Water for Life

July 26, 2013

The Parkari Kohlis are a low caste Hindu Tribal People whose homeland is located in the south east of Pakistan, in the Thar Parkar Desert whose center is the small town of Nagar Parkar. It is just three miles from the border with India. Thar Parkar is Pakistan’s largest district at nearly 20,000 square kilometers and comprising an estimated 2,350 villages. The desert also extends into India. It is extremely poor with an estimated population of one and a quarter million people.

The majority of Parkari Kohlis live in India. Since independence and the Partition of the Indian Sub-Continent in 1947, they are a divided people, living on both sides of the artifi cially created Pakistan/ India border. In Pakistan they are referred to as the non-scheduled caste, which bears the connotation of untouchable. This has led to entrenched discrimination and oppression down the centuries.

There has been a Christian presence in the town for more than 30 years through the Boys Boarding Hostel run by the Diocese of Hyderabad. The town has the only government high school in the area, so if there were no hostel facilities it would not be possible for these children to continue their education beyond primary level. In addition there are 25 outlying villages, each of which has a small number of Christian families, totaling about a hundred in all. Numbers wise it is a small parish but geographically large, so I spend on average ten to twelve days a month there.

The mission to Nagar Parkar itself was established in the early 1960s by Franciscan Friars. It was then a diffi cult and hazardous mission. It entailed a seven day trek across the desert from interior the four wheel drive jeep, this was reduced to a twelve hour journey. With the new road, the journey has been reduced further, and the desert can be crossed in four hours, though most villages are still only accessible through four wheel drive jeeps.

Road infrastructure is slowly developing, which is cutting down the travel time. One reason for the construction of new roads is to facilitate the government and business exploitation of the natural resources in the area. This includes marble in the hills surrounding Nagar Parkar and coal under large areas of the Thar Parkar Desert. There is also white china clay used in the making of ceramics. The already scarce water used in processing of the white clay is seeping into the underground water-table and contaminating it. It is hard not to see the same thing happening when the coal-mining begins as priority is not given to the impact on the environment that such mining causes. Underneath the sands of the desert lies one of the largest reservoirs of coal in the world today. The country does not produce suffi cient energy for its people’s needs, and power cuts are a daily occurrence. The coal has the potential to supply energy for generations; but at what cost? It is an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Many Parkari Kohlis own land in Nagar Parker but due to insufficient water supply a viable living is difficult. This forces the majority of Parkari Kohlis to cross the Thar Desert into Sindh, to work for feudal landlords as landless peasants. They become indebted to their landlords so in effect are bonded laborers. A minority of the Parkari Kohlis migrate back and forth, depending on the extent of the monsoon season.

Thar Parkar is not connected to the massive canal network that covers a lot of the country, so is dependent on rains during the July and August monsoon season. If the rains do not come, life becomes even more precarious than usual for the people. To have a fair chance of having a good crop the monsoon rains need to come three times at intervals of three weeks or so over a two month period. If only one or two rains come, the crops are stunted which seriously affects production.

Water is a life and death issue in Thar Parkar. Despite heavy flooding in recent years, there are intense water shortages in parts of the country. It is already a serious issue and will become more pronounced in the coming years. Climate change, in the form of increasing temperatures, melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush Mountains in the north of the country and lower rainfalls are contributing to the situation, a situation that will worsen if the country’s 170 million population doubles as it is projected to do so in the next 25 years or so.

Women in Thar Parkar, as in many parts of the world, are charged with the task of collecting water. When it becomes scarce they have the even more arduous task of traveling longer distances to collect it from tube-wells. On summer days temperatures can be as high as 118.40 F. The falling water table means that water needs to be drawn from depths that can reach 200 feet. So it is easy to imagine the consequences for women who may be pregnant or malnourished. The Thar Desert region receives between 260 and 280 mm of rainfall annually. If stored properly this would be sufficient to meet the domestic needs of the people and their livestock until the next monsoon season. But because of inadequate water storage and rainwater collecting facilities, more than 95% of the water is lost under sand dunes or evaporates in the intense summer heat.

Pakistan is considered a water scarce country, and it is one of the world’s most arid regions. Rains are becoming erratic, which along with overuse of limited water is expected to create severe problems for the country in the years ahead. To help prevent this, the country needs to promote the proper conservation and management of water. It needs to implement workable rainwater collecting facilities at the village level so as to reach as many people as possible and alleviate some of their difficulties.

During the monsoons of 2011 and 2012 heavy rains in the Thar Desert recharged parched shallow wells, raised water tables in deep wells and filled household cisterns. In anticipation and hope for good monsoon rains people usually prepare their fields every year in late July before the rainy season starts. They plough and plant seeds of millet, cluster bean, sesame, kidney bean, cow peas, muskmelon, watermelon, squash melon, wild cucumber and other wild plants. Prior to the rains, they also clean ditches and depressions for storing rainwater. When the monsoon rains arrive they turn dusty and arid villages in the district into an oasis with lush green foliage and plenty of water to drink and to bathe. There is also sufficient pasture for livestock to graze and thrive on. The lives of people are invigorated. They begin to cultivate crops, bring back their livestock from interior Sindh, and they store as much rainwater as possible. It is an awe inspiring sight to see a semi-arid desert turned into lush greenery, if only for a short time.

But, the accumulated rainwater in these ditches and depressions lasts only for three to four months, so for the rest of the year the people depend on brackish water of wells, which results in health hazards among humans and livestock. The links between water quality and health risks are well established. An estimated 250,000 child deaths occur each year in Pakistan due to water-borne diseases.

One example of illness linked to the quality of water is fluorosis which is caused by the high content of fluoride, which causes people to develop bone deformities plus skeletal and dental problems. Decreasing water levels in wells and a subsequent increase in the fluoride concentration are endangering the lives of people who have no alternative but to drink such water. A survey of one village found that 250 of the 950 population were suffering from fluorosis.

In a normal day, family members of each household spend around 4-6 hours carrying 4-5 clay pots amounting to 50-60 liters of water from wells. The necessity is for the introduction of lowcost technologies to collect huge supplies of water, which can help meet needs of the people throughout the year. Water conservation experts claim that that there are several viable ways of collecting and storing rain water which include piped roof water collection, building ponds, and building small dams that would allow it to seep underground for the water table level to rise. But the construction of such water conservation techniques is not possible without serious investment by government. To date neither the provincial or federal government has taken this life and death issue seriously enough.

The Catholic Church, in its outreach, seeks to alleviate a little of the suffering. One modest effort is the construction of water tanks to store water. They are built underground with a large concrete area on top to catch the monsoon rains. They are built to a capacity of 2,000 gallons. The monsoon rains are so heavy that they fill the water tanks in a matter of hours. The materials and expertise are funded through the parish enabled by generous benefactors. The contribution made by the people receiving the tanks is to dig the holes and provide the labor to the block layer cum plasterer. In a village of 30 families, 30 tanks have just been completed. When the monsoon rain water is used up, it can be refilled in bulk by drawing water from distant wells in oxen and car, camel and cart or donkey and cart. This work is done by men, and it saves the women from having to fetch water each day.

In addition to the water tanks water filters are provided. They are made from the traditional clay pots that people use for drawing and storing water. Layers of pebbles, gravel and sand are put into one pot, which is filled with water. The filtered water then drains through a pipe into a second pot and is now safe for drinking. They work effectively and are an example of simple technology appropriate to the peoples’ needs and context. The new water storage facilities have transformed the lives of people. They have a source of safe, clean water, and diseases have diminished. It gives more opportunity for children to go to school, and women have more time to spend on other activities, and maybe have a little rest!

Indeed, water is life! Without water there is no life. It is the most basic thing for living. It is unsurprising that water is a central symbol in several great religious traditions. As Christians it is through baptism that we enter into the life of the risen Christ. In the words of Khalil Gibran:

In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.