Hope for Thar

14 off-grid villages in the Thar desert are benefiting from an innovative solar-powered mobile water purification plant

Sawai Kohli is located 33 kilometres away from Chachro in Thar district. It is a village inhabited by 103 families of the Kolhi tribe. Twice a week the villagers get water from a mobile reverse osmosis plant.

“We are happy. We have been healthier since we started drinking water from the mobile RO plant that comes to our doorsteps every week. It is a miracle for us,” says 47-year-old Bharmi Kolhi.

In May 2016, the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE) – a local humanitarian organisation initiated a project to install solar-powered submersible pumps in 14 off-grid villages of two union councils, Charnore and Heerar, of Chachro tehsil in collaboration with a German organisation, Terre des Hommes Deutschland. Soon after installing the pumps, they realised that the water was not up to the WHO’s guidelines for drinking water quality.

Ali Akbar Rahimoon, the AWARE executive director, overseeing the implementation phase of the project, says, “When the team collected water samples we were providing to the villagers and got them tested in a laboratory, we were shocked. The total dissolved solids were more than 2,000 mg/litre, and the pH level was above 8.5. After consultation with the donor agency, it was agreed that we should provide them with a mobile RO plant.”

Thar is among Pakistan’s most water-scarce areas. Life in this land of the missing river depends on rainwater and groundwater because there is no river or canal. A water supply line that previously served Mithi has been stretched to Islamkot to fulfill the water needs of coalfields at Thar Coal Project.

Pervaiz Amir, a climate change scientist, tells TNS, “the government should be proactive and ensure equitable use of resources. The investment in coalfields will fail to deliver optimm benefits if water issues are not solved. The Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan is a good example of inclusive development. The government should move ahead with its Thar canal project.”

The desert people have been consuming brackish water for centuries They have dug wells, often 300-400 feet deep and use handmade water storage tanks. In some places they rely on natural rainwater storage ponds called tarai in Sindhi. These can provide water for a few months after the rains. When it does not raining in Thar, there is no water.

The Sindh government has provided 750 RO plants in Thar. Sadly, 80 percent of these are dysfunctional. Many have been shut down for over a year. Some of the operators hire for these plants have been on strike over unpaid wages.

Chachro is the most water-scarce tehsil tehsil in Tharparkar.

Atta Muhammad Rind, a geologist from Thar, says all development projects to be implemented in Thar should be designed keeping in mind the environmental constraints. He says, “in many villages in Chachro and Islamkot the TDS level is between 10,000 and 20,000 mg/l. People are forced to use the water because they have no other option. The mobile RO plant is a good initiative but a canal is the only sustainable solution.”

The original idea was to provide separate RO plants in all 14 villages. However, the organisation did not have enough funds for such a project.

Engr Attaullah Bajeer, the technical officer, told TNS, “We made a rough cost estimation. Separate RO plants for each of the targeted villages would cost around Rs 3 million per village. We abandoned the idea as we did not have enough funds for that.”

“To provide filtered water to all 14 villages, we purchased a kekra truck, and mounted an RO plant on it. Initially, it was run on a generator. Later we realised that the under-resourced communities might not be able afford the fuel cost for the generator so we installed a solar system. It cost Rs 4.5 million. We also came up with a monthly schedule of visit to all villages. We set up a station where the mobile plant is parked daily after providing water to the targeted villages.“

There are five distinct routes for the vehicle. Every day it takes a separate route.

Today, the communities benefiting from the project look after the mobile RO Plant as AWARE handed over that facility to them upon completing the project in April 2019.

Every family living in these villages contributes Rs 100 a month to the RO plant fund. The money is used to pay salaries to the driver and the operator of the mobile RO plant and for its maintenance and fuel.

“Nobody outside Thar can fully appreciate the importance of water has in our thirsty lives. When this facility was not available, our women used to fetch water from wells several kilometres away under the sweltering sun. We had to wander miles in the desert for as much as five litres of brackish water. It’s a matter of Rs 100 now, but if we were asked to contribute Rs 1,000 every month for this service, we would have agreed,” says Heman Kolhi, a beneficiary of the project.

There has been a significant decline in the number of patients visiting the Civil Hospital in Chachro and the government dispensary in Sarangyar, the two public helth facilities in the tehsil.

Dr Nathu Singh, a medical officer at the government dispensary in Sarangyar for the last five years, told TNS, “There has been a sharp decline in the number of patients from the villages you have mentioned since 2018. Before the inception of the AWARE project, there had been crowds who used to visit this unit regularly.”

According to the patient register at the dispensary, 76 patients from the villages visited the health facility complaining of waterborne diseases - diarrhoea, gastro or dysentery – between January 2018 and March 2021. Between 2015 and 2018, the number was 594.

Julien Harneis, the United Nations Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan, visited the unit last year and praised the initiative taken by the AWARE. “The government should take a leaf out of AWARE’s book and try to bring in sustainable projects for the welfare of Thari people,” he said.

The writer works in Mithi and writes about the province’s social and   environmental issues. He can be reached at abbaskhaskheli110 @gmail.com

Hope for Thar