The Thar Desert, a unique wonder of the world, located in the northwestern part of the Indian Subcontinent, is the only desert in the world that is fertile, making it a land with immense untapped potential.
Unfortunately, harsh weather conditions pose a significant threat to the habitability of the region. The extreme tropical desert climate means that winter temperatures approach freezing while summer temperatures soar over 50°C.
Water Sources in the Region
The region’s unforgiving weather conditions are further intensified by infrequent rainfall, inflicting hardship and adversity on the land and its inhabitants alike.
From July to September, the southwest monsoon season takes place. With only 100–500 mm (4–20 in.) of rain per year, most of it falling in erratic and unpredictable bursts, the population only receives enough water to last another three months.
Due to inadequate and erratic rain patterns, the Thar Desert is a drought-prone region. The limited rainfall in the region has created a distinct lack of water for human, agricultural, and livestock needs.
Other sources are pond water, stored rainwater, small natural tanks, and wells.
Women are typically responsible for walking around 4-5 kilometers daily in the sweltering heat, carrying water pitchers, and filling them with water from any of these sources.
Since November 2016, arche noVa has been working on a project to promote health in the Thar Desert.
Their local health promoter Meena Kumari had this to say about Thari women and their efforts to collect water:
“Since I started working on this project, I realized how difficult life in the desert really is, especially for women… I see women carrying heavy buckets and pots full of water everywhere. Sometimes they need half a day just to find enough water for their families.”
Effect of Unhygienic Water on Inhabitants
The water sources mentioned above are equally inefficient as the rainfall itself.
That’s because groundwater levels are as deep as 200 feet, going even more profound when there is no rainfall. Hence, it takes at least five to six women to pull a single bucket of water from a well.
Furthermore, groundwater and pond water are mainly contaminated, saline, and untreated. Almost 2,000 children under the age of five have died in Tharparkar District since 2011 due to water-borne diseases.
The continued use of groundwater has also caused fluorosis among people.
Fluorosis, a disease caused by high fluoride intake, has become an epidemic in Thar, leading to dental fluorosis, joint deformations, and thyroid and kidney problems.
Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation has also compromised the health conditions of the affected households.
Effect of Unhygienic Water on Livestock
A rapid need assessment conducted by Sindh Rural Partners Organization (SRPO) disclosed that the livestock in the Thar Desert face malnutrition and death. There are over 7 million of them.
The mortality rate among animals is nine percent in goats, thirteen percent in sheep, and five percent in cows and camels. This indicated that animal deaths are linked to fodder shortages and contaminated water.
That’s because the Thari people and their livestock use the same water sources for drinking. Doing so produces waterborne diseases that spread quickly among people and animals.
Why is the Water Crisis Not Being Fixed?
The political economy of water has mainly contributed to the current state of water distribution. The feudal system has resulted in landlords taking control of the irrigation department and manipulating existing laws to divert more water toward their land.
Moreover, a lack of implementation of welfare schemes has not only made the water crisis worse but also damaged the trust of the Thari people.
Several governments have announced schemes to improve the life of the Thari people, but no tangible projects have ever materialized.
One example is the Sindh government’s proposed $33 million project in 2015, under which 750 reverse osmosis (RO) water purification plants were to be installed in Tharparkar.
Unfortunately, years later, barely 400 RO plants exist. Of them, at least 70% are dysfunctional, and the locals are forced to spend around five to six hours daily to get a few pots of unclean water.
Solutions For the Water Crisis
In the absence of surface water infrastructure, the most practical solution to the water crisis in the Thar Desert is the construction of canals.
That has already been implemented in the Thar Desert falling within Rajasthan.
Water is provided to its inhabitants via the 650-kilometer Indira Gandhi Canal, which begins in the Indian state of Punjab and ends in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.
Experts say that the same can be done in Tharparkar, the region of the Thar Desert falling in Pakistan. A canal can be constructed from district Umerkot to Islamkot to address the plight of the Thari people.
Bakhshal Khan Lashari, project director at the US-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology in Jamshoro, claims that:
“There is no technical issue in providing canal water to Thar. It becomes a point of attraction for tourists when it turns green after rains and the rain-fed agriculture carried out by poor locals every year suggests that the soil has the potential for agricultural production.”
Alongside the construction of canals, local governments should also make long-term and short-term plans for curtailing the water crisis by introducing new dams and reservoirs.
Suppose the water scarcity situation wasn’t already bad enough. In that case, it is said to worsen in the upcoming years due to climate change.
In addition, the Thar Desert contains one of the largest untapped coal deposits. Locals are afraid that the groundwater level will drop even further after the extraction of vast amounts of groundwater for coal excavation.
That means it is high time for local governments to collaborate with the Thari people and begin constructing the canal, which they have been demanding for years.
Despite the political and geological challenges the canal construction may face, it is necessary to go through with it as the future of all Thari people depends on clean drinking water.