest of Sindh has two crops). What is needed is long-term planning — the women need regular sources of income like milk cooperatives or women’s cooperative farming.”

He points out that while there is a widespread road network in Tharparkar connecting the district to the outside world, the local people have no purchasing power. “One time food distribution or aid is not really going to help the situation — they need more interventions and a perennial income source.”

It appears that the deaths of children were the result of a chain of events triggered by unusual cold weather in the Thar Desert this winter that led to the outbreak of pneumonia. The already weak/malnourished children then became victims of the poor medical facilities available in the district and died over the last three months.

At the heart of this disaster, however, is the growing issue of food insecurity in Pakistan. According to Oxfam GB, “Half the population is ‘food insecure’ — they can’t be sure where their next meal is coming from. This is compared to a decade ago when a third of the population was in this situation.” Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey (NNS) 2011 found that around 60pc of Pakistan’s total population is today facing food insecurity. The results of the survey indicated a sharp decline in the nutritional status of the people of the country over the past decade.

The survey took a sample of 30,000 households nationwide covering all the provinces and found that around 57pc of the households were facing food insecurity. In these households, 50pc of the women and children were found to be malnourished. The report stated that iron deficiency and vitamin A deficiency remains widespread in the country. The survey found Sindh, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to be the major hotspots for childhood malnutrition in the country.

The report noted that the increasing rate of chronic and acute malnutrition in the country is primarily due to poverty, higher illiteracy rate among mothers and the government’s lack of commitment towards ensuring food security for its citizens. The current levels of malnutrition are unacceptably high in Pakistan — instead of merely handing out relief to the people of Tharparkar our policy makers need to think about long-term solutions before further casualties take place. For now climate change might not be the reason, but as Oxfam points out “a hostile climate will become a potent risk multiplier”.

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