Ghosts of the Thar Desert: On the frontline of climate change in Pakistan

Ebu squints and her face creases into a dozen lines. She is peering down into her well but the act is pointless. She knows there is nothing down there. In moments of despair, life in Mal Nor, her drought-stricken village in the Thar Desert, seems equally senseless. With the climatic changes under way here, her ancestral lands in this part of south-eastern Pakistan are becoming almost uninhabitable.

“It used to rain a lot before,” she says, speaking in the Marwari language that is specific to this region. “It doesn’t now. It has drastically stopped.”

We stand by her well, near a couple of thatched huts and six sleepy goats that are tethered to a post. Her son and two young women look on; her small grandson, chapatti in mouth, stares, then breaks into tears. The surrounding landscape is sparse: sand, shrubs, the odd teak tree.

Ebu and her family are from an indigenous tribe called the Meghvars, who have lived in the Thar Desert for thousands of years. The land is full of such tribes; pastoral people whose livelihoods have mostly depended on goats and cattle.

Camels, peacocks, snakes and blackbucks share the arid 200,000 sq km expanse, most of which lies across the border in Rajasthan, India’s north-western state.

Scarce rainfall is not new here. Many of the elders describe their age in relation to a chapano (drought). Ebu says she has survived several chapano, at times eating merely grass and ants. These people are born survivors but their days in Tharparkar, as the district is called, might be numbered.

Farmers are losing their crops, cattle and goats because of the drought. Children are starving to death. Villagers are taking their own lives. Near Mithi, Tharparkar’s main town, several locals tell me that rainfall has halved in this region over the past two decades.

And it’s getting hotter. Across a range of indices, the Nasa Earth Exchange (NEX) has found that, over the past 50 years, temperatures in Sindh province, south-eastern Pakistan, have risen by more than 1.5C, around double the global average. Something has changed.


For a decade, I worked as a policy analyst for the UN and other organisations around the world. Reading countless reports at my desk in Rome, I became familiar with Pakistan’s particular vulnerability to natural disasters.

Over a 20-year period between 1998 and 2017, it experienced more than 140 climate-related events, such as hurricanes, flooding and heatwaves, causing more than 10,000 deaths and $3.8bn in losses each year through damage.

When I left the UN a few years ago, it was to write independently about hunger, climate change and other development challenges. In January, I decided to visit Pakistan to try to learn more about the lives of some of those most vulnerable to global warming.

The road that I take from Digri to Mithi shimmers in the heat. It was improved recently, with coal money, though the funds mostly went into constructing an open-cast coal mine and power station, located 70km away. The complex, known as Thar Coal Block II, was developed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $60bn energy and infrastructure scheme that is under way across Pakistan. It began supplying electricity to Pakistan’s national grid in June.

Despite the asphalt-softening heat, which is now killing animals and people in southern Pakistan, the country’s efforts to extract fossil fuels from the ground are accelerating, generating ever higher carbon emissions.

For years, Pakistan’s population and manufacturing industries have suffered blackouts. CPEC offers a means to resolve the country’s energy crisis and, like all developed countries have done in the past, it helps both Pakistan and China pursue their fossil-fuelled industrial growth.

Banaras Khan, who is supporting climate-smart agriculture in Pakistan for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Islamabad, tells me the recurrent drought phenomenon in Tharparkar “gained momentum after 2013 and is becoming more frequent”. He says that a recent climate analysis the FAO conducted for Sindh province shows this can be attributed to climate change.

On the ground in Tharparkar, the land is so barren that even pasture cannot grow. Along the roadside, there are carcasses of animals, abandoned and atrophying, their skin caved-in between their bones. Locals here say “your livestock are like your diamonds” — a coping strategy when all else fails. When their animals starve, the owners are crushed.

A local historian called Bharomal Bheel tells me he visited a village called Jorvu, and saw a man who had just lost 300 sheep. Starving and dehydrated, they were killed by diseases. He was “completely broken”, crying in despair, says Bheel.


Alexander More, a climate historian at Harvard University, says Pakistan exemplifies how climate change can drive existing weather patterns to new extremes. “When we think of climate change, we usually think of global warming. But the reality is that, while temperatures are going upwards, with it also comes a pattern of increasing climate extremes. Southern Pakistan is an example of a place that is experiencing increasing droughts.”

Across the whole country, the risks are growing. The Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in the north of the country hold 5,000 glaciers. Temperature rises or earthquakes can trigger what are called glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOF, which threaten populations living in the valleys and plains below.

In 2010, the Booni Gol outburst killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed 1.6 million homes. Thousands of acres of farmland were damaged. Today, analysts say seven million people in Pakistan are vulnerable to such floods.

The effects of rising temperatures are equally ominous for Pakistan’s lowland populations. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described how a global rise of 2C would have appalling consequences for South Asia’s megacities. By 2050, Karachi will have an estimated population of 24 million, and be likely to experience “deadly heatwaves” of 49C on an annual basis.

Sindh province was once at the heart of the great Indus Valley civilisation, which emerged more than 6,000 years ago, and thrived by channelling water via canals and dykes.

Today, high population levels and poor water management mean that Pakistan is running out of fresh water. The Indus River Basin Authority believes the country will suffer a shortage of 37 billion litres by 2025. These concerns will be intensified by potential “water wars” between India and Pakistan, should current tensions between the neighbouring countries escalate.

In the Thar Desert, communities already face an existential threat: there is nowhere near enough food to go round. Hundreds of thousands of people in Tharparkar, more than half the district’s population, face acute food insecurity, meaning they experience hunger but can go entire days without eating anything. Some 400,000 children under five are acutely malnourished, according to the FAO. More than 500 children died from hunger-related causes last year.

As crops fail, and livestock wither and die, the communal nature of life that has bound people in the Thar Desert together for so long is breaking apart. Villagers can no longer afford to stay on their lands. Ebu says that “most healthy men” have had to migrate to cities or towns where they hope to find work as day-labourers. “When they return,” she says, “they only bring things for their own family.”
Others complain in similar terms. Bheel calls it a “drought in community”. Perhaps it is this — the sense of togetherness evaporating — that causes most unease. “We are constantly worried,” says Ebu. “We’re in a constant state of anxiety. It’s as if we are drowning.”

As with most slow-motion humanitarian crises, the issue is not that there are no solutions — but that they require political will, finance and attention. For dry-land communities like those of the Thar Desert, technologies such as land terracing, drip irrigation and mulching can save water and preserve soil quality, sustaining the livestock and crops on which people depend. Such steps would mean major financing as well as government and international support.

The broader need to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements is also not unattainable; billions of dollars of investment are pledged at climate conferences every year. Some of this money could and should be invested in developing countries like Pakistan, enabling them to shift their fossil fuel-powered growth models towards renewable energy alternatives. Overall, it is a massive project and, in relative terms, there is very little time. It’s hard to feel optimistic.


One evening, Bheel tells me several tales, from legend and personal experience, recalling djinns (ghosts) and deos (spirits) and the alarming feats of the goddess Aver Devi. “My grandmother’s ghost stories were the worst,” he says, “because they seemed so true.”

Reality is beginning to attain something of these stories.
Late one night, with a guide, I visit a village in the desert. The moon and stars are bright enough to reveal our shadows on the sand. In the monochrome light, the landscape resembles a blackish sea. In silence, we come across some abandoned thatched huts; black shapes in the darkness.

We find other huts. Two figures emerge. A man says his eight brothers and their families have left this village. His is the last family left. It is a ghost village. Soon, because of climate change, places like these will be uninhabited, and the desert wind will be the only sound; a long, drawn-out gasp of what once was.

Financial Times Magazine

The Artisans of the Walled City of Lahore

Perched outside his workshop in Lahore’s Walled City, Mohamed Tahir plays a harmonium while watching the passing melee. The melancholy sounds of the instrument are barely audible over the din of motorbikes and wheel cutters, but still they evoke something of Lahore’s history, a world that lives on beneath the dust and frantic rhythms of everyday life.

“The piano and harmonium were brought here by the Britishers, but drum-making began during the Mughal period,” Tahir says. Wrapped in a black cotton shawl, the elderly man has been making musical instruments on this street for over 70 years.

Like many artisans in the Walled City, Tahir’s skills have been passed down the generations, surviving the turns of history that have ruptured this region. With changing traditions and market competition, though, Lahore’s craftsmen face an uncertain future. Yet some initiatives are offering these artisans an opportunity to craft a profound transformation upon the city.

There are hopes that the work of these craftsmen and women will revive a city that has been passed over by tourists for decades. Lahore rivals Delhi for its heritage, yet receives a tenth of the visitors. Plus it’s a relatively short drive from the city to the country’s breathtaking northern mountain ranges. For travellers, the lure of the city has been overshadowed, it seems, by the drama of Pakistan’s history.

When Pakistan became a sovereign state in 1947, Mohamed Tahir’s family moved from Amritsar, in India, to Lahore, inside the new Pakistani border. The period is known as Partition. Seven million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Over 10 million Muslims crossed into Pakistan, including many of Lahore’s current artisans. Theirs is a lineage disrupted by politics, whose continuity lies in their craft. Though in the upheaval surrounding the new state of Pakistan, a great deal was lost.

For over a thousand years, Lahore thrived by welcoming all sorts; Chinese travellers, Sufi saints from Ghazni, Portuguese priests, Italian painters and Armenian ironsmiths. Lahore reached the height of its splendour during the Mughal period, from 16th to 18th centuries. The Emperors of this time – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb – were generous patrons of the arts and crafts. The most impressive Mughal architecture, such as the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, borrowed from Islamic, Persian and Hindu traditions. The Walled City became Lahore’s commercial heart: a dense maze of alleyways and markets, whose karkhana (workshops) thronged with thousands of weavers, ironsmiths, masons, miniaturists, astrolabe makers, jewelers, cobblers and carpet weavers. Together they sustained imperial trade and supplied a burgeoning society with their material needs.

Many craftsmen are still at it. Walking through the bustling Kasera bazaar, the blacksmiths are impossible to ignore: standing at their workshops which open onto the street, they press blades and other tools onto sharpening wheels, prompting the shrill, piercing sound of drills and sprays of sparks like fireworks. Here, in his tiny workshop, I meet Affif Mughal, a blacksmith whose forefathers made swords for the Mughal court and aristocracy. With the decline of the Sikh Empire in the 19th century, his family switched to knives and scissors. Today, Affif’s scissors are used by Lahore’s tailors and cobblers. These artisans comprise an ecosystem. Such relationships are a remnant of former, more prosperous days, when dozens of craft industries were bound together.

Lahore’s artisans are proud of their heritage. Down a back alley off the Moti bazaar, on the floor of a tiny room, I meet Fazal Durrani, a shoemaker in the Walled City since 1981. “The Mughal Emperors had their own cordwainers (cobblers),” he says, waving a leather sole under his work lights. “I am continuing this tradition”.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, many of Lahore’s crafts diminished. The artisans’ fortunes were invigorated under the muscular reign of the Sikh, Ranjit Singh, but by the time the British seized the city, in 1846, new patterns of trade threatened the old professions. Over the ensuing decades, British manufactured imports, such as umbrellas and bicycles, began to appear in Lahore’s shops. With a new political economy came changes in consumption patterns.

Rudyard Kipling was in Lahore at the time. When the author depicted the Walled City in his 1891 story, The City of the Dreadful Night, he described a place of “fetid breezes”, lepers and corpses, a city “of Death as well as Night”. As a champion of the British Empire, Kipling has always faced criticism. Orwell labeled him a “jingo imperialist”. Today, some will see Kipling’s portrayal of the Walled City as ‘orientalising’; that he rendered the place otherworldly and uncivilized, its people listless, and therefore, by implication, worthy of subjugation.

But the ‘creative destruction’ of British-led capitalism was already imposing itself upon many of Lahore’s old trades. From the time of the Raj onwards, Lahore’s artisans have faced stiff competition from market forces, while many fail to adapt to changing tastes. One craft struggling to survive today is hookah pipe production. Passing stalls displaying colourful dupattas and saris, I walk around the Wazir Khan mosque, where Kipling set his story. Here, I meet Umer Saleem, a large, thoughtful man, and one of the Walled City’s last hookah pipe makers.

“There used to be 30 workshops here. Now there are only three,” he says. Saleem’s family began making smoking pipes three generations ago. He describes the history of the hookah, invented by the Persian physicist, Abu’l-Fath Gilani, in the 16th century. He proclaims their social value, as a way of “bringing people together” and “taking time”. But he is not optimistic. A 2013 law banned their use in cafés and restaurants. Also, he concedes, “the new generation prefers cigarettes”. Saleem has suffered a 75 percent decline in sales.

In recent decades, the Chinese have taken up where the British began. Chinese factories supply everyday items to Lahore’s markets, at prices that undercut local producers and capture domestic markets. Up two flights of stairs, in a hot, bare room in the Langa Mandi quarter, I meet a metalworker called Muhammad Muzamil. Working on the floor beside two other craftsmen, he is feeling the pinch. “China has introduced cheaper goods. They have their own factory designs, but I believe hand-made is better,” he says, while hammering a pattern into a steel buffet lid. Muzamil’s great-grandfather started their business, in Delhi, but he is not passing his craft onto his children. “It is too up and down” he says.

If the fate of Lahore’s artisans seems bleak, there are grounds for hope. Several organisations are supporting craftsmen. The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), for example, wants to highlight the influence that artisans have had on the city. “Old Lahore was a place where people were identified with their skills. Places still bear the names of the craftsmen who worked there, like Bowmakers Street,” says Kamran Lashari, the WCLA Director General. The WCLA has offers leases to designated shopkeepers to sell local crafts along Food Street, a prominent avenue near the crimson walls of the Badshahi Mosque. The WCLA has also been giving free day tours for visitors around the Walled City and the Lahore Fort since 2012, and began organizing night tours last year. Passing areas such as the Lohari Davarza (Blacksmiths’ Gate), the walks navigate places where the Lahore’s craft history lives on today.

Over the past decade, the WCLA has partnered with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to conserve some of Lahore’s most remarkable buildings. Initially, AKTC restored the walls and mashrabiya of the old havelis along the Shahi Guzargah, the Royal Trail. Processions of Mughal Emperors coming from Delhi would follow this road, entering Lahore via the Delhi Gate and travelling on to the Lahore Fort. Craftsmen under AKTC have also conserved the last remaining Mughal-era bathhouse, the Shahi Hammam, as well as the walls, minarets and façade of the Wazir Khan mosque. Both structures were built in the 17th century.

AKTC’s most ambitious project is the restoration of the 450 metre-long and 16-metre high Mughal-era ‘Picture Wall’ in the Lahore Fort. Constructed in the early 17th century, it was exquisitely decorated by hundreds of artisans under Shah Jahan. The result was an artistic triumph; a monumental screen of over 110 panels comprising glazed tiles, faience mosaics and frescoes. Some of these depict figurative images, such as angels and dragons. These motifs, now brought back into focus through the AKTC restoration, reveal what was an outward-looking Empire, receptive to eastern and western ideas.

These days, walls are rarely the subject of unanimous praise, nor do they elicit a sense of pluralism. But this one inverts the idea. Dozens of young female and male architects, fresco painters, chemists, digital conservators and historians are collaborating on this assignment. The project may take several years, but the conservators are a pool of enthusiasm. They discuss the wall’s Persian, Italian and Chinese influences. The older master craftsmen, busy restoring tiles, filigree and brickwork, are equally excited. One evening, as the sun is setting behind the nearby tomb of Ranjit Singh, I climb up to the highest point of scaffolding along the wall. There, I meet Ala Uddin, a master mason. He is laying bricks. “I love this wall,” he says, his face literally glowing in the orange light. “It brings our culture and traditions to life.”

Of course, restoring Lahore’s historic monuments will not tackle the structural economic factors threatening the city’s artisans. But these projects are employing craftsmen in numbers not seen in decades. These artisans are reviving Mughal techniques, while also working with a diverse community of practitioners trained in the latest methods. The results will attract more visitors to Lahore, generating income that can be reinvested into further restoration work. The project may even awaken a demand for craftsmanship among wealthy Lahoris looking to embellish their homes.

Yet the restoration work is really about something deeper. If the Picture Wall displays Lahore’s cosmopolitan past, the way it is being restored suggests a pluralistic present rarely found in contemporary narratives of Pakistan. The multidisciplinary team of craftsmen and conservators, from different generations, gender and ethnic origin are, in their small way, embodying the ‘can do’ spirit that animated the city four centuries ago.

My last interview in Lahore was with an elderly master mason, Mohammad Ramzan. It was after dusk, and the end of his day. What he said about the Picture Wall, and the restoration effort, lingered in my memory: “It is a way of understanding our identity.”

 

A version of this article was published in the FT Weekend