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Berries from the deserts of Pakistan

A woman-led effort in the desert area of Umerkot has started showing fruit, providing a much needed boost to nutrition and livelihood opportunities

An old woman holds the fruit of the initiative in her hands [image by: Manoj Genani]

The women of Rator village in Pakistan’s province of Sindh celebrated a harvest this year. This was no ordinary harvest, and was five years in the making, requiring a huge amount of labour to nurture fruit trees in a water scarce region. But any harvest in the desert areas of Umerkot district is special. This is a desert area, with little water available, and what little is available, is brackish.

The journey began in 2015 when 10 women planted 50 fruit berry (Jujube) trees grafted with indigenous wild berries. They received garden management trainings by Sami Foundation – a local civil society organisation – with the support of ActionAid-Pakistan and the Ariz Zone Research Institute (AZRI) Umerkot.

Each of the women is in charge of five trees. They spend two hours on every alternate day, watering the plants, weeding out grass and placing organic fertiliser

“We raised these plants like our children”
Samero Meghwar

Dheli on her way to water the plants under her care [image by: Manoj Genani]
Dheli on her way to water the plants under her care [image by: Manoj Genani]

“I am overwhelmed when someone mentions our garden,” said Dheli, one of the women who is part of the project. “In such harsh weather, the villagers of Ratnor have grown a fruit berry garden in a desert area.”

“Every single drop of water matters”

The desert area of Umerkot and Tharparkar districts are continuously hit by droughts. A garden is a dream here. Every single drop of water matters in a desert, explained Samero Meghwar who has been one of the greatest supporters of the women’s group. The people make enormous efforts to collect water, the ground water is brackish, so we purchase water tankers from city that cost PKR 6,000-8,000 (USD 39-52), he said. Otherwise the people fetch water from Army Water Collection Points about one and a half kilometres from the village.

Samero Meghwar has been one of the strongest supporters of the women-led initiative in the village [image by: Manoj Genani]

In the beginning, Samero Meghwar bought used patient drips from a nearby hospital. He jury-rigged them to create an innovative drip irrigation system for each jujube fruit plant. This worked for a year, and then the people bought 5 litre cans to let water flow into the soil for the next two years.

Used drips from hospitals were cleaned and adapted to create a form of drip irrigation [image by: Manoj Genani]

As the plants continued to grow, the amount of water needed kept increasing. The people started pouring more water into garden than they used for their personal hygiene, drinking and cooking use. All family members of a household spend more than two hours daily to bring water at home in desert as a norm. With more water going into the gardens than the home, the water gathering became intense.

As Meghwar spoke to me about water collection for the orchard, Dheli was busy collecting dried leaves and grass from the garden and placing them beneath the plants to hold in the moisture in the soil. “We raised these plants like our children,” she said, “every single time we were thinking about water for our garden, arranging organic fertilisers, producing vegetables from the spaces available in the orchard between these plants, and much more. This year, we have sent gifts of jujube fruits joyously to our married daughter.” Other women in the group did the same, sharing the bounty.

Taken in 2016, when this plant was one year old, this shows how women poured water into a a drip, that slowly feeds the plant [image by: Manoj Genani]

The first major harvest

Maghero said that the village sold berries for PKR 15,000 (USD 97). About 40% of the harvest has been shared with the villagers, especially children and women, and approximately 80 kg of fruits have been delivered as gift of the season to daughters living in other villages in desert areas.

Muhammad Ismail Bhatti, an associate professor of plant pathology at the Sindh Agriculture University, Umerkot Campus, said that the jujube is a similar to a date: sweet and fibre rich. Jujubes are a powerhouse of essential vitamins and antioxidants, and are particularly very rich in vitamin C. This helps vitalising the skin, fights free radicals and strengthens the immunity by keeping diseases at bay. Bhatti said that the extension of such orchards could fulfil the nutritional requirements and could reduce malnourishment among pregnant lactating women, children and women in drought affected areas of Umerkot and Tharparkar.

“At the start, in 2015, we did not believe such a surprise could be seen in desert,” admitted Soondri, one of the women involved in the project. “It’s like a dream come true. Everyone, especially the women’s group, was excited because their efforts worked.”

In 2017, a woman standing in the slowly unfolding fruit garden [image by: Manoj Genani]

Looking forward

Access to water is the key issue, especially with the cost of transporting water. The villagers said that their ground water is not very brackish, so it can be used to cultivate vegetables around the garden. But to do more – to multiply the number of trees, vegetables and crops – they would need to install a pressure pump or solar-powered, which would have a large one-time cost.

A woman showering water on a lemon plant, planted between the jujube plants [image by: Manoj Genani]

Hyder Ali, a project manager with the Sindh Drought Resilience Programme at the Sami Foundation said that if the community could manage water from March to June for the orchard until the monsoon, the next 4 months (July-October) will be taken care of. During the winter moisture does not evaporate so much. He added that jujube trees attract honey bees, and this might allow the villagers to expand their livelihood opportunities if more trees are planted.

See: A plague of locusts

This year the women faced an unexpected challenge when locusts swarmed their crops between August and November 2019. The women were unwilling to let five years of effort go to waste. Dheli said, “We [organised and were] drumming tins and lighting bonfires to create smoke and scare locusts away. But just when one swarm flew away, another appeared. We didn’t give up, and continued the hard work day and night, and our efforts did not allow the locust to eat even a single leaf.”