Drought and Famine in Thar Desert of Pakistan: INGOs stay away from helping starved and ailing children


The death continues haunting starved and ailing children raising the toll to 170 since October last in Thar Desert of southern Sindh province of Pakistan bordering India but surprisingly none of the international NGOs has so far come forward to help them. The government is numb over the deaths, as no official figure has so far been released however the media had reported 140 deaths in October and November while 30 more children lost their life in eleven days of December.

At least fifty children suffering from fatal diseases are brought daily from far off areas of desert to the hospital at Mithi, the only big government hospital of Tharparkar district having population of around two million. In serious cases, the children are referred to other hospitals of the province.

The persistent drought spell, compounded by poverty, poor nutrition and lack of health facilities and awareness is taking its toll on the children of Tharparkar. There are over 2300 small villages across the district.

The desert womenfolk, faced with abject poverty and malnutrition, give birth to feeble babies prone to various diseases like pneumonia, septicemia, birth asphyxia, diarrhea, hemorrhagic fever and Sepsis that prove fatal for them, according to the medical teams engaged in emergency relief work.

The drought and famines are nothing new for the people of Thar Desert, as none of the successive governments at federal as well as provincial level has taken measures for sustainable development ensuring provision of potable water, sanitation, healthcare and other basic facilities to the people of this desert district since inception of country in 1947. The desert district got electricity, telephone and road network during military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s regime after half a century of independence. Before that the Thari people had no modern transport facilities and they used to travel along with animals in British military trucks of World War II.


The Thari people (inhabitants of Thar Desert) and their livestock depend on rains and the eighty percent people are dependent on livestock being their source of livelihood. According to unofficial figures the number of cattle-head in Thar is six million. Using the rain-harvesting local techniques, they store water in ponds and the same impure water is consumed both by humans and animals. They also get water from wells using the donkeys and camels to pull the rubber bucket, tied with long ropes, drawing water from 100ft depth. Due to scanty rains for two consecutive years the water level of the wells has fallen further and the water has now turned brackish.

The rains are also the major source of their livelihood, as they cultivate crops and store the food for next few months. In case of no or scanty rains the Thari people migrate to other areas in search of labor. However, a large number of them does not leave their ancestral abodes and fall prey to famine. Approximately 175,000 families have migrated from the remote areas of Thar to other areas of Sindh for their survival. But according to government leaders the migration is routine annual feature.

After killing the livestock, birds and animals – peacocks, cows, sheep, parrots, deer, camels and goats of these people, this ghost has turned its evil eye towards Thari people. Earlier this year in January and February too several deaths of children were reported. As many as 500 deaths have occurred since last year. The provincial Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, a weak administrator, had announced compensation of Pakistani rupees 200 thousand (US$2000) for each of the heirs of deceased children but the government didn’t fulfill its promise and distributed cheques worth rupees one hundred thousand (US$1000) each among heirs of only 275 deceased children. And to the surprise of the people, on this occasion, the Chief Minister, who is around 90 years of age, convened the Cabinet meeting in Tharparkar district calling army of his ministers and bureaucrats there spending huge money on their travel, accommodation and security just to show that the government was highly concerned of the situation.

The civil society leaders hold the government responsible for the situation, as according to them drought in the desert areas is a natural phenomena but the death of children due to malnutrition and diseases is not the natural.

Senator Taj Haider, a senior leader of ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, who is also the coordinator of Tharparkar Relief Committee, in a press conference on March 30 this year had admitted that 201 persons including 31 men, 34 women and 116 children had died between December 31, 2013 and March 28, 2014 contradicting his Chief Minister’s statement on the floor of provincial assembly that no person had died over the age of 10. Taj Haider however had denied that any death occurred due to hunger, as according to him the government had started distribution of wheat bags free of cost.

This time too the free wheat bags are being distributed but the local media is full of criticism on government for giving lame excuses and statements in order to escape responsibility of ‘criminal acts.’ The media censured even the Chief Minister of Sindh Province when he dispelled the reports saying deaths are not due to drought or malnutrition. On another occasion he said deaths of children being reported in Tharparkar are largely on account of maternity related complications and not of hunger or food.


The government always begin distribution of wheat free of cost or at discounted rates but according to media reports the Thari people could not benefit from charity, as the wheat stocks are often misappropriated by corrupt bureaucracy and the local leaders of ruling parties. The media is full of such allegations, which obviously are rejected by the government.
Meanwhile a Commissioner of that region was reported as saying that they had not distributed 60,000 bags of wheat among the Thari people living in remote areas because of lack of money for transportation.

The drought did not just happen suddenly. These people have been facing such difficulties every year. A Committee of retired judges in its report earlier had stated that the death toll would not have been so high if residents were provided sufficient medical facilities in their areas of residence. Similarly, the drought could have been averted if the government had a comprehensive strategy to deal with it.

The report quotes residents of the area as saying many people die each year. The official death toll only takes count of people who died in Mithi Hospital, Tharparkar. As many as 439 people died in 2011 and 588 in 2013 while this year too the number of deaths exceeds 500.

It is worth mentioning that the government had built the rural health centers across the desert district but no doctor appointed for several years. About 200 posts of doctors are lying vacant at these health centers. The district has buildings of 31 primary health units and 33 dispensaries. Similarly, only 86 Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment Plants are installed in entire desert district of which hardly 51 are functional, official sources told media.

Currently the Pakistan Army, some of the Pakistani NGOs, government organizations, philanthropists etc have setup relief camps and providing medical healthcare facilities to the people. A business tycoon/builder, who has earned notoriety for being involved in various scams, has established centers for provision of free cooked food to Thari people.
On the request of provincial government, a team from Aga Khan Foundation has arrived in Tharparkar to ascertain the healthcare needs of people and the measures required to equip the hospitals with modern facilities. The government is also considering arranging warm clothes and blankets for the people so that they could face the cold weather, but so far no step has taken in this regard.

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