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Drought and deep-seated problems in southern Pakistan

Malnutrition has long been commonplace in drought-affected areas
Malnutrition has long been commonplace in drought-affected areas

Drought is almost always devastating to lives and livelihoods. However, could more have been done to prevent the deaths of at least 132 children during a recent drought in Pakistan?

The remote Pakistani district of Tharparkar is home to around 1.5 million people, and over the last new year period it was at the heart of a severe drought. The Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN) tells the Guardian newspaper that, as early as October 2013 animals were dying due to the harsh conditions. However, they argue, the government failed to act on these warning signs until it was too late and children in local hospitals were already dying from acute malnutrition.

Campaigners argue that the area's Dalit population, who make up the poorest members of society, were the worst affected by the extreme weather. According to Dr Sono Khangarani, who works for PDSN, the remoteness of many villages meant that Dalit families often could not bring their children to hospital. He suggests that these children's deaths have gone uncounted and could raise the death toll amongst children to 190.

Deeper issues

A number of NGOs and individuals have argued that a range of deep-seated issues exacerbated the impact of the drought. According to Dr DS Akram, a paediatrician in the region, “malnutrition is not a new or sudden phenomenon ... but it had remained under the radar for too long.” In fact, malnutrition is common throughout Sindh province, where Tharparkar district is situated.

Oxfam's country director for Pakistan, Arif Jabbar Khan, tells the Guardian that 57% of children in the province are affected by malnutrition and 72% of households are not food secure. Khan goes on to say that this is not the consequence of general food shortage, but rather poor public policy and rising economic inequality.

Inadequate government action is also blamed for the particularly devastating impact of the most recent drought. Javed Jabbar, founder of Baanhn Beli, has called for a non-partisan enquiry into the slow response to the crises, as well as the lack of investment in healthcare and infrastructure beforehand. This, he says, was the root cause of the problems and officials must be held responsible.

Uncertain future

Extreme weather conditions are not a recent or uncommon phenomenon in Tharparkar, or the wider area. For several years in a row the district has been faced with periods of insufficient rainfall, and in 2010 the entire Sindh region was hit by extreme flooding.

Unfortunately meteorologists warn that the times ahead will be uncertain for the whole of Pakistan. Droughts have already greatly damaged the country's agricultural industry and these sort of weather events are set to become even more intense and frequent in the coming years.

SOS Children works in seven locations across Pakistan. For nearly four decades, we have been there for the most vulnerable children in Pakistan. Find out more.