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Drought or not, children are dying in Tharparkar, Qaim Ali Shah

The infants may not be dying of hunger, but they have no immunity to fight back any attack of weather and disease, as they are given birth by weak mothers. PHOTO: AFP

Death is a regular visitor at the doors of Tharparkar’s mothers. Within the first 10 days of 2016, 17 children died in just the Mithi area of district Tharparkar in Sindh.

Nothing new.

Between December 2013 and early March 2014, at least 124 lives were lost in Tharparkar, 67 of them at the Civil Hospital Mithi alone. These are just some registered deaths in the most (relatively) developed area of the 20,000 sq km desert comprising the district. And once again, Sindh’s Chief Minister (CM) says these deaths are being exaggerated.

This feels like Déjà vu.

Part of the statement of saeen, as CM Qaim Ali Shah is popularly known as, is probably true – the part that says that the drought is not causing these deaths.

That, Mr CM, should be cause for more concern.

It’s not that the CM and his team are doing nothing about Tharparkar. They form inquiry commissions, send trucks full of wheat, food supplies and medicines, and I am sure they sack a few officials here and there. While all of this can and does help, that help is very temporary.Saeen continues to apply band aid on the wounds of Tharparkar. The wounds inside continue to fester. None of the measures being taken for Tharparkar seem satisfactory and sustainable.

For those who know even a little about the beautiful but desolate Tharparkar know that if at all, the district were in a state of drought, that would be just a miniscule part of its issues.

Consider this.

In March 2014, many reasons for the deaths of the ill-fated children were stated by medical officials at Civil Hospital Mithi. Reasons like sepsis, blood infections, pneumonia, premature births and asphyxia. Why did these children not have even basic medical assistance is the question. Where were the first aid and the tetanus shots that could have helped the kids who died of sepsis? Why were the children not clad warmly enough, and pneumonia killed them? If according to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) director general, the newborns carried infections due to deliveries in unhygienic conditions at their home, why are mothers in Tharparkar still giving births at home? Why are there so many premature births in the first place?

Quoting people working on ground level in Tharparkar, open defecation is one of the major problems that causes up to 80 per cent of diseases reported in the rural areas of Tharparkar. This was shared by social activist Mohammed Siddique Rahimon in December 2015, at an event in Umerkot district where local experts discussed how poor infrastructure, a thin network of basic facilities and open defecation are among the major causes of endemic diseases. Umerkot faces the same predicaments as Tharparkar.

Purchasing substandard and expired medicines and supplying these to patients is another cause of death, according to information shared by Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) that works at grass root level in Tharparkar.

It is no secret that a large proportion of the population in Tharparkar does not have access to clean, uncontaminated and enough water. Water with high levels of arsenic among other contaminants in the merciless desert of Thar, when used for drinking, preparing food and irrigation of crops, cripples and kills those who consume it over long periods of time.

Is that too not the government’s responsibility?

But perhaps the biggest reason of disease and death in Tharparkar is malnourishment of its mothers. CM sahib says that if there was drought and lack of healthcare facilities, then men and women would also have suffered equally. Sir, your team is aware that mothers in Tharparkar give births while their haemoglobin level is as low as four. When the mothers are so anaemic and undernourished, what hope do the children they give birth to have to survive?

The CM is right when he says that the death of these children are largely on account of maternity-related complications and not from hunger or lack of food. But who, I respectfully ask those in-charge of governing Tharparkar, will make sure that maternal mortality is controlled in Tharparkar, and the mother is healthy and strong enough to bear a child? The infants may not be dying of hunger, but they have no immunity to fight back any attack of weather and disease, as they are given birth by weak mothers.

The first step towards solving a problem is recognising it. The problem lies in bad governance and the government not taking ownership of the painful condition of areas that come in its domain. We request those responsible to take note and step up their game for a holistic solution to the problems of Tharparkar and similar areas in Pakistan before more innocent lives are lost.

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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.

Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha – Hajiani Lanjo, Tharparkar’s first female candidate

Published: April 23, 2013

“Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” says Hajiani Lanjo. PHOTO: AMEER HAMZA

MITHI: In Tharparkar, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a Hindu. If you happen to be a woman then you’re automatically at the lowest rung of the social ladder, regardless of your caste or creed. For the women of this region, standing for elections is a distant dream, and most are not even allowed to cast votes. Now, one determined woman hopes to change all that. Meet 32-year-old Hajiani Lanjo, a lawyer and social activist who is the first woman in the history of Tharparkar to stand for elections.

It won’t be an easy fight. Contesting for the coveted NA-229 constituency from the platform of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT), Hajiani will be going up against political heavyweights like former Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Faqir Sher Muhammad Bilalani.

“She may not be a winning candidate, but I salute her courage,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar, health coordinator of the Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), which works closely with local communities on gender issues.

Hajiani, despite the odds, is confident about her chances. “Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” she says.  “But I have faith that if the elections are free and fair, I will win without a doubt. I have worked for my people and they will vote for me – the women, the youth, the civil society.”

This isn’t the first ‘first’ for her either. The daughter of an uneducated farmer, Hajiani was the first person in her family to gain an education. Growing up in a small village some 18KM from Mithi, she recalls how hard it was to convince her father to send her to school.

“I would pester my dad to send me to school, but nobody was even willing to buy me a book,” she says, her eyes moist at the memory. “I kept insisting and my father finally gave in. I started by going to learn the Quran in the mosque and then joined the small school of the mosque.” Most people thought that would quench her thirst for knowledge, but in fact it only whetted her appetite. Despite poverty and the pressures of patriarchy, she found her way to college and then university.

“Learning the Quran is enough for girls, why do they need more education?” she says, recalling the kind of comments people made.

During this time, her tilt towards activism surfaced and she started to work in different NGOs and finally got in touch with members of the Sindhiani Tehreek (Sindhi women’s movement), which was formed in alliance with the QAT. Here she met women from all social stratas, from farmers’ daughters like herself, to educated professionals. The QAT’s leftist and progressive ideology filtered into the kachehri (get-together) sessions, and Hajiano proved herself an apt pupil indeed.

“People are searching for life on Mars, but the child of Tharparkar is still malnourished, our women are still dying during childbirth, we still have no clean drinking water. How long will this continue?” she asks with obvious passion.

Already a Masters in Sociology from University of Sindh, Hajiani has just completed her LLB. “There are very few female lawyers in Tharparkar. Male advocates often cannot relate to a woman’s plea and this is where I step in,” she says.

Luckily, she can also count on her husband for a helping hand. “He is uneducated but very supportive. He understands the cause,” she says.

In her gentle voice, this woman of substance gives a warning to politicians. “My message to the political leaders responsible for the mess that we are in is that you need to get your act together or the people will take matters into their own hands.”

Hajiani is in this fight for the long haul “I trust God, myself and my intentions. In the past, Pakistan has not chosen the correct leaders due to fear or greed. But we can no longer afford to do that,” she says.

Her biggest dream is to change the fate of her people through education, and especially the education of women. “Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha

(If a man is educated, an individual is educated. If a woman is educated, an entire family is educated).”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2013.