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