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Babies starving as food runs low in Pakistan's drought-hit Tharparkar district

By freelance journalist Ashraf Ali in Tharparkar, Pakistan, Thursday February 18, 2016 - 07:54 EDT
ABC licensed image
A malnourished child at the district hospital at Mithi, Tharparkar's main centre. - ABC licensed

Pakistan's Tharparkar district is entering its third straight year of drought, with nearly 200 deaths since January ?? many of them children, writes Ashraf Ali.

As I travel through the drought devastated Tharparkar district of Sindh province I am overcome in equal measure by shame and sorrow.



Sorrow for the scores of children who have died in the drought and shame that these deaths could occur in modern Pakistan.

Already, I have encountered Jamna, who was taken to hospital only after developing fits at home.

"She started shivering and stopped her food intake to become weak day by day," Jamna's grandmother Kasturi said.

"A day later she started coughing severely, that prompted us to get her into a local health facility."

Then Jamna, 18 months old, was shifted to the district hospital at Mithi, the regional centre, where doctors diagnosed her as suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Kasturi, who is 57, lives with 11 family members in a hut in the village of Moduru, located near the Pakistan-India border and 380 kilometres east of Karachi.

She works at a farm along with her husband, Popu Chand, to feed their family.

Jamna's mother, as custom dictates, must minimise her contact with men and attend to home duties.

This is the third consecutive year of drought.

Officially it has claimed 185 people, mostly children, since the beginning of January.

Independent sources put the figure at well over 200.

Locals left without food, drinking water



The country's National Commission for Human Rights has demanded a report from the Sindh Government and will send in a team to assess the crisis.

There are accusations more food aid should have been provided much earlier when the monsoon rains failed again.

"Malnutrition was found to be the most common cause for the high death toll," Dr Sikandar Raza, a paediatrician at the district hospital, said.

Tharparkar is home to 1.4 million people and also contains Pakistan's largest desert.

Water can be saline, causing abdominal pain, and is often only located in very deep wells.



Crops are grown on the marginal lands and livestock, which have been depleted by the drought, are important to its rudimentary economy.

There is also a significant number of nomadic tribes.

Medical experts say the lack of safe drinking water, poor diet, poverty, low hygiene standards and ignorance all contribute to the malnutrition problem.

Water borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera are common along with hepatitis B and C, hospital doctors said.

Dr Raza said the lack of adequate health facilities was a problem.

"Above all, the ill-equipped and poorly staffed health facilities at our disposal don't leave us in a good position to cope with the situation," he said after treating another round of malnourished children.

"We have limited beds at the [nutrition stabilisation centre] ?? only seven. How can we cater to the needs of the patients coming from the whole district?"

40 per cent of Pakistani children malnourished: report

According to a National Nutrition Survey report, 40 per cent of children across Pakistan are malnourished and almost 50 per cent of women are iron deficient.



The severe drought in Tharparkar has only magnified these problems, further exacerbated by the fact that less than 40 per cent of people across the country have been immunised against serious diseases.

Jamna's uncle Rai Chand has also been looking after his niece. He said he did not have access to a balanced diet.

"We can hardly find some pulses or vegetables to eat with a piece of bread," he said.

"It would be a luxury to find meat to eat at some point."

The district hospital's data shows that children who have been admitted range in age from four days to 12 years.

The majority of the newborn babies in the incubators at Mithi's hospital were suffering from birth asphyxia and other respiratory issues. Many were also premature deliveries.

The hospital's doctors have a long list of equipment that is urgently needed ?? a trauma facility, a blood transfusion centre, a pathological laboratory, an ear, nose and throat specialist, a cardiac surgeon and more sophisticated incubators.

When the drought devastates Tharparkar, Rai Chand, like many from his community, goes to Karachi, Pakistan's major commercial hub.

In Karachi, he earns money for food and supplies for his family, working at a market during the day and sleeping by the rail track under the Kala Pul bridge.

He told me one day he will return with his earnings to his family in Tharparkar.


- ABC

© ABC 2016

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