Deaths of nearly 200 people, most of them children and women, in Thar desert of Pakistan in last four months show that the underdeveloped region is once again in the grip of a humanitarian crisis.

The largest desert of Pakistan is located in the south-east. Its population is nearly 1.2 million, with the lowest Human Development Index in Sindh province.

It has been confronting harsh drought conditions in recent years. Masses rely on rain-fed agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods. Consistent droughts have hit a severe blow to both the agriculture and livestock, resulting in famine. This has lead to seasonal mass migration of local residents to other parts of Sindh where they are forced to work in inhuman conditions and are poorly paid.

Thar faces scarcity of water in underground wells and natural reservoirs in the wake of below average rainfall. Women who usually are responsibile for fetching drinking water have to travel 3-4 kilometers to get it from underground wells. The water is saline and is contaminated with excessive fluoride which causes dental and skeletal diseases. Severe water shortage has resulted in deaths of thousands of animals and birds.

Literacy rate in Thar is below 17 per cent, according to a representative of Alf Ailan, an organization working on education in Pakistan. And the female literacy rate is mere 7 per cent. Cultural constraints, extreme poverty and lack of basic educational facilities such as teachers, toilets, furniture etc are the factors contributing to extreme illiteracy. People are not aware even of their basic rights. Ancient traditions like marriage in early age and treatment of a disease from apothecary are rampant.

When women do difficult physical work under the scorching sun from dawn to dust and do not get enough calories in diet to meet body needs, they are certainly to suffer from mental and health problems. Their miseries worsen when they are married in young age and become reproductive tools. During pregnancy there is no concept of medical check-up due to sheer ignorance and unavailability of medical facilities. In the end physically weak working women give births to weak babies. Sometimes birth cases attended by unskilled midwives lead to complications, resulting in death of newborns and/or their mothers

Apart from district headquarter of Tharparker, Mithi, a small city, most villages in Thar do not have doctors. Nurses, health technicians and other paramedic staff have illegally assumed the responsibility of health specialists Only a small number of villages have Basic Health Units. Many of them are non-functional.

In case of emergency and serious illness patients are taken to cities like Mithi and Umerkot. However, lack of transportation and absence of roads make it difficult to reach on time. Many patients succumb to illness or emergency on the way. The city hospitals are overcrowded and have no good specialists.

Provincial government and some local NGOs have taken some measures to provide relief to the drought-hit region. Teams of doctors have been visiting to provide much needed healthcare assistance. Wheat, rice, mineral water bottles and biscuits have been distributed. However, the relief measures are slow and insufficient. The relief agencies continue their operations as long as Thar crisis remain in the headlines of national media. Once the attention wanes, everyone turns a blind eye to the issue.

Establishment of dairy industry and meat production units will create new economic opportunities in the area. Modern ways of farming to yield more crops must be taught to local farmers by imparting vocational training. These steps will bring a great positive change in the lives of local inhabitants, and will resolve the Thar issue permanently.

DEEDAR HUSSAIN SAMEJO, Sindh, March 8.