Tharparkar, Sindh: Mano Mal Kohli, a small-scale peasant, is planning his daughter’s wedding banquet. The Hindu family, belonging to Pakistan’s largest minority, will be celebrating the moment of delight after a long while since they were struck by the drought that has plagued Tharparkar for four consecutive years.

It is blessing of the rain spells that brought life back to Nangarparkar besides helping local farmers to get bumper crop of onion.

Kohli is based in the Nangarparkar tehsil (sub-district) of Sindh’s southern district and Pakistan’s largest desert Tharparkar,

This year’s onion crop yield resulted in good savings, thus allowing Mano to spend good amount for his beloved daughter’s farewell.

“My entire family is very delighted. They want to shower her with jewelry, lavish traditional bridal suits of ghagra and choli along with some other essentials for the bride’s dowry,” said Kohli while talking to News Lens Pakistan. “Had the crop failed to be productive, we could not have entertained the thought of celebrating an occasion like this,” he added as his eyes sparkled with strong sentiments.

Kohli and his joint family of five brothers are free after eight months long cultivation, picking and marketing exercise, started in August last year and lasted in March this year. The family, living in Radko village of Deh Kasbo, Nangarparkar cultivated onion on five acres. Due to good yield in recent past, Kohli’s family has enhanced onion cultivation.

“Four years ago, we cultivated two acres and produced 700 maunds (one maund = 37.3242 kilograms). Out of the five acres cultivated this year, the onion crop output was 1,200 maunds, thus saving us around Rs. 600, 000 (PKR),” said Kohli.

Kohli’s family is not the only one celebrating this moment of jubilance in Radko village; which consists of a 2,000 people strong population and comprises of 300 peasants’ households. The people of Radko village and nearby areas are witnessing an upward trend in agriculture- thanks to the recently improved rain harvesting methods in the form rain-fed water storage outlets, in the parched area of Tharparkar.

Ramu Mal Meghwar, resident of Oan village of Nangarparkar has a similar story to tell. “Six years ago, I cultivated three acres. This year, I cultivated 22 acres and managed to save Rs 700,000 from the crop.” Meghwar told News Lens Pakistan.

“I am planning to upgrade my house,” Ramu said while sharing his plans for the near future. Apart from improving the two-room house made from mud and grass, Ramu wants to see his school-going kids continue their studies. “I have two sons and a daughter. Had there been no prosperity through agriculture, providing education to my children would have been impossible,” he said.

According to Ghulam Yaseen Panhwar, Mukhtiarkar (tehsil administrator) Nagarparkar, the onion crop was cultivated on 2,000 acres this year in Nagarparkar as compared to less than 1,000 acres in 2012. “Although the price ranged from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per maund throughout the season, the product was worth Rs 15 million on average,” he added. “Improved rain harvesting has led to enhanced kitchen gardening in Nagarparkar and surrounding areas like Karoonjhar Hills, Kasbo and Adhigam areas,” he said.

Nagarparkar, located in the southeastern corner of Sindh, is about 530 kilometers east of its capital Karachi. According to estimates, Nagarparkar is home to around 80,000 people, who are extremely poverty stricken as 90 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line.

By acknowledging the Nagarparkar area as one without any proper irrigation system, the Government of Sindh, terms the area as having “high potential for constructing dams for the harvesting of rainfall generated runoff.

“Onion is very suitable for cultivation in the highly fertile and sandy fields of Tharparkar as it requires less watering,” said Bharumal Amrani, an area analyst. It is believed that Tharparkar is the only fertile desert in the world.

“Besides the onion crop, other species like cumin, potato and tomato should also be cultivated on large scale under government’s supervision as they require less watering. It will not only give a financial boost to the producers based in this poverty stricken area, but will also provide fresh vegetables, thus solving the nutrition problems associated with drought,” Amrani added.

“It is believed that Nasarpuri specie of onion, cultivated in Nangarparker, has a greater shelf-life than other species in Sindh,” he added.

According to the figures available in a document by the Sindh Government, “Average annual rainfall for the Nagarparkar based on available data recorded at various stations in the area for the period 1926-2009 is of the order of 340 millimeters (mm) or 13.4 inches.” Similarly it is also clear from official statistics pertaining to the last four drought-hit years that in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, Nangarparkar received 365 mm, 741 mm, 155 mm and 350 mm of annual average precipitation respectively.

Experts suggest that this natural rainfall is an advantage which should be utilized at its utmost capacity to lessen the frequent droughts which afflict the water-scarce area. The area has been facing frequent droughts since the past three decades.

“There are two ways to obtain water in Tharparkar; rainwater and underground water,” said Khan Muhammad Marri, representative of a non-governmental organization (NGO) ‘Baanh Beli’ working in the area. “It is estimated that during a good rainy year, the maximum water available for harvesting in Tharparkar desert is enough for the consumption of 1.2 million people and 4 million livestock for a year. The surplus water can be used to bring about 0.15 million hectares of land under cultivation,” Marri added.

In 2007, Irrigation Department, Government of Sindh established the Sindh Small Dams Organisation (SDO), which initiated the construction of small dams, retention weirs (bunds) in Tharparkar.

According to Khalid Nawaz Dahar, Executive Engineer Nagarparkar, seven water storage outlets, namely Ranpur bund, Kharroro bund, Malji Bund, Bhodesar Tank, Tobrio Tank and Lakhy Jo Wadio have been completed while the work on four more projects was in progress.

Apart from governmental efforts, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also active in constructing water conservation outlets in Nagarparkar and the surrounding areas. There are around 13 small water check dams in Karoonjhar Hills’s surrounding areas out of which Baanh Beli has constructed four. “85 percent of Tharparkar underground water is saline. Check dams around Karoonjhar Hills are the main source of groundwater level recharge, therefore there is high dependency on rainwater,” said Marri. According to social workers, after the previous year’s rains, wells have been recharged in Karoonjhar and the water levels have risen at dams.

Similarly Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), a non-profit organization working in the area, has constructed three earthen fill dams in the year 2012-13 in Nangarparkar at locations of villages Kasbo, Sukhpure and Sabusan.

“During the past two years, in the surrounding of TRDP constructed dams, the level of the water table has improved although rain has not been plentiful,” said Ali Junejo, a TRDP representative.

Meghwar agrees with Marri and Junejo, referring to his well’s case. He said, “Seven years ago, the water table was around 70 feet deep. Now the well has been filled since the last rains.”

Political and administrative authorities do not support the idea of boosting rain harvesting techniques. Coordinator of the provincial Tharparkar Relief Committee Senator Taj Haider, a leader of Sindh’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party that is under criticism for not providing water, health and other basic facilities to the people over the years, defends the Government’s actions for not providing large scale rain-harvesting infrastructure to the area people.

“Rain harvesting is not a permanent solution as rain is not a reliable source of irrigation,” said Senator Haider. According to him, Tharparkar does not face any underground water deficiency so bio-saline agriculture needs to be boosted. “We have seen some success in the form of bio-saline in Islamkot (another tehsil of Tharparkar). We should concentrate on it as it has been successful,” he said.

Due to good onion crop yields, migration has reduced in Karoonjhar and the surrounding areas. Kohli says, “There is no migration in Radko village now. People used to go barrage districts of Sindh where they would work as peasants in agricultural fields.”

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