Nearly 121 have died during a drought in Tharparkar in three months, according to the Mithi taluka hospital. While the Sindh government has only confirmed roughly half that number of fatalities, 32 children died in the month of February alone in the area, due to malnutrition. The district has four other talukas, with over 2,000 villages spread across the largest desert region in the country. The effects of drought in these areas are not properly known.
Surgeon Dr Jaur Kumar said 23 deaths had been registered at the Mithi taluka hospital, citing various causes in addition to food deficiency. According to sources, 38 children died of malnutrition in the Mithi taluka hospital in December 2013, and there were 42 deaths in January, 36 in February; there have been five deaths in March thus far. Local representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) are reluctant to share their findings and WHO’s Dr Nasrullah Thebo and Dr Nisar refused to comment on the deaths. These figures are not officially accepted and Dr Kumar, who publicly accepted that 23 deaths had been registered in February, was suspended by the chief minister for failing to cope with the situation.
The flurry among government officials and the sudden visit of chief minister Sindh Qaim Ali Shah on Thursday to take stock of the situation indicates its severity. “I came here after watching the media reports,” the CM said. “Some 60 children have died in the last two months due to pneumonia and other illnesses,” added Shah, who visited the hospital and inaugurated a subsidized wheat distribution programme.
The provincial government usually declares a state of drought in Thar by September or October when there is low rainfall during and after the monsoon season. However, with moderate to low rainfall occurring until late September last year, the government pushed the announcement forward and provision of relief was thus delayed.
Deputy Commissioner Makhdoom Aqeeluz Zaman admitted that there is a problem to contend with, but deflected responsibility from his administration, saying, “We have seen statistics in the past which show that such incidents happen during droughts.”
According to sources, local administration and health officials described the situation as ‘normal during drought’ while briefing the chief minister. “We expected that the CM would announce a special package and compensation for families whose children have died but he did not even mention how long the subsidized wheat distribution programme will continue,” an official who was at the meeting told The Express Tribune.
As many as 60,000 wheat bags, 25 kilograms each, are slated for distribution in the district. Usually this process starts in November or December and continues for at least three months until spring. Speaking with the media, the chief minister said more wheat would be supplied in case of a shortfall, but did not specify a timeframe for the distribution. Additionally, the district administration owes Rs60 million to transporters responsible for ferrying wheat across the desert region and a local activist pointed out that distribution will not commence until these dues from 2012 and previous years are cleared. “The quantity of wheat to be distributed is too little and too late,” he added. The chief minister said he has taken notice of the transporters’ complaints and said the problem would be addressed.
Locals have seen the numbers of cattle, camels and peacocks whittled down during the drought this year. The chief minister has suspended local livestock officials for their failure to control the situation. Additionally, to the chagrin of the Tharis, Shah has also imposed a ban on the sale of cattle from Thar to other districts for a period of 15 days in view of the deteriorating health of the animals.
Additionally, Pakistan Peoples Party Patron-In-Chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has directed the Sindh government to launch relief operations in the Thar desert immediately and called for a Special Relief Committee to monitor the situation. Speaking with his Advisor on Minority Affairs Surendar Valasai, who belongs to Thar, he expressed his concern over the deaths of 32 children and said he will take the issue up with Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2014.