Islamic NGOs filling the aid gap in Pakistan’s Thar desert

MITHI, Pakistan – Entering Mithi, the district headquarters of Pakistan's southeastern Tharparkar district, the first thing you notice are the tri-color flags of the ruling left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). They have been sweeping elections across the region, on the edges of the vast Thar Desert, for the last four decades and their flags are hoisted on government buildings, electricity polls and trees. But at a time when a lack of food, fodder and water have led to malnutrition and illness in the region; neither the PPP nor most other parties are to be seen. 

A small PPP camp is set up at Kalima Chowk, in main Mithi city, where a couple of workers sit next to a small stack of food items, presumably for the drought-affected people of the Thar desert. To the right and left are two bigger camps, run by the relief wings of Pakistan's mainstream religious political parties: Jamaat-e-Islami's Al-Khidmat Foundation and Jamaat-ud-Daw'ah's (JuD) Falah-e-Insaniat. In contrast to the PPP camps, locals gather for the food, drinks, water bottles, and other edible items that are stacked in huge quantities. 

The two camps have been operating as collection and supply points simultaneously, with trucks from around the country unloading  rations, drinks, fodder and medicine donated by philanthropists. 

Next to the Al-Khidmat camp, a huge tent-house serves as a kitchen that can feed around 200 people at a time and over the course of the day it provides three meals to the hundreds of people lodging in make-shift tents along the Mithi road. Hardly 100 meters from the camps, three veterinarians vaccinate animals at a make-shift veterinary hospital set up by Al-Khidmat. 

Every morning, the NGO workers load the aid onto jeeps and drive deep into the desert to distribute it among the drought-hit Tharis, who have this year suffered from both a lack of rain and the death of over 4 million animals due to disease. 

“We have not so far seen those who we voted for in the elections. We have only seen these Maulvis (religious leaders), who have provided us with rations and water,” Saleem Nuhrio, a resident of Khari Pisayio, tells Anadolu Agency (AA).

A small village located 55 kilometers from Mithi, comprised of 150 houses and a population of 1000, Khari Pisayo is one of the worst-affected villages of the Diplo town of Thar, where residents complain about the government’s apathy. 

“It seems if the government does not consider us its responsibility. Not even a single government official or the elected parliamentarians have so far visited us despite the fact we are just 5 kilometers away from Diplo city,” says a clearly angry Nuhrio.  

A team of JuD, which is blamed for by Indian authorities for deadly Mumbai attacks in November 2009, visited the village last week to distribute two-weeks worth of rations among residents. “They have promised to visit us again next week,” Nuhrio tells AA, while sitting underneath a tree outside his small mud-house. 

“These are the two things the government has done for us in last 66 years," he says, pointing at an electricity pole and a hand pump that draws sub-soil water. 

“We are not distributing relief goods in a haphazard way. We have to maintain our stocks for coming summers. God forbid, if there is no spring rains, things may get worse in summer,” says Nadeem Ahmed, a JuD spokesperson. "We conduct a survey of a village and check the national ID cards of residents to confirm whether they are locals or have come from other places to extort aid.” 

The relief goods are provided on the second or third day after the survey, he says. Not only in the far-flung villages, people in Mithi, where no sign of famine or drought can be witnessed, speak highly about the two NGOs. 

“If you want the stuff you have brought, to be distributed among the real affectees, then contact the people wearing orange jackets (JuD activists)” says a passer-by, believing AA's correspondent had arrived with aid.

Unlike foreign-funded organizations, the Islamic NGOs have established permanent bases in the region. “We are not here only to combat this famine-like situation. It happens every year. We plan to minimize the famine risk as much as possible,” says Al-Khidmat's secretary Abdul Rasheed. 

The NGO, which is the largest in Pakistan, has been running a water project called Zam-Zam in the region that has constructed 400 wells in different villages of Thar, half of which contain sweet water, Rasheed says. Unlike other parts of Pakistan, Thar faces a disadvantage of having bitter sub-soil water that forces thousands to migrate to other areas every year in anticipation of no rain. “We plan to provide soft loans to over 2000 families that have lost their animals, so that they can re-establish their businesses,” he says.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency