KAPOOSAR — Pancho Mai is a villager in Kapoosar, located in the Tharpakar district. Today is the festival of Holi, but the 25-year-old mother is deep in mourning. Over the past three months, her three children have died. “They had fever for a few days, and then pneumonia killed each one of them,” she says numbly.
Her mother-in-law, Kaplana Mai, had rushed the children to the only government hospital in the district. But it was too late. They died within days.
This is not an isolated case. According to independent statistics reported by the local media, some 200 children, mostly newborn babies, have died in this vast expanse of desert since December.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority, Thar, one of the largest deserts in the world, is now facing a famine-like situation.
Thar spreads over an area of 10,000 kilometers and has a population of 1.3 million. Locals say that agriculture depends heavily on the seasonal monsoon rains, and droughts can be deadly.
Health experts believe that the majority of the Thari people are underfed, which is what accounts for poor life expectancy, including hundreds of newborn baby deaths reported every year. But the government claims that the deaths are due to outbreaks of seasonal diseases.
The government has declared a state of emergency and established temporary relief camps to provide emergency assistance.
Brought back to life
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also visited the desert to inspect relief operations, as hundreds of families have migrated to other areas in search of food and shelter.
“The medical and health situation is back to normal now,” says Asif Ikramis, deputy district commissioner. “But the drought in the Thar Desert is a recurring phenomenon. It happens every year. People even migrate from one place to another with their livestock.”
According to the National Malnutrition Survey conducted two years ago, around 15% of Pakistan’s population is malnourished — mostly in the southern Sindh province.
The World Health Organization is trying to change all that by building a malnourishment stabilizing center. Here, for the last six months, the WHO program has treated more than 100 children.
“Thar has never been a priority in the past,” says Dr. Muhammad Sohail Qaimkhani, who heads the center. “There are multiple problems here, including low literacy, water scarcity, poor sanitation and then food insecurity.”
Mothers like Pooja Ramesh have also been given training on nutrition issues and food supplements for the children. She’s happy that her daughter has now recovered. “When I brought my daughter here, she was almost dead,” the mother says. “Doctors treated her, and now she is taking food and getting healthier. I’m happy my child’s life has been saved.”
But with half of the population living below the poverty line, malnourishment is a threat for thousands every day. Women and child rights campaigners are now demanding a permanent solution to save future generations.
Ghulam Muhammad Madni is heading an independent fact-finding team of 14 child rights organizations to search for a solution.
“This is the desert, where life is too difficult,” says Madni. “There are so many issues that need to be addressed, not only on the temporary basis. But there should be a plan of the government for the next five years or 10 years that shouldn’t cover only the issues of food and nutrition, but economic development must also be carried out.”