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July 22, 2017

Rain showers Tharis with food security

HYDERABAD: The current rain spells have changed the landscape of Thar Desert, filling natural water ponds and recharging underground water in the entire Tharparkar and parts of Umerkot districts.

People expect several wild fruits and vegetables to bloom in the coming weeks, which would improve food security in the Tharparkar district. Mushrooms and other wild leafy vegetables have already started flooding the local markets, creating hope for the people, who were in need of rich nutrient food at their doorsteps.

Muhammad Siddiq, leading Rural Development Association (DRA), said, “These vegetables and fruits will benefit the desert people, mainly children and small babies, who presently need proper diet.”

He said many vegetables and fruits are expected to arrive in the markets within a few days, which would be easily accessible for all the people. Siddiq said round gourd (tinda) would arrive in the market after 20 days, melon family fruits in 30-days while green watermelon, mostly cooked as a vegetable, would be brought to the local bazaars in 45-days.

He works in the fields of water management and indigenous tree plantation, and also motivates the local communities to establish kitchen gardens in the desert villages. Siddiq has knowledge about the traditional practices in the desert, especially regarding pre and post rain harvest.

“Rain is a blessing for the desert people after a long dry spell which depleted plants and trees, and degraded the water sources of the region,” he said.

Thar Desert has experienced the worst situation for two consecutive years in terms of food security, unsafe water sources, malnutrition among children, and frequent reports of deaths of newborn babies in scattered areas. Doctors attributed these deaths of babies to the poor diet of mothers.

“After prolonged dryness, fear of shrinking water sources and drought-like situation, these rains have created hope for families, who can live safely,” Siddiq added.

Information gathered from different areas revealed that for now grasses were at a growing stage on sand dunes and plains. It was only benefitting small animals, goats, and sheep. Herders expect more grasses to grow in the following days, which would benefit all animals.

Local mushroom varieties, known for their delicious flavour, have flooded the local urban markets. However, due to lack of preservation technology and poor storage and processing mechanism, this well-known edible item has a very short shelf life, and large quantities often go to waste.

About the traditional process of fodder stocking for winter, local community elders said it depended on the rains. If the desert received five-seven showers within a few days, it would benefit farmers, who would be able to cultivate their lands to grow all the traditional crops and also grasses for livestock rearing.

Traditionally, people collected fodder after the rainy season ended and kept it in stock for using during winters. Currently, the grass stocks would be enough for the next three months. However, to make the stocks last till winter, the region should receive more heavy rains as per the communities, so they could have access to sufficient food and fodder.

The desert communities mostly depend on rain-fed farming and livestock rearing. Thar has around six million livestock population. They call this timely rain a blessing and believe it would benefit all the people, water sources, lands, and livestock. Umerkot livestock deputy director Dr Ganesh Kumar Khatri in his updates warned herders to be careful, and said it was common for small and weak animals to fall prey to certain viral infections during this season. Apart from viral infections, eating harmful and alien grasses or drinking stagnant water could also cause problems for animals.

“We have taken precautionary measures to avoid any spread of viral infections in animals. For this we have vaccinated 63,000 animals through mobile vaccination teams since July 4, 2017 and the process is ongoing,” Khatri said.

He appealed to herders to cooperate with veterinary teams coming to different villages for the purpose to avoid any problem.  Similarly, the livestock department in Mithi, Tharparkar district has also taken precautionary measures to vaccinate animals through mobile teamsof veterinary officials to avoid any uncertainty.

Elderly herders recalled the effects of alien flowering plant, locally called vaker grass (indigofera cordifolia), on animals who fell ill after eating it. Vaker usually grows in fertile deserts during the rainy season. Its green colour attracts animals, and thus herders sometimes pay a heavy price for grass-related ailments.

The rain is a blessing for the people living in the Thar Desert, but some influential people illegally occupy government land for cultivation, depriving the herders of the natural meadows that spring out of the fertile sand following rains.

The government allots this land, legally called ‘gauchar’, for grazing animals. Each village reportedly leaves 100 to 300 acre land aside for local livestock rearing, which they use collectively. But now certain influential people were encroaching upon these grazing fields to use for cultivation. Unfortunately, the cries of environmentalists, civil society, and the communities about the disappearing grazing fields were going unheard and government officials were neglecting to take action against the illegal encroachments.

Activists have accused the government officials of adopting leniency and not taking action against the politically-backed people, who were taking law in their hands by cultivating state lands, officially declared as gauchars. The community people plead that natural grazing fields have environmental importance, which besides attracting livestock also were considered natural habitats for several endangered wildlife species. Many wildlife species reportedly have lost their habitats in all the areas of Sindh and were now taking shelter only in the desert zone.