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

Humanitarian Negotiations in Afghanistan

Beyond Istalif

Even for aid agencies with a longstanding presence in Afghanistan, the challenges of securing access are growing. Problems caused by the insecure and fragmented operating environment are compounded by the uncertainties surrounding the transition to Afghan control of security and the drawdown of international combat troops in 2014. Aid agencies are increasingly being forced to rethink their strategies and approaches, and adopt new methods and mechanisms to ensure that they are able to reach those in need of assistance.

Access constrained

The World Food Programme (WFP), the largest operational humanitarian agency in Afghanistan, has worked continuously in the country since 1962. Throughout the Soviet war, the subsequent civil wars and the latest period of conflict following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, WFP has implemented emergency relief and recovery activities, providing food-based assistance to vulnerable communities. The organisation has faced growing operational challenges over the past decade. Since 2006 insecurity has dramatically increased, peaking around 2010–11, and remains a major obstacle, preventing humanitarian agencies including WFP from delivering services in parts of the country controlled by armed nonstate actors. While humanitarian agencies have some form of access to around 80% of the country, access to certain pockets remains a major challenge.

Based on February 2013 data, WFP can fully access (i.e. without escorts) 90 of Afghanistan’s 399 districts. Most of these districts are in the relatively secure provinces of Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamiyan, Kabul, Panjshir, Samangan and Takhar. Otherwise WFP must access districts either using armed escorts, or can only venture to the district centres, not into more remote territory. In more volatile areas, such as the southern, central, south-eastern and eastern provinces (Helmand, Ghor, Kandahar, Ghazni, Khost, Kunar, Logar, Paktya, Paktika, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Uruzgan, Wardak and Zabul), WFP can only access districts using national or international nongovernmental organisations or contracted commercial entities. In eight districts in the northern and northwestern provinces of Badghis, Farah and Faryab and the eastern province of Nuristan, WFP and its partners have no access at all.

Working through partners

In areas that are beyond the boundaries set by the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) – i.e. areas that UN staffers are strongly advised to avoid for security reasons – WFP uses commercial transporters to deliver assistance, and Programme Assistance Teams (PATs), comprising INGOs/NGOs or commercial companies, such as CTG Global, to ensure effective implementation at the community level. In July 2011 WFP was contracting 80 such teams, rising to 143 by mid-2012. PATs represent six different service providers, ranging from private human resources companies to consultancy firms and NGOs, costing WFP over $2.5 million a year.

Originally intended to enable access to Afghanistan’s ‘no-go’ areas, today PATs also work in low-risk areas, where they supplement the work of Food Aid Monitors. Challenges involved in working with PATs include high staff turnover, capacity limitations, the near-total absence of women in the teams, management problems at the field office level and disputes over differing salary levels. These issues have been addressed through new Field Level Agreements, investment in intensive training, revised roles and responsibilities and changed management and recruitment arrangements. This ensures that PATs can conduct feasibility studies to assess needs, understand the concepts behind WFP’s portfolio of activities and use the WFP monitoring toolkit and follow WFP’s reporting requirements. Commercial transporters are identified by WFP’s logistics arm. They follow their own safety and security precautions and are responsible for their own security. WFP has an agreement with these entities whereby, if any food assistance is lost, the agency is reimbursed by the company.

Faces

WFP is also increasingly working with national and international NGOs that are able to access communities under the control of armed non-state actors. These organisations have usually spent many years working in these communities, gaining their trust and building respect among key actors. WFP is also working through communities to negotiate access with armed non-state actors. WFP very rarely, if ever, negotiates directly with nonstate actors; the most effective method is to use community representatives to advocate on behalf of the organisation. WFP’s experience in Kandahar and neighbouring provinces, regions where the government has little control, is that representatives of communities will often come to WFP or other agencies to report their needs, be they focused on health, education or rural development. These representatives take responsibility for their communities’ food security and negotiate with the actors controlling their territory. Community representatives also frequently take responsibility for handling WFP project monitors’ access and security by securing and delivering letters signed by armed non-state actors. However, these assurances only supplement the risk assessments conducted by the commercial transporters and PAT monitors who physically access the territory, and no broad system of assurance is in place.

Relying on community acceptance and mediation can pose risks for those directly involved. In 2009, a community representative responsible for implementing a food assistance project in a district in Kandahar province was seized by an armed non-state actor and accused of distributing American food. After the community explained WFP’s food distribution mechanisms, the man was released and was able to continue the food distribution. In western Afghanistan, WFP succeeded in negotiating some access to Ghor province based on one national staffer’s unique standing and personal relations in the area. Thus, WFP did not need to rely on the community to mediate on its behalf. The national staffer’s networks and reputation meant that WFP was granted access to a region controlled by a criminal actor not directly affiliated with any insurgency, who had preserved some form of authority over several districts in the province for years. WFP successfully monitored food distributions by adopting low-profile approaches. These examples reflect how WFP is dealing with a range of non-state actors with varying motivations, interests and attitudes. As a result, the organisation has to be pragmatic and flexible to seize opportunities when they arise.

In some circumstances, WFP has persuaded local state authorities to speak with armed non-state actors as part of access negotiations. A district-level government representative spoke to Taliban factions in Quetta on behalf of WFP to gain permission to continue a food distribution in schools in a nearby district on the Afghan side of the border. The initial outcome of this meeting was mixed; one faction was in favour of the food distribution continuing, while another was not. WFP worked through an Afghan community representative in Kandahar province, who succeeded in obtaining a phone contact in Quetta. By telephone, he set up an appointment with the Quetta-based representative, outlining the exact purpose of his visit. At the meeting he explained to the Quetta contact that the food was intended for both boys and girls and was coming from a humanitarian agency. Eventually, the distribution (of oil and high-energy biscuits) was allowed to continue.

A new strategy

While WFP has worked through communities and other local authorities to ensure that activities support communities in need, there is no structured approach to negotiating directly with non-state actors. Under its new Country Strategy, WFP is emphasising its commitment to address all humanitarian needs, based on an even more pronounced adherence to humanitarian principles. A more structured approach to outreach is now being implemented, including greater use of local radio (in which WFP’s humanitarian purpose is communicated), engagement with local authorities to explain WFP’s working methods and a greater focus on outreach at other operational and strategic levels. It will take time and flexibility to communicate this operational shift and gain trust and acceptance. The organisation can achieve access for limited periods in specific pockets of the country through ad hoc negotiations, but more comprehensive access will only come with greater acceptance among communities and non-state actors.

The risks associated with distributing food that is branded with the logo of a NATO troop-contributing nation are clearly felt by these communities. Communities in one district in Helmand province have asked WFP to change the logos, or have sought to re-bag food because of the risks associated with receiving a commodity paid for by a government deemed to be an ‘aggressor’ in their eyes, and no doubt in the eyes of local insurgents. WFP tries to persuade donors to remove logos from food for humanitarian purposes. After a series of meetings, one of WFP’s major donors is now considering waiving the requirement to mark assistance in specific areas experiencing conflict.

With the withdrawal of international forces and the PRTs, it may become easier for humanitarian agencies to achieve acceptance. The PRTs were conceived and funded by NATO troop-contributing nations to implement visible, physical construction projects in areas where NATO troops were deployed. They often sought to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghans, using aid to further a military strategy. This conflation of civilian aid with military objectives, and the disbursement of assistance by entities that were party to the conflict, arguably undermined the perceived neutrality and impartiality of assistance. In parallel, an ‘aid effectiveness’ discourse has seen aid agencies assert their support for the Kabul government, in line with the Paris Declaration, in what has been a conflict context. As a result, aid lost a degree of legitimacy; some humanitarian aid agencies have been targeted by armed non-state actors, and others have lost acceptance in parts of the country that have been fought over.

As the withdrawal of international combat troops continues, the focus of aid is likely to swing back to ‘back to basics’ humanitarian principles grounded in the appropriate allocation of assistance according to needs, impartiality and neutrality. In line with this trend, WFP is keen to widely communicate its humanitarian principles, to achieve optimal impact in line with its humanitarian objectives.

Harry Johnstone was WFP’s Afghanistan Policy Adviser between 2011 and 2013.

Published in the ODI’s Humanitarian Exchange publication, July 2013.