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An open letter to the Sindh Chief Minister: Tharparkar needs you, Sir

By Farahnaz Zahidi Published: March 12, 2014

http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/21399/an-open-letter-to-the-sindh-chief-minister-tharparkar-needs-you-sir/

Thar babies

Politicians will go back to their comfortable homes and mothers in Thar will continue to mourn over their dead babies. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

Dear Sir,

I wonder how you sleep at night, because I am, honestly, having a tough time sleeping peacefully these days.

I have visited Tharparkar a few times. And every time I came back, it took me a long time to get the images of Tharparkar out of my system. You and your government, Sir, have visited one too many times. These people have voted for you and trusted you. I wonder how you get those images out of your system.

I will not be unfair. So I have to say that visits to interior Sindh have told me enough to say that yes, you and your government did try to make things better for these people at some levels. There is the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), the Lady Health Workers (LHW) program, a more women-friendly legislation and a few scattered silver linings. But were they really enough? And in particular, for Tharparkar which was already a ticking time bomb of impending doom due to food insecurity and lack of water, did you all do enough?

Travelling to Tharparkar, one sight that was amazing was seeing flags of the political party they all love on their small, circular homes. Inside the circular homes, there would mostly be pictures of their local leaders from the same party, bleached out due to the intense Thari heat.

Last year, before the May 11, 2013 elections, in a small village near Islamkot, I asked a few of the women whom they would vote for. They giggled, covering their beautiful but weather-beaten faces with colourful chunnis (dupatta), and replied

“For the same people.”

“But are you satisfied with the work they have done?” I had asked.

“No. Not really. Par Adi, aseen ghareeb marhoon aahiyoon. Hee asaan ja wadda aahin. We cannot vote for anyone else.”

(But sister, we are poor people. They are our elders.)

The loyalty was something I couldn’t fathom with my city-centric sensibilities. But they did vote for their elders. Are their children paying a price for that loyalty? Perhaps the answer is, yes.

Listening to the breaking news about the many lives of little children snuffed out before their time, I have those images in my head again. Because I know that these children did not die in a day… they were dying all along. Even the new born ones.

They were dying because their mothers have a history of weak bones and malnourishment, because they get to drink brackish water laden with fluoride and their average meal is sun-dried red chillies crushed to a paste with roti that is not enough.

These children, who are dying, are born to mothers who have mostly lost more than one baby because they have to travel on camel backs in full term pregnancy if they need a caesarean section delivery. The nearest hospitals, Sir, are too far.

The vaccinators who are unsung heroes carry the vaccines on foot in the unbearable heat, but mostly the ice that keeps the vaccines fresh melts by the time they reach their destination. So the mothers mostly do not get tetanus vaccines on time and die from septicaemia because they have contracted infections by delivering children on the sand which is a Thari tradition. The children do not get vaccinated for deadly but preventable diseases.

The NGOs struggle to make things better in Tharparkar but they do not have enough support from the government.

You, Sir, and your government have known this all along, haven’t you?

This wave of donations is only reaching Mithi which is like a model town at the minute. The real issues are still prevalent in the small villages. Who will solve their problems, Sir? Visiting politicians in Mithi for whom lavish meals are lined up do not know the pain of someone in small villages like Maghoo Bheel where donations may never reach. These politicians also do not know how those standing in queues for hours to be handed a bag of grains are beaten with sticks or ridiculed by those distributing the donations.

You do know that what is being called a ‘drought’ or ‘famine’ is no doubt a natural calamity. But it is not like the floods or an earthquake. This is a natural disaster of which the death toll can be mitigated. But sadly no one takes notice. This disaster is related to lack of clean drinking water, Sir. I wrote a story last year about just one such village where the entire population walks with spines bent or crawls on the floor because the water they consume is too little and unfit for human consumption.

Without a word of exaggeration Sir, I called your office every day for months to get a single 15 minute appointment with you, so that this issue could be brought to your notice; all that village needed was an electricity line that could run a water filtration plant that someone had donated to them. The people of the village kept writing to you. Promises were made. In protests. On Twitter. But it was not taken seriously enough.

You must have seen Thari children, Sir, running barefoot in the desert sand or sitting in a weak looking mother’s lap. They are stunted, mostly, and look much younger than their years. Their Body Mass Index (BMI) is clearly under the required level. Their hair is brittle and their skin is parched. They cry in weak voices for no reason. Their bellies are too large for their body. Their Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) when measured tells health officials they are at a risk of dying.

The NGOs give the extremely malnourished ones high-energy food supplement biscuits. But because the entire family is so poor and food insecure, they all end up sharing it. And so, that malnourished child never regains health because his supplement is shared, morsel by morsel, by the entire famished family.

Some of these malnourished children will grow up to be mothers. They will give birth to weak, sick children. And unless someone steps up, this cycle will go on. The donors who are donating excitedly right now will soon get exhausted after media stories die out. Donor fatigue will set in. Politicians will go back to their comfortable homes. And mothers in Tharparkar will continue to mourn over their dead babies.

Just this once, can we do something lasting, Sir?

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Tharparkar – Dying a slow, painful death

By Farahnaz ZahidiPublished: March 9, 2014

http://tribune.com.pk/story/680641/creeping-disaster-dying-a-slow-painful-death/
680641-thartharparkarINP-1394341869-382-640x480
Malnutrition is common in Thar with many children displaying classic signs of undernourishment. PHOTO: INP/FILE
KARACHI:
One hundred and twenty-two children do not die from drought in a day. They die a slow, painful death when the symptomatic effects of three years of drought in a parched arid area like Tharparkar reach a stage that it becomes a full-blown famine. As the world looks on in amazement how this “breaking news” was hitherto not paid attention to, what must be understood is that this was happening all along, slowly and gradually.
Officially, however, some 122 child deaths were recorded in Thar since December 2013. Local experts are concerned that this could only get worse unless drastic measures are adopted. Tharparkar district, with an estimated population of 1.5 million, is ranked by the World Food Programme as the most food insecure of Pakistan’s 120 districts.
Rukaiyya, a seven-day-old baby from Adam Rind village lost her battle for life. She was one of the casualties of the dire situation in Tharparkar. “My wife Zeenat herself is so weak. We are very poor people. I used to rely on some basic agriculture which is no longer there due to lack of rain. This was my first child,” said Ghulam Hussain, the father of the child. This desperate father took the sick baby to a private doctor in Umerkot. He chose not to go to the nearest public hospital in Umerkot, some 50 km away from their village. “We are too poor. The doctors there would not pay attention to us.” Hussain is convinced that lack of proper food and nutrition is the reason behind this tragedy.
In the Drought Bulletin of Pakistan July-September 2013, released by Pakistan Meteorological Department, a drought is described as a “creeping phenomena”. The bulletin states that “Drought differs from other natural disaster (for instance, flood, tropical cyclones, tornadoes and earthquakes etc) in the sense that the effects of drought often accumulate slowly over a considerable period of time and may linger for years even after the termination of the event.”
There are many overlapping factors that are at play behind the recent acceleration in deaths in Tharparkar. More than 90 per cent of the district’s population relies on underground water they get through dug wells. In the absence of rain when this water is not recharged, the water levels go down. If at all water is available, the concentration of salt in it reaches high levels which makes the water unfit for consumption. The people of Tharparkar rely heavily on cattle for their livelihood. Cattle gives them food and money, both. Absence of fodder forces them to migrate. Partial migration trends show that often the men migrate along with their cattle. The women, children and family members left behind are thus deprived of the little protein they usually get from the dairy products. The impact of the drought is thus exacerbated and malnutrition becomes even more serious.
The cause of the famine in Tharparkar is both a decline in the availability of food as well as a reduction in people’s access to, or their ability to acquire food.
Malnutrition is a common problem in Tharparkar, with many children in particular displaying classic signs of malnourishment at the first glance. Bleached out hair, thin upper arms and disproportionately enlarged bellies are common sights.
According to the National Nutrition Survey, more than 70 per cent of mothers in Sindh are deficient in vitamin D. Nearly half of the children under five years old suffer from stunting and around 40 per cent of children are underweight.
“When there was no rain till the 15th of August, a drought should have been declared. If it is declared a drought, the government can even ask the international community for help. Muhammad Khan Junejo, the then prime minister, had done this in when a similar situation happened in Tharparkar in the 1980s,” says a disgruntled Ali Akbar, executive director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE), Tharparkar. “This is nothing new for Tharparkar. The same happened in 2001 under General Musharraf’s dictatorship regime, and people woke up to the disaster back then only after 27 deaths. We all waited for democracy and hoped that it would bring us better days. But nothing has really changed.”
Children born to malnourished mothers and suffering from malnourishment over long periods of time have severely compromised immune systems. Thus even a bout of cough or cold will be enough to kill such a child, which explains why the cause of death in the records of many of these children will be reasons like Pneumonia, diarrhea and infections.
The newly appointed District Health Officer (DHO) Tharparkar, Dr Abdul Jalil Bhurgri, told The Express Tribune that media should base their reporting on facts. “The way it is being reported will spread a wave of panic among the people. It is partially incorrect that these children died due to hunger and malnourishment. There are other reasons too like unskilled birth attendants and child delivery in unhygienic conditions due to which mother and child can both contract infections.” Dr Bhurgri invited expressed willingness to share their official data with anyone interested to set the record straight. While he agreed that there are not enough doctors and health facilities in the district, he denied that all these deaths are famine related.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2014.