Print edition : April 14, 2001

Four years of failed rains and mindless extraction of water lead to severe drought and water scarcity in the Pakistani province of Balochistan - part of a pattern visible in large parts of Central Asia and extending up to northern India.

Text and pictures: PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

DEEP in the heart of the Dasht valley in Mastung district of the province of Balochistan, is an area known as Zardin. A couple of hours' drive from the provincial capital of Quetta, everything here - trees, fertile fields, entire villages and the rugged hills - are clothed in an endless brown. The land is dry and one gets a strange feeling of emptiness as the vehicle drives past settlement after abandoned human settlement. "If there had been some water," remarks Aftab Aziz who worked on a recent study to assess the impact of the drought here, "the fields would be green and the entire valley would have been bustling with human activity."

A village near Zardin in Mastung district. Abandoned human settlements are a feature of this dry and barren region.-

But, almost as if from the middle of nowhere, one comes across two water sources that hold some promise. The one that immediately catches attention is a small pond where the constant breeze creates unceasing ripples on the water surface that is as brown as the landscape around. "It may not be fit even for cattle to drink," says Usman Qazi, who coordinated the study on the impact of the drought. The other is a well and is the last hope for drinking water to the few people who continue to stay on.

The nearest human habitation is at least a couple of kilometres away and is just about visible from this flat brown landscape. But today it is nearly empty. Most of it was abandoned many months ago, but some families are staying put. In the distance one can also see the fluttering gowns and receding figures of a small group of women who have just visited this water source. However, with the water now available only at an estimated depth of 75 metres, and the level falling fast, the future does not look too good.

This is the scene in much of Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan. With a total area of 347,000 sq km, the province covers 44 per cent of the land mass of the country but has only about 5 per cent (6.5 million according to 1998 figures) of its total population. Large parts of the province are dry and arid and face a chronic shortage of water. The elevation of the province ranges from very low (almost sea level) in the extreme south (the Arabian Sea) to the lofty mountains of the Kirthar, Sulaiman and Zarghoon ranges in the north, with heights ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 metres. The province has a coastline longer than 750 km. Mountains dominate the terrain and occupy nearly 52 per cent of the land area of the province. The major mountain ranges are valley floors while piedmont plains make up only 15 per cent of the landscape. Ecologically the province can be divided into three regions, the northern highland region, the south-western desert region and the coastal zone.

The region has seen little or no rain in the last four years. The present drought, one of the worst in living memory, has badly affected large parts of Central Asia from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the northern parts of India. Twenty-two of the 26 districts of Balochistan were declared drought affected in early 2000. The situation has only worsened since then. Tens of thousands of people here have left their homes in search of means of survival elsewhere. The few that remain, as in Zardin, will not be able to stay on much longer.

Traditionally, communities here had successfully adjusted to the harsh climatic conditions and extreme temperatures. Water shortages, droughts and seasonal migrations are a way of life here, but this latest drought has stretched the people to their very limits. Some winter rain earlier this year brought marginal relief in a few areas, but on the whole the situation is getting grimmer. A United Nations Drought Update of March 10, 2001 stated that the La-Nina phenomenon has been responsible for below normal rains in Pakistan for the last two-and-a-half years. Although it waned in December 2000, it has now reappeared. Starting April 2001, it is expected to fade gradually - for the next few months.

Rainfall in this region is scanty. In a normal year it varies from 400 mm in the northern highland region to a mere 100 mm in the desert regions to the west. Even this little precipitation has not come of late. It has been a devastating experience for a people and an economy that depends almost exclusively on agriculture and livestock rearing for survival.

In the Dasht valley. The drought has been a devastating experience for a people and an economy that depends almost exclusively on agriculture and livestock rearing.-

AGRICULTURE, comprising field crops and horticultural and vegetable produce, accounts for 42 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the province. An additional 10 per cent is contributed by livestock activities. In fact, livestock and the crop production sectors are well integrated and depend critically on rainfall. Nearly 90 per cent of the land in Balochistan is rangeland, and supports the large livestock population of the region, which according to 1996 figures numbered more than 22 million head. Most of the land is now dry and barren and incapable of supporting even a fraction of the livestock population. Balochistan province has some of the best breeds of livestock. These include sheep of the Balochi, Bibrik, Harnai and Rakshani breeds. Cattle breeds include Bhagrani and Lohani, which are well known as draught animals, and the renowned milch cow Red Sindhi, capable of thriving under harsh conditions. Goat breeds include Pahari, Kajli, Khurasani and Lehri (for fur and meat production) and Barbari and Kamori crosses (for milk). Figures released in May 2000 by the Drought Crisis Control Centre of the Government of Balochistan indicated that seven million of the total livestock had been severely affected and nearly two million had perished. More recent estimates put the figure of the affected at nearly 80 per cent, a large part of which is already dead.

The situation with regard to agriculture is probably worse. Although only 1.6 million ha (around 4 per cent) of the land area of Balochistan designated as valley plains is cultivable, it supports much of the population here. Agriculture and livestock rearing together support nearly 75 per cent of the population and provide direct and indirect employment to nearly two-thirds of its people. Approximately 65 per cent of the agricultural land here is under the dryland agriculture production system. The two prevailing systems, sailaba (floodwater) and khushaba (rainwater), are entirely at the mercy of rainfall, and have completely collapsed in the absence of any precipitation.

The more reliable and popular source of water for irrigation is groundwater, available from natural springs that originate in the limestone mountain ranges, open dug wells and man-made karezes, an ingenious system of water conservation and utilisation that has been in use in the region for centuries. However, the groundwater resources also are limited and need to be exploited sensibly.

Developments in the last couple of decades, particularly the proliferation of tubewells, have led to a drastic fall in the water table, triggering the water crisis. The tubewells resulted in the rapid growth of fruit orchards, particularly in the upland regions. While the area under grain crops and oilseeds increased by about 60 per cent from 3,18,000 ha in 1985-86 to 5,06,000 in 1995-96, the area under horticulture shot up by more than 300 per cent from 35,700 ha to 1,15,400 ha in the same period. Apple farming saw a leap, leading to what some call the rise of the 'apple economy' in the province. The reason for this is obvious. The production of orchards per unit of land fetches three to four times more than conventional grain crops. But apple orchards are water guzzlers.

There is now an estimated 20,000 tubewells and the results are all too visible. The Pishin Lora basin that includes the districts of Quetta, Mastung, Pishin and part of Kalat in the north of the province has seen the water table fall at rates exceeding 3 m a year. The Nari basin in Loralai and Ziarat districts too is now water-deficit with no more potential left for ground water development. Qila Saifulla, a groundwater surplus area, is now water-deficient, thanks to the proliferation of tubewells. Consequently many of the karezes and wells here have gone dry. Estimates of the number of karezes in Balochistan vary from 1,000 to 3,000. According to one estimate published in the ''Balochistan Conservation Strategy'' published in 2000 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), 175 karezes in Balochistan had already gone dry. That was nearly a year ago and since then the situation has deteriorated. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that according to recent reports in Mastung district alone only one of the 300-odd karezes still holds water.

The excessive pumping of water for the orchards has pushed down the groundwater table to alarming levels. It has severely affected the capacity of natural and human systems to cope with the scarcity. Compounding the problem are the infefficient irrigation practices followed here. The normal practice is to flood entire fields indiscriminately, a luxury the region can hardly afford anymore. This continues even in the face of the present drought. While most places have gone completely dry, those who can afford tubewells are pumping out water round the clock. Fields and orchards continue to be flood irrigated. Losses through evaporation and seepage have reduced water use efficiency to 50 per cent - a criminal waste in the present circumstances. Ironically, the apple crop has been one of the worst affected. A study conducted recently in the districts of Qila Saifulla and Mastung found that in 1999, 27 per cent of the villages surveyed reported cutting down of some trees to save the remaining trees. In 2000 this number rose to 73 per cent. It is a common phenomenon across the province now.

GETTING a comprehensive idea of the impact of the drought on this vast and remote province is extremely difficult. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) survey titled ''Social assessment study on the water scarcity situation in drought affected Balochistan'', carried out over a period of six months in the districts of Mastung and Qila Saifulla, however gives a good representative picture. The magnitude of the impact on agriculture is evident. In the 21 villages surveyed, 10 per cent reported no crop in 1998. In 1999 this figure had reached 72 per cent and last year there was a 100 per cent crop failure. None of the villages was able to get a harvest. Nutrition and health care were affected. Thirtyeight per cent of the villages surveyed reported quantitative reduction in the staple food intake (mainly wheat) since 1998. In a quarter of the villages surveyed, a reduction in the intake of other nutritious food such as milk, ghee, meat and dried yoghurt also was reported. In certain cases rice had replaced wheat as the staple food and in others children were fed herbal extracts instead of milk because of the non-availability of the latter.

In an area where curative health care has been chronically poor, this further aggravated the situation. In any case, only half the villages were availing themselves of routine medical treatment facilities. In 1999 this access was further halved; and in 2000 it went down to only 14 per cent. Correspondingly, 4 per cent of the villages reported to having switched to traditional herbal medicinal cures in 1998 for reasons of affordability. This increased to 9 per cent in 1999 and then to 47 per cent in 2000.

The drought has also contributed to the incidence of Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever (CCHF). The disease was first noticed in September 2000 in Loralai district of the province. At least 16 persons are reported to have succumbed to it. In its latest reports, the U.N. has warned that the CCHF is likely to reappear in May this year.

People have tried to cope and respond to the drought in ways best known to them. These include de-stocking of livestock by way of distress sale, cutting down parts of fruit orchards so that the other trees have some chance of survival, postponing medical treatment, and withdrawing children from school in order to conserve capital and human resources. Large-scale borrowing has been reported and nearly 90 per cent of the people have resorted to selling their possessions and assets. Lastly, as is evident in the Dasht valley, thousands have packed up and left.

THE severe drought in neighbouring Afghanistan (Frontline, March 30, 2001) too has diverted attention from Balochistan. International aid and media glare has been focussed on that country where drought has severely compounded the depravity caused by two decades of war. Nearly half of the 20 million population of Afghanistan is badly affected. An estimated 700,000 people are on the move, many of them to Pakistan. More than 150,000 Afghans have already taken shelter in refugee camps in Pakistan. Unable to take the burden anymore, Pakistan recently shut its doors to fresh refugees. It complained of inadequate international support to deal with the drought within the country while also supporting those fleeing from Afghanistan.

The role of the government too has come in for criticism. The proliferation of tubewells in the province is a case in point. In certain places it has been pointed out that though food and fodder are in stock, it is not reaching the needy in time and in sufficient quantities.

A group of children playing in a village in the valley. Nutrition and health care standards have been affected because of the drought.-

However, in the face of a drought of such magnitude, no amount of relief work would be considered sufficient and Balochistan is no exception. Various relief agencies have been involved in the task for more than a year now. Help has come from various parts of Pakistan, from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and from other provincial governments. Countries such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Kuwait and Germany have sent in aid including monetary contributions, medicines, tents and food. Many national and international NGOs, U.N. agencies and individual activists got together in Quetta in May 2000 to form the Relief Forum Balochistan (RFB), to help in the drought relief work. The Balochistan government too established in August 2000 a Provincial Drought Management Committee headed by an Additional Chief Secretary.

"There is a lot more that needs to be done," admits Amjad Rashid of the Taraqee Trust (TT), a local NGO that is coordinating the RFB.

Members of donor agencies that have worked both in Afghanistan and Balochistan, however, point out that though the drought in Balochistan is as bad as that in Afghanistan, people here are not suffering as much. What has prevented the situation here from going the Afghanistan way has been the presence of official support systems. They may not be great systems, but unlike in Afghanistan, where everything seems to have collapsed, something is at least present here - communication facilities to an extent, a road network, access to the market, electricity and tubewells, work opportunities in the cities. The people of Balochistan have not become destitutes as in the case of their neighbours in Afghanistan.

The government has to be more efficient and more proactive, the donor agencies have to give more, water consumption has to be made more efficient, traditional systems like karezes need to be better maintained and the unsustainable levels of extraction of water through borewells stopped. All this and much more is needed to deal with Balochistan's worst drought in living memory - until rain comes.

in association with 'Transforming Word'

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmetal action group, Kalpavriksh. He visited Pakistan recently as part of the 'Leadership in Environment and Development (LEAD)' training programme.

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