By Saleem Shaikh
THE Tharparkar district receives on an average 100mm rain every year, which should be sufficient for its drinking and agriculture purposes. But much of it goes waste due to lack of rainwater harvesting and poor water conservation facilities.
During August last year heavy rains in the Thar Desert recharged parched shallow wells, raised water table in deep wells and filled household cisterns. But, after four months, the Tharis were without sufficient water even for drinking, and many had to walk miles to fetch water. Herdsmen had to take their livestock to barrage areas to avoid mortality among them due to water shortage.
“When it rained heavily, it turned our dusty and arid villages in the district into an oasis with lush green foliage and plenty of water to drink and take bath. It also turned our dried-up rangeland into green meadows and pastures for our cattle. But the accumulated rainwater evaporated within a few months and we had to walk for 4-5 miles thrice a week to fetch water from deep wells. Water of such wells is brackish, contaminated and injurious to both humans` and animals` health,” said Ali Akbar Rahimo of the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy in Nagarparkar.
Thar normally experiences drought every third year and famine after each decade, triggering mass migration of peasants to irrigated areas in lower and central Sindh in search of fodder, labour and water. A large number of cattle also die during such arduous journeys.
According to a study of the Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR), the entire Thar Desert receives around one trillion litres of rain annually “ sufficient, if stored, for three years to meet domestic water needs of the Tharis and their livestock. But, more than 95 per cent of it is lost under sand dunes or evaporates in the sizzling summer due to inadequate storage and rainwater harvesting facilities.
“Even if 0.25 per cent of the rainwater is conserved or harvested, it can meet the domestic water needs of the entire human population and livestock of the area,” said water conservation experts of the PCRWR.
The councils` study found out that hardly 0.06 per cent of the overall annual rain water is harvested by Tharis in household cisterns or in other indigenous ways. However, the study suggests that the water shortage problem can be addressed by improving capacity of rainwater harvest by scaling it up from 0.06 per cent to at least 0.25 per cent of the rainfall.
The Tharparkar district, spread over nearly 22,000 square kilometers, is a chronically poor with an estimated population of 1.2-1.3 million. Of them, 95 per cent people live in and around 2,000 villages.
In a normal day, members of each household spends around 4-6 hours in fetching 4-5 pots (50-60 litters) of water from wells However during the dry season they collect water throughout the day including at nights.
However, rains in Thar invigorate socio-economic activities as people start cultivating crops, bringing back their livestock in herds from barrage areas and storing rainwater as much as possible.
Usually Tharis prepare their fields every year much before the rainy season starts by ploughing and broadcasting seeds of millet (bajhri), cluster bean (guar), sesame (tir), kidney bean (mooth), cow peas (Choonra), musk melon (gidro), water melon (hindano), squash melon (meho), wild cucumber (chibbhar), amaranths (mariro), digeria (lular) and other wild plants. The land in Thar is so fertile that once the ploughed fields receive the first shower, they turn green.
Prior to the rains, the Tharis also clean ditches and depressions locally known as Tal and Tarayoon for storing rainwater.
This water is used both for domestic and drinking purposes.
But, the accumulated rainwater in these ditches and depressions lasts only for three to four months. And for the rest of the eight months of the year, they depend on brackish water of wells, which results in health hazards among humans and livestock.
Often the outbreak of diseases among livestock deepens poverty situation in Thar manifold, as livelihood of the poor 70 per cent depends on livestock rearing.
Mukesh Suther, an Umerkot-based rainwater conservation expert, remarked that “building large ponds and laying a geo-membrane sheet under these (ponds) to stop seepage and covering them with roofs can be of great help in slowing down evaporation of stored rain water during the sizzling summer days.”
He said the government should introduce these low-cost techniques to harvest huge stocks of water, which can help meet needs of the people throughout the year rather than spending millions of rupees on schemes, which have huge recurring costs for maintenances.
Water conservation experts of PCRWR have suggested that piped roof water harvesting, hamlet level chonra pond, hamlet level nadi pond, chalho pond and dug well recharging system could help conserve huge stock of rainwater. But, introduction and promotion of such water conservation techniques was not possible without one time investment by the government.
A senior official in the water section of the Sindh Planning and Development (P&D) Department said: “Although no initiative for rainwater harvesting in Thar has ever been launched by the provincial government, multi-million rupees schemes for tapping rainwater in the desert area are now under consideration of the department`s planners.
There is possibility that such schemes may be included in the next year`s Annual Development Programme (ADP).”