KHARO CHHAN, May 25: “Please do something for us. There is no freshwater in our canal. The influential landlords of our area divert water to their lands, leaving us high and dry,” grieves Manzoor Hussain sitting with a group of farmers gathered in Dhare Wari village of Kharo Chhan taluka in Thatta district.
“Look at me. Do I look like the owner of 300 acres?” the frail looking farmer moaned.
Mr Hussain is not alone having in having such a complaint against feudal lords. The persisting water shortage in the coastal helmet is a shared tragedy. The devastation is visible but there is no hope for good.
“Hundreds of acres of fertile land now stand barren while our families are forced to drink brackish water as there is no well left with freshwater,” complains Mohammad Usman who lost 200 acres due to the problem.
The village (home to over 700 individuals), like other villages of the taluka, has been facing an acute shortage of freshwater for decades. Part of the problem lies with the intruding sea while the other has to do with the atrocities on the part of big landowners. Farmers, who earlier grew betel plants, bananas and wheat, are now forced to cultivate only short-term crops of some vegetables as water is released in their canal from the Garho branch once in five months.
“The government has never provided support to farmers in a way that may help us in this crisis. Consequently, over 50 per cent people have switched over to fishing,” a farmer pointed out.
Reminiscing about the good old days when the village had been flourishing, the farmers said that their misfortune began with the construction of the Kotri barrage in 1960 that led to a drastic decline in freshwater releases to coastal districts. The phenomenon also led to sea intrusion and, according to an estimate, about 263,272 acres in three talukas of Thatta district have been lost to the sea erosion, causing huge losses to the fisheries, agriculture and forest sectors, besides displacing a large population.
In Kharo Chhan, about 117,823 ha of land was lost due to sea erosion, of which 81 per cent falls in the category of totally eroded by sea covering 21 dehs out of a total of 41 dehs. The area left for cultivation is also showing reduced productivity.
“Sea intrusion has been there for a long time but our miseries have been aggravated due to water diversion by big landowners, water theft and improper maintenance of canals,” they said.
A stronghold of Pakistan Peoples Party, the village is also deprived of health and education facilities as the community’s only basic health unit is without a doctor while the lone school building there is in a dilapidated condition. The people, though, still vote for the same party. “We have no choice,” says a villager when asked about the reason. “No, it was the money which made the party win,” argues another angrily.
Similar conditions prevail in Abdullah Khatti village, located at the mouth of the river Indus in the same taluka. The area once famous for its farm produce especially red rice, bananas and wheat is now largely covered with salt bushes and mesquite, an extremely hard drought-tolerant plant known as a pest plant.
People living here in filthy conditions are facing extreme hardships in getting drinking water. “There is no difference between a human life and that of an animal here. We both drink brackish water and suffer from numerous diseases,” said Mohammad Sharif, a resident.
The village has no functional health unit while the only primary school has been closed for more than a year. The absence of health facilities force a vast majority to live untreated and continue to suffer in misery as they couldn’t afford to travel long distances and incur expenses on treatment. One such case is of Ms Shahida, who gradually lost vision in one of her eyes due to an injury that she suffered 10 years ago.
“We don’t have a single doctor available here and my father running a small shop couldn’t afford to take me to one far off,” she explained.
So far, the coastal villages have also remained deprived of any private assistance in sorting out their basic issue of drinking water. The World Wide Fund for Nature, a non-government organisation leading the cause for nature conservation and working on a climate change-related project in the area for two areas, has recently installed solar panels in the village.
“Though there is no direct intervention on water issue under this project, we have established a linkage between the community and government officials through a district level forum. Besides, a study has been launched to determine the minimum flow of water required downstream Kotri as well as losses and damage to the Indus delta on account of sea intrusion,” said Mohammad Tahir Abbasi, site coordinator, Keti Bundar and Kharo Chhan of the projected titled ‘Building Capacity on Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Areas of Pakistan’.
Pakistan, he says, is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change effects and the coastal areas of Sindh are at a high risk for being closed to the sea.
“Evidence has shown that climate change is a reality and will affect us badly if interventions are not put in place timely. Unfortunately, however, man-made factors have compounded the miseries of these people already living in abject poverty. This has made our task even more challenging,” he said.