ARID areas of the world are always prone to famines whenever the average annual rainfall is less than 250mm. The Thar region of Sindh, which has climatic and ecological conditions similar to the Indian state of Rajast*hanís portion of Thar, faces severe droughts for two to three years in every 10-year cycle.

These areas have been witnessing famine-like conditions for ages. The average annual rainfall is less than 250mm, which is usually uneven and erratic. The northern sandy area, known as Achro Thar in districts Sanghar, Khairpur, Sukkur and Ghotki, receives average annual precipitation of less than seven inches and therefore is termed Ďhyper-aridí. But even then it is not a desert like the Sahara, as it has reasonable vegetative cover.

Some patches of sand in Sanghar district are barren and are termed dhain. The total geographical area of Thar in Sindh is 48,000 square kilometres, out of which 25,000sq km is in Tharparkar and Umerkot districts.

It is a potentially productive and vegetative sandy area which is turning into desert due to over-exploitation, although it still has sufficient tree cover and shrubs, and if properly protected and managed will remain productive.

A realistic approach is needed to make Thar less prone to disaster.
The sandy arid area with high wind velocity has indeed a fragile ecosystem. If its vegetative cover is overexploited and marginal lands on the slopes of sandy dunes are brought under cultivation, the area will turn into a barren desert.

The sandy arid area of Cholistan in Bahawalpur division of Punjab is also similar to Thar in its geomorphology, but the desertification process is less as wind velocity is not as high as that of Thar, and much of its area has been developed and brought under canal irrigation.

The sandy arid area of Rajasthan has been properly managed by the Indian government since 1953, when the Central Arid Zone Research Institute was established. Unfortu*nately, no concerted efforts were made to conserve and develop the potential of our portion of Thar through a scientific and institutional approach and no government research and development institute has done any appreciable work in the area.

The Sindh Arid Zone Development Authority, formed in 1985, was assigned multidisciplinary duties of all the line departments of the Sindh government and due to its major role in civil works and services, it could not carry out any sustainable development to ameliorate the suffering of Tharís people. The main emphasis of Sazda should have been aimed at income-generating activities through livestock development, silvopastoral development and desertification control. But the resources were wasted in civil works.

Lack of honesty and commitment among the functionaries was also a major cause of its failure. Sazda was wound up in 2003 after the implementation of the devolved local bodies district government system. Yet despite Sazdaís questionable role, reasonable achievements were made in the groundwater investigation sector. The credit for this goes to late Abdul Khalique Sheikh, chief hydro-geologist of Sazda, whose dedicated efforts made it possible to explore groundwater sources beyond the depth of some 300 metres.

The area is now approachable through metalled roads connecting all taluka headquarters and main localities, while communication of information has also become faster and easier. This is why the electronic media has been able to cover the Thar area.

The media has done well to highlight the sufferings of the people of Thar. But droughts and famines are not new for the people of the region. Old-timers in the area are witness to the misery and death wrought by the droughts and famines of 1951, 1968, 1969, 1987 and 1988. Simi*larly, the destruction and death in the famines of 1899 and 1939 are also remembered in Thar and Rajasthan, when there was not a single drop of rain throughout the years.

Those at the helm of affairs must adopt a realistic approach to make this area less prone to famines, otherwise in the present global village and the age of free media the reputation of the government will be jeopardised.

From my own experience of the area, I would suggest that the government should establish an independent and autonomous institute of research and development to carry out research in agro-forestry, range and livestock development, saline water use, fisheries, desertification control, ecology, saline groundwater use for crops, rainwater harvesting and salt-resistant plants and grasses as lasting solutions to Tharís problems.

All government departments should continue their usual activities in the area with better funding by the state. The agriculture, forest and livestock departments should strengthen their extension services and carry the benefits of the research results to farmers. Nothing is impossible if there is an honest approach and dedication to find solutions to problems.

The writer is former director general agricultural engineering and water management, Sindh.