The Thar Desert, the world’s 18th largest desert, is an arid region in the Northwestern Indian Subcontinent that spans over 200,000 square kilometers in India and Pakistan.
It lies west of the Indian States of Gujarat and Rajasthan, extending across the Rann of Kutch to the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan, Mir Pur Khas, and Badin. That means it expands over TWO countries – India and Pakistan! It’s so big that people often cross borders and enter their neighboring country without realizing it.
Tharparkar District is the largest of the 29 districts of the Sindh Province of Pakistan, with an area of 19,637 square kilometers.
It also has the highest population density of any desert in the world, at 80 people per square kilometer, and the largest Hindu population in Pakistan.
History and Settlements
The Thar Desert is unique because it is believed to be the only fertile desert in the world! That means that, despite being a desert, the Thar Desert is capable of producing crops or vegetation in abundance. Deserts normally receive little to no rain. However, the Thar Desert receives a minimum of 100mm of rainfall annually which is significantly more than what most deserts receive.
Historically, a tributary of the Indus River was said to flow through the region.
This water availability led to the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, being located here. However, between 2000 and 1500 BC, the region became desertified, resulting in the abandonment of the settlement.
The inhabitants of the ecoregion today are forced to live a nomadic lifestyle, with most of the permanent human settlements located near the two seasonal streams of the Karon-Jhar Hills.
Water Sources in the Region
The southwest monsoon season often begins in July and lasts until September. It is limited to 100–500 mm, mostly falling in unpredictable and erratic spells.
The limited rainfall in the region has created a distinct lack of water for human, agricultural, and livestock needs. Due to this, inhabitants can benefit from the fertility of the land only when it rains.
An example is Khaku, a villager from Dhorio who was thankful for the extraordinary amount of rainfall his village received in 2019. In order to work for the next three months until the harvest in the final week of November, he had invested Rs 20,000 (USD 75) in his land.
The pond water is the primary source of drinking water for people and animals alike, which unfortunately gets contaminated.
Almost 2,000 children under the age of five have died in Tharparkar District since 2011 due to water-borne diseases.
Wells are another less efficient source of water in the area. That’s because groundwater levels are as deep as 200 feet, going even more profound when there is no rainfall.
Climate and Topography of the Region
The lack of water in the region is coupled with an extreme tropical desert climate.
The hottest months of summer are April, May, and June, when temperatures soar over 50 °C. The coldest months of winter are December, January, and February; winter temperatures are typically near freezing.
The region’s topography shows dunes covering about a tenth of the region. The rest is craggy rock formations and compacted salt-lake bottoms.
Flora and Fauna in the Region
Despite unfavorable circumstances, the Thar Desert continues to prove that its land is fertile and hospitable.
There are 141 bird species inhabiting the region, including the great Indian bustard, and over 40 mammal species, most of which have evolved and adapted to survive in extreme conditions.
These species include large antelopes like the blue bull, black bull, and Indian gazelle, and smaller species like the antelope rat.
They also range from carnivores such as the gray mongoose, the aggressive rattlesnake, and the caracal to livestock like camels, sheep, and goats kept by the inhabitants for farming purposes.
The region’s sparse, scrubby vegetation results from the region’s extreme climate and geological conditions. Because of the dry climate and lack of moisture, it is home to xerophilous plants such as Acacia, Prosopis, Tamarix, and Zizyphus trees, which are all adapted to dry conditions.
Income Sources of Inhabitants
Since livestock and cattle farming are the primary sources of income for inhabitants of the Thar Desert, grazing by livestock is intensive.
On the other hand, grazing by livestock does result in poorer soil fertility and affects native vegetation negatively. It also contributes to soil erosion, which degrades and destroys the Thar Desert ecosystem.
Agricultural production, mainly from Kharif crops, is another source of income. These are grown in the summer and include bajra and pulses such as guar, jowar, sesame, and groundnuts.
The Impact of Climate Change on the Thar Desert
Unfortunately, the extreme living conditions of the Thar Desert have intensified due to climate change. Pakistan, as a whole, is among the nations suffering at the hands of global warming due to the pollution caused by first-world countries.
That has resulted in temperatures reaching new extremes, severe droughts, and even less rainfall in the Thar Desert.
It is predicted that the increased demand for water due to global warming will reduce the scarce water and feed resources of the Thar region to alarming levels.
In 2019, youth activist Aakash Hamirani stated:
“Due to climate change, there has been a delay in the monsoon, the desert received the first spell of rain almost a month late, and that may badly affect the harvest.”
Climate change will be a significant driver of biodiversity in the Thar region, with changing life cycles, loss, migration, and invasion of new habitats.
Protected Areas of the Thar Desert
Nevertheless, the Thar Desert has extensive protected areas in India and Pakistan where adequate management and protection are administered to conserve the region’s biodiversity.
The Desert National Park in Rajasthan, India, represents the Thar Desert ecosystem with its diverse fauna.
The Nara Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Pakistan contains the largest population of the endangered mugger crocodile.
At the same time, the Lal Suhanra Biosphere Reserve and National Park is a UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve.
Furthermore, the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary is an Important Bird Area located in the Churu District of India.
The Rann of Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary in Pakistan is another Important Bird Area and Ramsar Site.
All in all, the Thar Desert is a land enriched with fertile soil, diverse fauna, and flora. It has the potential to be a region capable of providing shelter and livelihood to many, as well as producing revenue for the nations of India and Pakistan.
Due to its harsh living conditions, the region’s potential is challenged.
However, with proper climate control and conservation measures in place and increased efforts to extend them, anything is possible.
The governments of India and Pakistan can transform facilities such as water and gas, turning the arid desert land of Thar into a flourishing and hospitable ecoregion.