Desert under siege

  • 30/12/1992

Desert under siege A STUDY of meteorological records indicates drought has been a recurring problem in Pakistan"s Thar region. When it occurs now, it creates severe shortages of food, fodder and water, but such shortages never occurred during more serious droughts in the past. That"s because these shortages are the result of major social, economic and demographic changes that have taken place in the desert, and of the political relationship between the rural areas of Sind and the people of Karachi -- a relationship that has grown steadily, friction and suspicions notwithstanding.

A subsistence economy existed in the Thar before the 1960s and the barter system prevailed amongst the peoples there and in their ties with the outside world. The desert people produced almost everything they needed for their existence, manufacturing even cloth, shoes and blankets locally. Their food consisted almost entirely of millet bread (bajre ki roti) and yogurt (lassi). Such items as tea, biscuits and city-made clothes and shoes were unknown and there were no shops in Thar villages. Animals were rarely sold for cash and the people"s only source of income was from the sale of ghee.

However, from 1947 onwards, there was a slow process of change in the desert, with a move to a cash economy and the integration of its economy with the Karachi and Hyderabad markets from 1972.

Pakistan"s Tharparkar district can be divided into two distinct areas: the barrage lands and the desert. The desert has a total area of 22,000 sq km and a population of about 800,000 -- which is approximately half the population of the district and more than 70 per cent of its land area.

As late as 1960 the district had not produced any doctors, engineers, lawyers or administrators and it had only a negligible number of teachers at the secondary school and college levels. Today, the district can boast of more than 4,000 professionals and the high school population has risen from about 7,500 in 1972 to well over 20,000 today.

Tharparkar professionals constitute an increasingly powerful political lobby from which a number of politically important figures is emerging.

The Thar lobby"s demands and concerns are no different from those of the peoples of Pakistan"s other arid and backward regions. However, they acquire both urgency and seriousness because they are supported by Karachi-based professionals, political figures and intellectuals.

The discovery of the Thar desert is part of the discovery of Sind by liberal Western circles in Karachi. Necessitated by the country"s political situation in 1965-75, this discovery stemmed from the need of the second generation of post-Independence Karachi residents to establish a relationship with the "culture of the soil". In the case of the Thar desert, with its fascinating ecology and colourful culture, this relationship acquired romance and passion.

Karachi"s first major contact with the Thar came in the wake of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, when a sizeable part of the desert population had to move out of the war zone. In order to survive, migrating Tharis were forced to sell their valuables to middlemen who resold them in the Karachi market. Soon, Thari rugs adorned the drawing rooms of Karachi"s elite and high society women took to wearing silver jewellery, cholis and embroidered shawls from the desert. This was the beginning of a regular trade in handicrafts that continues to this day.

Fascinated by the tales of desert traders and the handicrafts they brought back with them, young men went into the desert and encountered a desert that bloomed after the rains, strange, red rock formations standing aloof amidst an expanse of brown sand, women who wore bangles from wrist to shoulder, dancing peacocks and ruined temples.

By the mid-1970s, Thar"s culture and its anthropological aspects had begun attracting interest but not enough to stimulate scientific research, especially into its economy and sociological changes. This explains why drought has been made out to be the Thar"s major problem, with comparisons being made to the drought in Ethiopia and the Sahel. The comparison is far-fetched, to say the least. Few analysts have cared to investigate the increasing grip of a market economy, which is steadily a subsistence economy, as the real reason for the crisis in the region. Planners of development activities in the desert have to keep in mind this process of change as also the region"s topography. For instance, planners must understand the hydrology of the Thar so they can ensure that the region"s limited subsoil water resources are not depleted by uncontrolled mechanical pumping -- a phenomenon that has destroyed other arid areas in Pakistan.

Landholdings in the Thar generally range between four to 16 ha and the owners, as elsewhere in Sind, are known as waderas. The land is tilled and the crop harvested by haris, who are mostly Hindu Bhils and Kohlis or Muslim Bajirs.

Before the mid-1970s, the Thar"s main crop was bajra and it was grown on almost all available land. Bajra was planted after the first rains in late July or early August and even a meagre shower guaranteed the crop harvested six weeks later was sufficient to meet the food requirements of the local population. If there were more showers after the harvesting, a second crop was possible and this was usually stored for use in drought years. The stalks of the bajra crop served as food for cattle and so fodder cultivation was not practised in the Thar, except in places like Nagar taluka where perennial well-water is available.

Cash crops also were grown, but in negligible quantity. They consisted of til and moong and, in Nagar, chillies. These were sold at the few markets in the desert and found their way through middlemen to the barrage areas.

By January, with sowing, harvesting and land clearing over, the water level in the desert wells would begin to fall -- just as it does today -- and the best pastures would have been grazed over. By February, more than half of the Thar"s adult population and their livestock would begin the trek to the barrage areas. This transhumance took place even when winter or spring rains fell, but the size of the migration would relate directly to the quantum of rain that fell in the summer before.

In March and April, wheat was harvested in the barrage lands, with the Tharis providing the labour. In return, the barrage zamindars allowed them to graze and water their cattle. It is at these times that the Tharis would exchange their dairy products such as ghee and their animals, for cloth, brass utensils, household goods and, if the preceding year had been rainless, rice and bajra. When harvesting ended, the Tharis would go back to the desert and wait for the summer rains and for the cycle to repeat itself.

No demand for meat
In the mid-1970s, there was not much of a market for meat because the urban population of Sind was small and Karachi"s needs were met from the Punjab. In addition, the Hindu Tharis, for religious reasons, would not sell their cattle for slaughter. As a result, cattle breeding in the Thar was strictly controlled and the animal population was not allowed to increase so as to save pasture lands from overgrazing.

Urban centres in the Thar are small and consist of about three or four shops selling household goods and cloth at prices that only the better-off could afford. These goods were brought by camel from the five larger desert towns served by the kekra, the Second World War army six-wheeler that is still the only mechanical transport available in the Thar. The structures in these settlements were made entirely of sun-baked bricks made of mud obtained during the annual cleaning of the tarais, which are ponds formed in natural depressions in which rainwater collects.

The main fuel in the Thar is cowdung, supplemented by dry twigs of the booh, lani and ak, all quick-growing shrubs. The larger kikar, khabbar, kandi and ber are reserved for use as joists in roof construction -- and never wasted as firewood. Thus, the natural vegetation of the desert is also preserved.

On the surface, the Thar appears to have changed little and the traditional cycle of rains, cultivation, harvesting, migration and return continues. To the casual observer, the peacocks would seem to have decreased and the camel replaced by the kekra as the means of transport.

New relationships
However, the fact is that the whole relationship between the desert and the barrage areas has changed and new relationships have been established with urban areas in Sind. The Thar undoubtedly has "opened up" -- and is rapidly being taken over by market forces.

Bajra has been replaced to a large extent by til, moong and chilli -- cash crops purchased by middlemen for the Hyderabad and Karachi markets. Since the mid-1980s, these middlemen have started buying crops even before they are sown -- a credit system previously unknown in the Thar. Now, the wadera benefits the most from cash crop farming. With the money he receives he buys flour and foodstuffs from city traders. His standard of living has risen, but so also has his dependence on urban manufactured goods. Nevertheless, all these factors have greatly increased trade and commerce in the Thar and the transportation network in the desert has grown rapidly despite no increase in the extent of metalled roads.

However, the switch to cash crops has hurt the haris and herders for their earnings have become far too meagre to enable them to buy food from the desert shops. Furthermore, a decrease in bajra cultivation also means a decrease in the bajra stalks that are used as cattle fodder. So, today, attempts are being made at cultivating fodder in winter, using condensation water.

As a result of these changes, in the past two decades, towns have expanded and many homes and offices built using burnt bricks. Kikar and ber wood is being used to fire the brick kilns, desert vegetation has decreased and timber for firewood is being increasingly imported from Sind.

Changes have also taken place in the barrage areas where wheat has been largely replaced by sugarcane, which is harvested between October and December. During this period, the Thar"s wells and in years of good rainfall, the tarais are full of water and the desert"s best pasture lands still have life in them. Thus, the Tharis have no incentive to move in these months.

Fewer job opportunuties
On the other hand, in the spring, there are fewer job opportunities for them in the barrage areas than there used to be. Because the Bhils, Kohlis and Bajirs can no longer offer any services to the zamindars in March and April, they are denied the use of pasture lands for their animals and so their dairy products, too, are less in demand. Besides, vanaspati ghee has replaced asli ghee in the urban and semi-urban settlements and an increase in cattle in the barrage areas has made that region almost self-sufficient in dairy products.

However, there is an increase in demand for meat in Sind"s urban areas, especially Karachi, and middlemen are buying Thari cattle and goats for slaughter. Hindus, too, have started selling their cattle as the income this brings allows them to buy grain and other necessities. The increase in the meat trade means the breeding of more animals and this has resulted in a dramatic increase in the Thar"s cattle population. The animal husbandry department at Mirpurkhas reports there were 445,240 animals in the Thar in 1976, but the total had risen by 1986 to 1.26 million -- an increase of 185 per cent. The largest increase -- 538 per cent -- was in sheep, mainly because of the expanding wool trade in Karachi and Hyderabad.

These changes in the Thar have brought about changes in the wadera-hari relationship and the wadera no longer commands the respect he did before. Because the wadera can no longer call upon the haris to provide free labour for desilting tarais, repairing embankments and clearing shrubs, these activities have largely been abandoned and agriculture has suffered as a result with the tarais unable to hold as much water as they once did.

Demographic changes
There have also been major demographic changes in the desert with the Thar population doubling in the 50 years from 1901 to 1961. The average rate of increase was 2 per cent per year. More than 70 per cent of this increase took place during the period when the barrage areas were colonised. The population doubled again in the 20 years from 1961 to 1981, this time at a rate of 5 per cent per year. About 50 per cent of this increase took place in the desert, at a rate 1.8 per cent higher than the national average. In 1972, there were 2.3 animals to each person in the desert, with the ratio increasing to 2.9 animals by 1981.

All these changes, along with a drop in bajra cultivation, altered relationships between the desert and the barrage areas and the emergence of a new economic order has destroyed desert institutions that were earlier well-integrated with its ecology. This has put a severe strain on the Thar"s meagre resources. The strain has been aggravated by drought and not caused by it. In fact, even if there are no more droughts, the crisis in the desert would deepen and such social welfare facilities as better schooling and health care, by themselves, cannot change the situation.

In any event, health care is severely limited in the region, and the greatest single limiting factor is the low level of utilisation in the Thar of these services. There are several causes for this, but the most major is a lack of female doctors and health workers. Desert culture militates against women being examined and treated by male medical personnel. A lack of continuity in drugs supply is also to blame and, furthermore, Thar settlements are so scattered and hampered by lack of transport, it would be extremely difficult for the sick to get help from the health centres.

Health authorities report Thar residents suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and there is an increasing incidence of night blindness. Deteriorating nutritional standards is being cited as the reason for a reported increase in the incidence of child tuberculosis in the region.

The most important factor relating to the Thar"s development is the creation of reliable sources of water for its animal population. As migration to the barrage lands is becoming increasingly difficult, the availability of fodder has become a major necessity. Investigations in Tharparkar by the public health engineering department and international agencies established there is no fresh subsoil water in the desert, where drilling has at times been done to a depth of 240 m. Fresh water is to be found only in rainwater aquifers, which are 10-15 m deep and are found anywhere between 30 and 80 m underground. Replenished by rain, some of these aquifers have disappeared in places that have experienced continuous drought. Desert inhabitants tap an aquifer by sinking wells following the traditional method which helps to conserve water.

In contrast, tubewells have been sunk in Mithi town to an aquifer and a piped water system installed. Though the scheme became operative only last year, already town consumption of water is six times higher than earlier. The quality of water in Mithi has declined and many of the town"s 120 hand-dug wells have become saline. At Virawah, mechanical pumps have been installed in an old well that used to contain fresh water all year. Now, the fresh water is used up within five months of the end of the rains and the well becomes saline. All this only proves uncontrolled mechanical extraction of water in the Thar can be disastrous and is not a solution to the desert"s water problem.

Saving the Thar
The Thar as an issue can be dealt with in several ways. For example, it could be abandoned to market forces. A better communications system would make exploitation of its resources easier and cheaper for city traders and a new generation of local entrepreneurs would emerge. This would result in a fair amount of "affluence" coming to the desert, but a majority of the Thar"s people would be impoverished further. This would force herders and tillers to migrate from the area and seek permanent employment in large urban settlements or in irrigation areas.

Pakistan already has a number of regions, especially in the northern reaches of Swat and areas in the Northwest Frontier Province, that have been rendered unproductive by deforestation, overgrazing, population pressure and a breakdown of the traditional social order. People in these regions have been reduced to dependence on cash remittances from the cities and from Gulf countries or eking a living as contract labourers elsewhere in Pakistan. The Thar could well face a similar fate as there are many who insist this form of development is normal and there is nothing wrong in it.

Alternatively, desert communities themselves could play the role of middlemen and entrepreneurs, and thereby control not only the resources of the area, but trade and commerce as well. This will mean new institutions will have to be created and new relationships forged, compatible with the changes in the Thar. This will only happen if scientific, social, economic and technical research is carried out in the Thar on a continuing basis and a viable social model developed for the region and supported. This will require the establishment of an institution in the desert, manned by competent professionals well-versed in modern economics, engineering and agriculture, and sensitive to local cultural and people"s needs.

Arif Hasan is a Karachi architect and consultant to the Orangi Pilot Project and other community action groups.

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