Women struggle to get water from a well in Kheensar village of Tharparkar, Sindh province, Pakistan on Thursday.
MITHI: As the death toll from the latest outbreak of poverty-driven diseases in Pakistan’s Thar desert nears 100 children, experts are warning that corruption and a dysfunctional political system make a repeat of the disaster almost inevitable.
The desert region in Tharparkar, one of Pakistan’s poorest districts, spreads over nearly 20,000 square kilometres in the country’s southeast and is home to some 1.3 million people, including a large population of minority Hindus.
Between March 2013 and February this year, rainfall was 30 percent below usual, according to government data, with the worst-hit towns of Diplo, Chacro and Islamkot barely touched by a drop of water for months.
Asif Ikram, the second most senior administration official in the district, said that the death toll from diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis since December 1 had risen to 161 people, including 97 children.
Life in the desert is closely tied to rain-dependent crops and animals, with farmers relying on beans, wheat, and sesame seeds for survival, bartering surplus in exchange for livestock.
The drought is not the only reason for the recent deaths -- observers say they have come about as a result of endemic poverty, exacerbated by the drought and an outbreak of disease killing livestock.
Authorities have been busy dispensing food aid and sending medics to attend to the sick following visits by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who leads the Pakistan People’s Party which rules the province.
But observers say the relief work fails to address the root causes of such disasters and warn they are likely to be repeated.
A drought in the desert in 2000 killed 90 percent of the livestock.
Zafar Junejo, chief executive of Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), says the region has long been ignored by Karachi, the provincial capital, because it is not considered an important constituency politically.
According to the last census, Hindus make up 40 percent of the district’s population, unlike most of Pakistan which is overwhelmingly Muslim, and Junejo said the authorities have little concern for the suffering of minority communities.
“We are fortunately or unfortunately a mixed Hindu and Muslim population,” he said.
“Fortunate because we are living in peace and harmony unlike the rest of the country where radicalisation is in vogue.
“But also unfortunate because being Hindu and being secular we do not fit in the official ideological definition of the country,” he added.
Residents and activists say the effects of drought can be mitigated by global lessons in dry regions, such as the conservation of rainwater. AFP