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February 29, 2016

Thar – waiting for a messiah


February 29, 2016

One is overcome in equal measure with shame and sorrow when travelling through the drought-struck Tharparkar district of Sindh – sorrow for the scores of children who died because of the drought and shame that these deaths are occurring in 21st century’s Pakistan.

Spread over an area of 2200 square-kilometres, the vast desert of Thar is home to some 1.4 million people. Drought usually claims the lives of hundreds of people every year. The area is now in its third straight year of drought, with nearly 200 deaths since January 2016. Many of the victims are children.

One such child is Jamna: the 18-month-old baby who developed seizures at home, followed by a severe cough and is becoming weaker day by day. Her grandmother said that she was rushed to the district headquarters hospital at Mithi, where the doctors diagnosed her with severe acute malnutrition. Jamna’s grandmother lives with her 11 family members in a hut in the village of Moduro, some 130 kilometres from the Pakistan-India border in Tharpakar.

Jamna represents thousands of children in the country who are running short of food. A study conducted by the National Nutrition Survey in 2011 revealed that 40 percent of the children in Pakistan are malnourished and 49 percent of the women are iron-deficient. There is little doubt that the child of a malnourished, breast-feeding mother would have a low birth-weight and suffer from various inborn diseases, such as mental and physical disabilities and Down’s syndrome.

The drought in Tharparkar has magnified these problems, which are further exacerbated by the fact that only 38 percent of the people across the country have been fully immunised against serious diseases. The high rate of malnourishment coupled with low immunisation rates and ignorance proves more dangerous when mixed with poverty. Forty percent of the people are living below the poverty line, with incomes of less than two dollars a day.

According to doctors, malnutrition was found to be the most common cause of death in the region. Medical experts say that lack of safe drinking water and poor diet coupled with poverty, low hygiene standards and ignorance contribute to the problem.

World Health Organization standards stipulate that patients suffering from malnutrition need ready-to-use therapeutic food that contains proteins, micronutrients and an immediate supply of F-75 and F-100 dry milk to address their nutritional deficiencies.

Jamna’s uncle Rai Chand, who tends to the ailing child, however, does not understand the concept of a balanced diet. “We can hardly find pulses or vegetables to eat with a piece of bread. It would be a luxury to find meat to eat at some point.”

Due to a lack of access to safe drinking water, water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera are common, along with hepatitis B and C. Furthermore, poor transportation and the lack of communication infrastructure add to the miseries of the drought-hit people. On the other hand, environmental activists unequivocally attribute the drought to climate change. Whatever the reasons, the lack of proper health facilities is obviously one of the major factors responsible for the high death toll.

A paediatrician at the Mithi hospital says that the ill-equipped and poorly staffed health facilities would hardly leave them in a good position to cope with this emergency situation. With a limited number of beds at the Nutrition Stabilisation Centre, the medical staff find it difficult to cater to the needs of patients coming in from the whole district.

The data available at the hospital reveals that the patients are between four days and 12 years of age. The majority of the new-born babies lying in the incubators suffer from birth asphyxia and respiratory issues and a good number of them are delivered prematurely.

The area is hit by drought almost every year but little heed is paid to the issue, which speaks to the government’s lack of preparedness. The doctors have a long list of equipment that they urgently need in the hospital: a trauma centre, a blood transfusion centre, a pathological laboratory, an ENT specialist, a cardiac surgeon and some sophisticated incubators to provide the patients with proper medication and the facilities they need.

The available water, which is saline and can only be accessed through deep wells, often causes abdominal pains. Crops are grown on the marginal lands. Livestock – a backbone of the drought-hit area’s rudimentary economy – has been depleted. This leaves the residents of the area with hardly any other option but to go to Karachi for their livelihood.

As Pakistan’s major commercial hub, the port city generates 70 percent of the country’s total revenue. Rai Chand is also among those who found their way to the metropolitan city, in the hopes of a better tomorrow, after the drought hits his area. Rai Chand goes to a nearby market to earn his bread in the daytime and stays at the rail track under the cantonment bridge overnight – free of cost.

More than 25,000 such families live under the city’s various overpasses, exposed to the scorching heat of summer and the freezing winter, according to data obtained from the Karachi-based Rural Resource Centre (RRC).

Karachi, the world’s second largest city with a population of 22 million people, endured a severe heatwave last summer when temperatures in the metropolis soared to a record high of 46 degrees Celsius, officially claiming 1,256 lives. Data collected from the hospitals indicates that the majority of the dead included daily wagers, drug addicts, beggars, nomads and those who came to the city to earn their livelihood.

The children of Thar are waiting for a messiah. They are calling to us for help but their voices can hardly pass through the vast deserts of Thar to reach the high rise buildings of Islamabad and Karachi. Can we afford to just watch these dying souls as they ask for our help?

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