In the Thar Desert of Pakistan, some 350km (200 miles) from Karachi, children are dying of malnutrition due to an ongoing famine in the area.
It seems that despite the ongoing crisis – reports from 4th of January say four more children have died of malnutrition bringing the 2015 death toll to 15, with more than 260 having died overall – the humanitarian tragedy has, of late, gone under reported in the media.
There is little up-to-date information about the situation (though I am in the process of speaking to NGOs and others to find out more), but in March 2014 a Unicef report warned that nearly three million Pakistanis face possible starvation due to lack of food and droughts in the area.
In the same month Aljazeera reported that in Thar there was not technically a drought or a famine taking place but instead a socioeconomic disaster. It reported that rainfall was less than expected, but not enough to be considered a drought, and food was available in shops. People were dying, and indeed still are, of starvation as a result of “a community of people living on the very edge of survival”
It quoted Zaffar Junejo, who has been working in the social research and poverty alleviation sector in Tharparkar for the last 20 years, as saying: “Even a little bit of pressure, with regards to climate, pushes them towards poverty and malnutrition. […]These people have been living in a condition that should in no condition be acceptable. They are in extreme poverty.”
Although there has been reports of relief aid being dispatched to Thar, including wheat, rice and other emergency food, as well as planned desalination units to provide drinking water, the suffering of the people, who, according to the Guardian, are of the heavily discriminated Dalit caste, is ongoing.
Lack of action from local government
Zahoor Abbasi, a US based geotechnical engineer from Pakistan, told me: “A lack of valid information, propagated misconceptions and poor planning on the part of unqualified government functionaries is pushing the people of Thar into an almost genocidal situation. I am committed to creating an awareness about it.”
Pakistani press reports from April say Sindh government officials have been blamed for the humanitarian crisis in Thar. A police report states that bad administration, bad transfers of officials and a failure to not notice growing child mortalities led to the crisis. According to the report, about 141 children were killed in 2012-13 and 196 in 2013-14.
Some believe officials are far more concerned with the potential of coal deposits in the Thar Desert.
“Coal deposits in Thar and their energy producing potential seems to occupy everyone’s mind, the plight and sufferings of the people living there escapes all,” says Abbasi.
A Thar coal fired power generation plant is expected to be operational by 2018. A Chinese and an Australian company have shown interest in investing in Thar coal which is thought to be the 6th largest coal deposits in the world.
The project will involve displacing people from at least two villages as well as using private land and building an airstrip, which is currently under construction.
There is a concern that coal mining and a subsequent power plant could pollute vital ground water in Thar. Not to mention that mining itself is extremely water intensive.
A possible solution?
This ground water could be used as a solution to the endemic food shortages in the region, according to Abbasi. He proposes using desalinated water to produce food, cash crops and animal fodder without relying on rain but instead using the desalinated water to grow crops in greenhouses. He says his proposal could provide sustenance for local people as well as jobs. Something similar has been done by The Sahara Desert project where cucumbers and other produce are grown in greenhouses in the Sahara Desert.
But for now this potential solution remains just an idea. Meanwhile the children of Thar continue to suffer and die of malnutrition in a country where officials are so insensitive to the suffering of the poor they reportedly enjoyed a ‘sumptous’ lunch during a visit to the famine-hit region. This seems to be just a small indication of the gapping disparities between classes in Pakistan, as well as its general lack of economic freedom.
I’m going to keep investigating the situation in Thar and will update my blog with anything new I learn. In the meantime here is an excellent article from March on Thar and socioeconomic problems facing Pakistan and some more about the coal power plant plans from Abbasi.