As the death toll from the latest outbreak of poverty-driven diseases, like pneumonia and meningitis, in Pakistan’s Thar desert nears 100 children, experts are warning that corruption and a dysfunctional political system make a repeat of the disaster almost inevitable. From AFP:
The desert region in Tharparkar, one of Pakistan’s poorest districts, spreads over nearly 20,000 square kilometres (7,700 square miles) in the country’s southeast and is home to some 1.3 million people, including a large population of minority Hindus.
Between March 2013 and February this year, rainfall was 30 percent below usual, according to government data, with the worst-hit towns of Diplo, Chacro and Islamkot barely touched by a drop of water for months.
Asif Ikram, the second most senior administration official in the district, told AFP on Thursday that the death toll from diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis since December 1 had risen to 161 people, including 97 children.
Life in the desert is closely tied to rain-dependent crops and animals, with farmers relying on beans, wheat, and sesame seeds for survival, bartering surplus in exchange for livestock.
The drought is not the only reason for the recent deaths — observers say they have come about as a result of endemic poverty, exacerbated by the drought and an outbreak of disease killing livestock.
Authorities have been busy dispensing food aid and sending medics to attend to the sick following visits by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who leads the Pakistan People’s Party which rules the province.
But observers say the relief work fails to address the root causes of such disasters and warn they are likely to be repeated.
Zafar Junejo, chief executive of Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), says the region has long been ignored by Karachi, the provincial capital, because it is not considered an important constituency politically.
According to the last census, Hindus make up 40 percent of the district’s population, unlike most of Pakistan which is overwhelmingly Muslim, and Junejo said the authorities have little concern for the suffering of minority communities.
“We are fortunately or unfortunately a mixed Hindu and Muslim population,” he said.
“Fortunate because we are living in peace and harmony unlike the rest of the country where radicalisation is in vogue.
“But also unfortunate because being Hindu and being secular we do not fit in the official ideological definition of the country,” he added.
Javed Jabbar, founder of Banh Beli non-government organisation which works in the area, added: “When you have Karachi with 18 million people, Tharparkar is relatively less important from a political radar point of view.”
Jabbar, a former federal information minister, added that the district has fallen victim to “a failure to enforce accountability due to considerations of partisanship” that has afflicted the province for years.
He cited the case of five doctors in the province who were able to keep their jobs despite being absent from their posts for years, because of connections to political patrons.