CHUNIAN - on the right bank of River Chenab in the middle of Thal Desert exists the small village of Khew in Tehsil Mankera of District Bhakkar. During British rule the village gained prominence due to establishment of a primary school which occurred with the specific objective to provide basic education to Sikh youth for their recruitment in the Indian Army. The area gradually lost its privileged status after Sikhs left the village in 1947.

The village could not make further progress either in the field of education and other socio-economic parameters due to looming poverty and increasing desertification. The sand dunes of Thal desert give the look of a Scottish Moore from November to March while the gram crop is reaching maturity. The trouble starts once the soil gets exposed and sand storms reach to a depressing level that makes the life of the community miserable.

This was told by Dr Raja Omer, Provincial Project Coordinator, Sustainable Land Management Project, Planning and Development Department during an exclusive chat with The Nation.

He said that the first formal recognition of desertification issue was highlighted soon after the famine in Ethiopia during 1992 Rio Earth Summit held under the auspices of the UNEP. Consequently, the UN convention to combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted in Paris on June 17, 1994 and came into force on December 26, 1996. About 193 countries and the EU are the signatories to the convention till January 2012. He explained that Pakistan ratified the convention in 1996 and became part of the 193 countries that commemorate the World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD) on June 17, each year," he explained. He stated that the government prepared a plan on desertification in 2002 to control desertification by involving local communities and also constituted a National Cell to combat desertification.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Climate Change took an initiative in 2008 to launch first project of its kind on Sustainable Land Management Programme to Combat Desertification in Pakistan (SLMP) extending over a period of almost ten years. During the pilot phase of SLMP, the MoCC-UNDP and Global Environment Facility (GEF) with the support of provincial Planning and Development Department, different Departments concerned and NGOs worked with hundreds of icons like Master Akhtar to find viable solutions to neutralize land degradation and desertification process. He said that a community organisation was formed by Master Akhtar for Khew village and improvised a six horse power peter engine with the support of on farm water management experts to plant woodlots of Frash trees over small chunks of ten acres. The woodlots not only protect 'patti' (land between two dunes) for productive agriculture but also stabilize the dunes to prevent sandstorms. Dr Raja Omer emphasized the need for involvement of private sector in providing quality seed through public-private partnership. He elaborated that the Pakistan Meteorological Department also considered strengthening Drought Early Warning system to inform inhabitants of far-flung desert areas about the imminent dangers of famine that might affect their lives in future.

He pointed out that practical steps taken by the government to combat the menace of desertification would promote a culture of supporting people living in deserts and is in line with the global commitment to neutralize the land degradation process for improving the livelihood of a vulnerable community.