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

Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne

THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff

Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.

It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds,  “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.

This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.

Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.

The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.

Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.

This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.

Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.

The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.

These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.

Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.

 

The Times Literary Supplement

 

The Tyranny of Experts

“It is time at last for the debate that never happened to happen. It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for rich and poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Thus ends The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterley’s latest insightful book about international development.

Since the early 20th century, and after World War II, argues Easterley, the architects and managers of international aid – governments and “experts” – have unanimously favoured an apolitical approach to development that attempts to achieve economic growth through centralized, technocratic means.

Through this “blank slate” vision of development these “experts” have neglected the rights of poor people. As a result, they have actually undermined poor people’s prospects for greater material wealth over the long term. Easterley suggests that the racist colonial belief in poor people’s inability to think for themselves is sustained through mainstream development practice today.

The Tyranny of Experts draws heavily on the ideas of 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. One of Hayek’s most popular books, The Road to Serfdom, challenged the wisdom of top-down central planning. Easterley takes his cue, arguing that development should be achieved via what Hayek described as “spontaneous order” rather than the “conscious design” favoured by Hayek’s contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, and successive generations of development economists.

Easterley invokes Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to illustrate how individuals seek opportunities within complex systems when incentives exist. Easterley wants the “experts” to focus more on creating these incentives by pushing for poor people to be granted their political and economic rights. These rights are intrinsically good, he argues, plus they help individuals pursue the market opportunities that will ultimately lead to national growth. He uses the phenomenal success of South Korean car giant, Hyundai, founded by Chung Ju Yung, to make his point.

Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is problematic. Easterley uses too many threads of research simultaneously, including a continuous reference to the history of Greene Street, New York, as a weakly conceived example of how “spontaneous solutions” triumph over central planning.

Though it loses some coherence, The Tyranny of Experts nonetheless compels us to re-examine the purpose and methods of international aid.

Interventions – A Life in War and Peace

Kofi Annan’s memoirs narrate his career as a flying peacemaker, working for the United Nations. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, takes us from one diplomatic precipice to the next. We traverse devastating failures and lasting successes. In the book’s chaotic world, Annan’s unwavering determination and moral conviction is perhaps the one constant.

Interventions is written by Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, an ex-colleague, and focuses mostly on his efforts to prevent or resolve global conflict. After an opening chapter on his youth, observing the successful independence movement of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and engaging in student politics, we then jump to his career, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, followed by his ten years as Secretary General.

Chapters primarily cover the interventions in all forms of war since the early 1990s. Specific innovations such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the International Criminal Court and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are upheld. UN reform is explained, and UN resolutions are never far away.

The book could be more balanced, addressing Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan more, and Israel-Palestine a little less. It could also capture the rich detail of high-level political summits with more verve; at times the content is dry and excessively policy-orientated. Occasionally the language strays into latinate prose: “The impact of the MDGs in providing this coherence has not just secured the de-confliction of certain development paradigms…”

Despite these flaws in style, Interventions engages assiduously with key topics. Annan does not shy away from criticizing the Bush administration for undermining multilateralism over the Iraq war. He is right to point out that in development debates “the spotlight should not be on aid but trade. It should really be on the failures of rich countries to remove international trade regulations that stunt the economic ambitions of developing countries.”

Interventions really comes alive when we read about Annan’s efforts to work alongside difficult personalities such as the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These passages reflect Annan’s sensitivity and steeliness, as well as his sense for human psychology. The book’s substance lies somewhere between the personal and the policy-driven – more of the former would have made it more readable, but nevertheless it remains a fascinating account of contemporary statecraft in the post-Cold War era.

 

Times Literary Supplement