How deforestation threatens Thar Desert dwellings

July 25, 2021

HYDERABAD: The makeshift mud and thatch abodes in the Thar Desert, called chaunro, have evolved over generations in response to the extreme dry heat during the day and chilly nights that made life...

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HYDERABAD: The makeshift mud and thatch abodes in the Thar Desert, called chaunro, have evolved over generations in response to the extreme dry heat during the day and chilly nights that made life difficult for the pastoral and nomadic communities living on the sand dunes.

There is a scarcity of building materials in the desert region. The terrain is interspersed with thorny trees and leafless grasses. One of these leafless plants, Leptadenia pyrotechnica, locally known as khip, is used by the people to build roofs of their circular mud dwellings.

Leptadenia pyrotechnica is a typical desert plant that is leafless, erect and evergreen.

It is native to Mediterranean regions, semi-arid deserts of African and Asian countries, where sandy and dry conditions prevail.

Mohan Gomani, a teacher in village Rohal near Deeplo town, Tharparkar district, said, “It has been an old practice of the desert people, residing at sand dunes to use wooden materials, especially Leptadenia pyrotechnica for building roofs of their muddy huts, which are weather-friendly.”

Rohal village, situated near Rann of Kutch, has 250 households, where almost all the families have three to four huts each.

“You can see hundreds of thousands of makeshift huts covered with khip roofs, which protect dwellers from heavy rainfall and strong winds while also allowing the air to pass through, comforting the residents sitting inside the huts,” Gomani said.

The desert has been through many changes over the years. Many plant species have disappeared or are on the brink of survival. Khip is a fast growing plant with many medicinal qualities as well. People use it for its antifungal, antibacterial, anticancer, antioxidant, wound healing, and anthelmintic qualities in the rural areas.

Gomani said mostly desert people do not invest in building permanent shelters, and prefer to live under makeshift abodes, made with wood, mud and khip, which was environment-friendly.

The circular form of the house, as well as the unique combination of building materials are a response to the desert’s extreme climatic conditions. The circular walls, theoretically only allow one point of the house to receive maximum sunlight, while half the wall’s surface remains shaded, reducing heat absorption.

The khip roof itself acts as an insulated surface. The deep overhanging conical roof covers almost two third of the wall area, reducing the amount of direct sunlight, thus keeping heat reception very low.

The chaunra has many thermal qualities because of the khip and mud both.

Mud is a natural insulator and is able to take the thermal movements caused by the extreme temperature variation in the region.

Thus, these houses stay cool in the summer and stay warm in the winter.

Lakho Menghwar, a local activist in the same locality, Rohal Village, said only a small number of people cultivate land as sharecroppers, producing pearl millet, guar and other crops. “They get their share of the crop after harvest during the monsoon season,” he explained.

However, he pointed out that the land was changing due to the changes in the patterns of rainfall. “Salinity is increasingly threatening traditional sources of cultivation as well as water reservoirs,” Menghwar said.

“There are many natural ponds out there, which are filled by rain, but we cannot use that water because of contamination. When birds drink water from these ponds, they die immediately, and that is how we know this water is not fit for consumption for humans and animals alike,” he shared.

With changes in soil fertility due to salinity and government ban on using sand dunes for cultivation, many people of the community have been turning to the towns and cities to earn a basic living.

About the shrub khip, he called it a natural gift for the communities, who use it to roof their huts. “Only camels consume this shrub fondly, while other animals do not like it because of its bitterness.”

He said the recent monsoon rains have benefited this plant like other vegetation and grasses.

Alisher Hajano, associated with Sindh Forest Department, growing plant nurseries near famous Mayani forest range, said khip was a natural plant that grows in sandy areas. It was common in forest areas long ago, but now it is rare and not found easily.

“People come to us from different areas, seeking this plant to cure skin ailments,” he said, adding that the forest department sometimes collected the plant from riverine areas.

Otherwise, the plant was disappearing from the forest area because of various problems, mainly deforestation.

“The forest is being removed for cultivation purposes,” he admitted.

Recalling the past, he said khip was common in riverine areas as well as in the forest. Elderly women used to keep these green leafless plants at home for drying. One dry, they used the shrub for cleaning utensils as well as curing skin ailments.

“Maybe in scattered areas this plant exists on a smaller scale, mostly in sandy areas, but it is rare,” he said.

Reports gathered from different areas of Sindh show that

this plant was depleting fast because of cultivation and urbanisation.

Many plant species get wiped off land without any consideration for their values in terms of housing, economy and health.

Khip is also used for making the structure of cattle farms, schools, and worship places. The low-cost building material stands intact for around 25-30 years.

Khip grows in all sandy areas of Pakistan, including Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. It is an important plant for the rural communities in all these areas, as it is not only used as a building material but is also used for its medicinal qualities.

Therefore, many people consider it an important part of their culture and urge the government to protect it from development activities, urbanisation and cultivation.

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