More than 130 children died during a recent drought in Pakistan. Activists link the growing death toll to “long-term failures” in its healthcare and infrastructure. Most of those suffering from the drought belong to the Dalit caste. Referred to as ‘the scheduled class’, Dalits suffer the most discrimination in the region. As residents of the Tharparkar district, members of this caste bear the burden of drought conditions.
Most deaths occurred in the Thar Desert. The Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN) and other agencies fault the government for it delayed response. PDSN reports “animals started dying in the desert in October last year but the government did not act until reports of children dying in the Mithi Taluka hospital.”
Hospital reports indicate 38 children dying of malnutrition in the hospital in December. Before the drought, Oxfam forecasted the consequences of a continued food insecurity. 57% of children under five face stunted growth.
Persisting food insecurity, coupled with this drought, led to the dramatic rise in deaths. Dependent on food subsidies and animal fodder, residents live in constant food insecurity. Syed Qaim Ali Shah currently serves as the minister of Sindh. The chief minister routinely provides food every August. Yet this year, relief did not arrive until November. Currently, he leads an investigation into this delayed delivery.
“Elected representatives must be held responsible for not reporting to the chief minister,” remarks Javed Jabbar, leader of a nongovernmental organization in Tharparkar.
Failure to act on early warning signs continues the pattern of neglecting the Thar Desert and Dalit people. The drought in this region highlights existing structural inequities. For instance, advocates cite poor health services and limited roads to the more developed regions in Pakistan.
The establishment of Nawabshah Medical College promised a rise in female doctors, yet very few decide to work in less developed regions. Jabbar asserts medical professionals should sign a bond, agreeing to serve difficult regions. Referring to maternal and infant health as “the root cause of this crisis,” Jabbar believes women need incentives to serve Tharparkar.
“Missing public policy action and persistent economic inequalities are the main causes of malnutrition, which – if not addressed – may aggravate the situation in future in the entire province,” remarks Dr. Akram, a pediatrician in the region.
As the region is isolated and neglected, activists cannot know the death count with certainty. Dr. Sono Khangarani of the PDSN estimates the a number as high as 190. “The poorest of the poor” die, reports the Dr. Khangarani. Many parents cannot afford the health services or travel the distance to hospitals and as a result, he predicts a much higher death rate.
The “environmental uncertainty” threatens the food security of residents, but limited healthcare services threaten their lives. Interventionists need to invest in long-term development, as opposed to simply crisis relief.
– Ellery Spahr