The case of Thar

March 22, 2015

Installation of RO plants in Thar offers an interesting story of running water purifiers on solar energy

The case of Thar

Wearing a colourful traditional dress, white bangles, and silver jewellery, Jamni, 55, and her two daughters can be seen fetching water from a 300-feet deep well on the outskirts of village Morry-ji-Wandh in the Thar desert.

Situated 15 kilometres from Mithi, district headquarters of Tharparkar district of Sindh, the village depends on this well for drinking water for around 100 households. There is another well about one kilometre from this one but its water is brackish.

"The water level has already gone down, making it more difficult for us to fetch it," says Jamni, mother of seven. "It takes us about three hours daily to bring drinking water for my family."

Understandably, water is a precious commodity in Thar. According to some reports and experts, over 70 per cent of underground water in the Thar desert is brackish. So, less than 30 per cent of ground water is fit for human consumption and wells are a major source of water for a majority of people living in some 2500 villages in this desert.

The population of Thar is about 1.6 million. There are 7 million livestock. The two wells are used not only for domestic consumption but also for agriculture and livestock. The other main source of water is rains. "Rainwater tastes many times better than the underground water," says Jamni.

The desert receives between 260 to 280 mm of rainfall annually, according to a study by the Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR), a government body. The majority of residents of the desert use rainwater but because of inadequate storage and rainwater harvesting facilities, more than 95 per cent of the water is lost under sand dunes or evaporates in the summer heat.

The council’s study found that the water shortage problem in Thar for drinking purpose can be addressed by scaling up rainwater harvesting to 0.25 percent of the annual rainfall. At present, hardly 0.06 per cent of the overall annual rain water is harvested.

Jamni’s village was selected as site for a pilot project by Sukaar Foundation in 2009 to construct a large covered communal rainwater harvesting pond with a capacity of one million litres storage capacity. Sukaar is a Thar-based NGO working on rainwater harvesting and to help families building individual rainwater harvesting facilities with 50,000 litres capacity near their homes.

"We have an infrastructure of water pipelines in Thar which carries water from the river Indus to different parts of the desert. We can extend that infrastructure to the whole desert," says Dr Sono Khangrani, head of the Hisaar Foundation.

"We have built a large covered pond and 70 small facilities in the village with technical and financial support from WaterAid-UK’s Pakistan chapter," says Mukesh Raja of Sukaar Foundation. "We lay a geo-membrane sheet under the floor of these (ponds) to check seepage, and cover them with roofs that help check evaporation of stored rainwater during the sizzling summer days. We have installed bio-sand filters and hand pumps at the storage ponds through pipes. Women can fill their pitchers with water without any difficulty. The total cost of this project is Rs 2.0 million," he says.

During the last six months, more than 450 infants died in Thar due to malnutrition and water-born diseases. "Not even a single case has been reported from this village," he adds.

The small intervention has brought a big change to the lives of the villagers for the first two years but then there were not enough rains. "The ponds were filled completely in 2010 and 2011 as there were enough rains. We used this stored water for eight months but then there were not enough rains during the last two years. In the last monsoon season, the pond was filled to half of its capacity and it lasted only for three months," informs Kaja Ram, 33, father of seven children. "We either need more storage ponds or more rains to solve the problem of drinking water," he says.

On the other side of Mithi village in Kharo Dangro, locals have been enjoying an intervention of the government, which aims to providing them sweet drinking water. This is among the first batch of villages to get Reverse Osmosis (RO), a process which removes impurities from water by filtration, using membrane technology plants.

The plant has the capacity to purify 10,000 gallons of water per day and runs on solar energy. The village comprising 230 households was given its name Kharo (saline) because of its underground brackish water. The purified water is stored in a small storage facility from where women fill their water pots through taps.

"I can fill a pot of 30 litres only in a few minutes. It used to take hours to go to the well of sweet water situated three kilometers from our village," says Jamali, 60, a resident of the village. "You will not find even a single overweight woman in Thar. It is mainly because they fetch water from deep wells in harsh weather conditions. Women would fall unconscious on their way to these wells. Only the newlyweds and pregnant women are given break from this activity," she says.

During summers temperature hovers around 48 to 50 degree Celsius in Thar while water table reaches over 200 feet below the ground. "RO plant is a blessing for us. They have also built a facility for livestock near the plant," she adds.

There are some who point out problems. "This RO plant cannot cater water needs of the whole village. A part of the village still gets saline water from a nearby tube well," says a resident who does not want to be named.

The Sindh government launched the Rs5.0 billion project last year to build 10,000 RO plants in Tharparkar districts. The government claims to have established Asia’s largest solar-powered RO plants in Mithi, with a capacity of 2million gallons per day. Another project of 1.5 million gallons per day is under construction in Islamkot, the second largest city in the district.

"Thar is no longer depending on rain. We are utilising the 1.5 billion acre feet of underground water and the sun for solar energy," says Senator Taj Haider, general secretary of PPP Sindh chapter, who has been overseeing the RO Plants projects. "RO plants have been changing lives of people in Thar. The area will soon be at par with the rest of the country. Drought will become a phenomenon of the past."

Experts in Thar do not agree fully with Haider’s argument. "It is true that some people have been getting immediate benefit from RO plants but they are no answer to drought mitigation," says Dr Sono Khangrani, head of the Hisaar Foundation, an NGO working on water, food, and livelihood issues.

"We need to have sustainable solutions. Every year or two, the membranes in RO plants would have to be changed. This is an expensive process. As long as plants are new they would remain operational but when they depreciate, the community will be unable to handle it," he argues.

"The best solution will be to build a canal for Thar. We have an infrastructure of water pipelines in Thar which carries water from the river Indus to different parts of the desert. With the half of the money being spent of RO plants, we can extend that infrastructure to the whole desert," he says.

RO plants release at least 30 per cent of highly saline water, which is not disposed of properly. "This water would create environmental problems for agriculture in the area. A proper study of Thar’s groundwater resources needs to be done to show the actual quantum of reserves and its source of recharge."

The case of Thar