Drums beat furiously, bringing a sense of gaiety in Nagarparkar, a town in Tharparkar desert that has been plagued with persistent drought. Children in bright yellow and bottle green kurtas sway to the rhythm of music, welcoming Nassim Saeed Ahmad, their saviour. Locals offer ajrak, flowers, and lots of prayers to the woman who helps repair old tube wells and hand pumps, and also assists in constructing new ones in their vicinity.
Speaking to Youlin Magazine, Ahmad stated humbly, “The generosity and love that these people express is both overwhelming and embarrassing; after all, I am only doing very little to help.”
While the desert is famous for its beauty during the rainy season and valued for its coal reserves, people in the area are deprived of the most basic life facilities. Unpaved and broken roads, scarcity of clean water, shortage of food, lack of schools, and hospitals devoid of sufficient or capable doctors characterize the region.
The provincial government transported a large stock of wheat in Tharparkar for free distribution, and also placed a vaccination programme for livestock under the category of quick launch; however, district administration mismanagement inevitably caused all planning to fail, and repercussions of drought exacerbated.
Today, apart from the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working tirelessly to ameliorate the drought issue. Often, however, individuals who work independently, defying categorization and refusing to attach any labels to their social work, remain unacknowledged.
14 years ago, while on a trip to Mirpurkhas, Ahmad realized the plight of people in Thar when the bus driver, a resident of the area, brought up the issue in passing. Soon after, her nephew in Congo – who was involved in the water business – provided her with a sum of money, asking her to use it in a way that would help reduce water scarcity anywhere in Pakistan. Ahmad knew instantly where this money needed to go.
Taking out half a dozen folders from her bag, Ahmad apprises Youlin Magazine of the nature and methodology of her work. “At first, I tagged along with Javed Jabbar when he was going to Thar and evaluated the situation myself,” she said, adding that it was imperative that she found someone whom she could trust to get the work done. “He assured me that old wells could be repaired and new ones made, and gave me a reasonable cost analysis. He also promised to send me photographs of the wells from all angles, along with detailed and signed receipts.”
Ahmad took a leap of faith and began serving as an intermediary between donors who wished to spend money on social welfare, and all those who were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, starvation and unemployment in Thar. “I am not the giver or taker, but a mere organizer; an ambassador”, Ahmad elucidated. “But I’m so fortunate to have this opportunity to help my community in some way – and I am glad people trust me enough to let me.”
According to the receipts and documents shared by Ahmad, the cost of repairing an old well is around Rs. 50,000, and the cost of building a new one is about Rs 0.45 million. “Reconstructing an abandoned well is easier, as the foundation has already been laid and there is a sure supply of water”. Ahmad carries files with details about all wells, new and old: depth of the water, cost, exact construction material to be used, and water table height. The donor chooses from her compiled database and writes a cheque in the name of the contractor (since Ahmad refuses to touch money and is more than happy with her role as a mediator).
If the water is clear and the well does not require much rebuilding, work takes about four to six weeks – but this period may extend to six months if a new well is being constructed from scratch. “My donors exhibit remarkable patience. Once the work is complete, pictures of the well are sent to them from all angles,” Ahmad explains, adding, “Since most of them live abroad, we also have a Google Earth Map GPS code that enables them to check the well with a single click. Furthermore, all efforts and arrangements are made for the donor to visit the site of the well, if they so desire.”
“Holidays, heat waves and unforeseen circumstances can delay work considerably. Moreover, often while digging a well, we come across water with an extremely high salt content that renders it unusable. Out of 40 wells dug in the last three-and-a-half years, eight were bad,” Ahmad said.
However, even bigger obstacles exist in the form of vested political interests that have far-reaching consequences. Ahmad once received a threatening letter – with the Ministry of Health’s letterhead but no signature – asking her to stop her work that was apparently causing people consuming water from her wells to die. The threat came without any kind of proof or laboratory test reports.
Thar has sufficient tree cover, vegetables and shrubs, and if properly protected and managed, its yield can be increased. If the high velocity winds in the region are put to use, and the Moringa oleifera (Drumstick tree) is grown, an ecosystem can be maintained quite comfortably. Moringa, also referred to as the “tree of life”, serves as a water filter, dispelling its salt content. Every part of the plant is edible, and since it requires little maintenance, it will thrive in the region – and could potentially turn it into a vegetative sandy area.
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