It took the deaths of scores of children from malnourishment in Pakistan’s sprawling desert district of Tharparkar for the establishment to wake up to a tragedy unfolding against the backdrop of decades of neglect, collapse of governance structures – and the inexorable effects of climate change.
The media refused to let the deaths, which took place in the short four months between December and March, fade away until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the drought-hit area and announced compensation for families. But this is just temporary relief, say experts, who believe that long-term water, health and livelihood schemes need to be introduced in a region where climate change has already started to play havoc with people’s lives.
Several scientists have linked the over 150 child deaths in the drought-stricken part of Tharparkar district to global warming. As always, the poor and the vulnerable have – and will continue to –face the brunt of climate change.
Over 90% of Tharparkar district comprises the Thar desert, one of the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystems with its natural resources already stretched due to overgrazing and groundwater exploitation. The district has a population of about 1.5 million people in 2,300 villages and urban settlements. Of these, an estimated 259,945 families have been affected by the drought.
There was below average rainfall during the monsoon months –usually between July and August –last year. And the situation was exacerbated by the slow-moving governmental machinery which should have declared it a ‘calamity affected area’ in August 2013 instead of waiting until February 2014 to do so.
Droughts are a recurring feature of the region — there was one from 1999 to 2001 – but few lessons have been learnt.
Mohammad Hanif of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) warns thatdroughts will become more frequent and the damage will be irreversible.
“There is more to come; this is just a warm up to what is in store for us,”Hanif told thethirdpole.net. He added that Thar would get hotter and rains would remain unpredictable.The PMD predicts that the annual amount of precipitation will decrease in the desertby 2030.
Hanif said water scarcity would become pronounced, not just because of climate change but due to overpopulation and unsustainable use of water and overexploitation of other natural resources.
And that is why, experts say, there is urgent need for appropriate adaptation measures now to “soften the blow”.
Producing just 0.8% of global carbon emissions (ranking 135th in the world), Pakistan has been ranked third in the list of most vulnerable countries to climate change. According to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2014, it is third after Haiti and the Philippines among the countries constantly battered by climate related catastrophes.
“If long term interventions are not given a serious thought, in the coming decades,much of the area will be devastated,” Hanif said.
“It will lead to desertification and we would have lost fertile land forever,” added PMD director Azmat Hyat Khan.The arid zone is already being encroached by desertification. In fact, since the drought in Thar, a red alert has been sounded in nine more districts of Sindh.
The warnings come after Hanif and his colleague Muhammad Aleemul Hassan Ramey published a study which predicted rising temperatures and decreasing winter rainfall in Thar over the next three decades. The study used five global models to compute scenarios using available climate data.
It is part of a series of practical guidance documents and toolkits being developed by the NGO Research and Development Foundation (RDF).
More scientific data providing insights into climate that may prevail in Thar in the future is needed before RDF can prepare and strengthen the communities living in the disaster prone area, said Masood Mahesar, head of RDF. “Only then can we best to address the issue and promote climate resilient development.”
According to Azmat Hyat Khan, director of the drought monitoring cell at the PMD, people living in the desert will have to learn to adapt to climate change. “They must be weaned away from their sole dependence on agriculture and livestock and reliance on techniques and knowledge of their forefathers and look for alternate means of livelihood.”
With existing livelihood systems becoming shaky, they should move towards enhancing cottage industries like carpet weaving, embroidery and patchwork.
But if the communities want to continue doing agriculture, they must use water conservation methods, said Ziauddin Abro, an expert in micro-irrigation technologies. The government must provide subsidies for rainwater harvesting and micro-irrigation (as is done in the Indian part of Tharin Rajasthan).”Introducing kitchen gardening, especially pitcher irrigation on a mass scale can help overcome food insecurity there,” he added.
Livestock management centres can also be opened to train people to manage their livestock and improve their breeds.
The need for accessible and timely information regarding rains is crucial for pastoralists. Early warning systems for drought and desertification that are in place in the district need to be overhauled on modern lines, Abro stressed.