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Misery mounts in drought ‘hit’ southeast Pakistan Dozens of children die of malnutrition

 MITHI, Pakistan, March 12, (Agencies): Two-month-old Mangal succumbed to pneumonia on Tuesday in Mithi, southeast Pakistan, the latest victim of a deadly web of drought, disease and malnutrition in one of the country’s most deprived regions. Her father Buru had held a plastic tube supplying oxygen into her tiny nostrils all night, but his silent prayers were not enough. She died in a government hospital in Mithi, the main town of Tharparkar district, becoming one of at least 67 children to die of povertydriven disease in the area since December. “She was in a very serious condition and we had advised her father to get her to a bigger hospital in Hyderabad city,” doctor Mohanlal Khatri told AFP at the Mithi hospital. “Most of the children are brought here with pneumonia, diarrhoea, low birth weight and neonatal sepsis.” The unfolding tragedy has grabbed the attention of the national media but aid remains scarce, a day after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto- Zardari, son of the late premier Benazir Bhutto, visited the area. Thar desert, which begins around 300 kms (200 miles) east of Karachi and runs up to the border with India, is dominated by subsistence farmers who depend on beans, wheat, and sesame seeds for survival, bartering surplus in exchange for livestock.

Deficit It has been hit by a rainfall deficit of roughly 30 percent between March 2013 and February this year, according to government data, with the worst-hit towns of Diplo, Chacro and Islamkot barely touched by a drop of water for months. At an army-run camp in Mithi, women dressed in the yellow, red and blue dress typical of the region’s Hindu community, waited in a line for relief which many said was hard to come by. “Please get me a food permit, I have been coming here since yesterday but in vain,” one woman pleaded. Hindus, a small minority in Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 180 million, have been the worst affected by what is happening in Tharparkar. “Of all the children we treated 75 percent were from the Hindu community,” said Khatri, the doctor in Mithi. Much of the aid so far has been provided by the charity wing of banned Islamist outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whose head Hafiz Saeed is wanted by India for allegedly masterminding the Mumbai attacks. Hafiz Abdul Rauf, who heads the organisation in the area, said that the primary cause of the deaths was the grinding poverty that has afflicted the area for decades. An outbreak of sheep pox has aggravated the situation, according to residents who depend on livestock as a form of saving, selling an animal when money is needed for a special occasions such as weddings. “We had 300 sheep, (but) because of ‘Mata’ (sheep pox) and drought, 150 of them died over the past two months,” said Bheer Lal, 30, from one of the affected villages. “Our life depends on the livestock and now they have gone our life is at stake.” Madan Lal, a senior official with the Sindh livestock department, told AFP that 12 vaccinating teams had been sent out to treat livestock on a “war footing”. Sono Khangrani, the head of Thardeep Rural Development Programme, an NGO working in Thar, warned the situation could deteriorate as spring gives way to the hot summer. “Thar will see worse conditions in coming days. Hot weather will increase the drought in April, May and June,” he told AFP. “Thar has been facing this problem for years and years but this time the media highlighted the issue and forced the government to respond.” Meanwhile, dozens of children have died of malnutrition and other causes in Pakistan’s southern region this year, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to travel to the drought-stricken area to allocate $10 million in emergency aid. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said 18 children under the age of five had died in January and another 23 in February. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) confirmed the UN figures, saying 26 under-five children had also died in December when a severe drought hit the Tharparkar area of the southern region of Sindh. The drought has affected an estimated 900,000 people, according to the Tharparkar deputy commissioner’s office. Sharif flew to the arid region on Monday to promise $10 million in aid. “The people will soon be able to return to their homes and prosperity will come to these areas,” Sharif promised in televised comments. “The situation will improve very soon.” The extreme dry weather is compounding the plight of the impoverished farming region, where health services are poor and unemployment is high. Hazem el Mahi, a UNOCHAspokesman, said it was too early to say exactly what was causing the spike in child mortality, but that it was a combination of infections and maternal and child malnutrition. “We are not aware of adult deaths so far,” he said.

Assessment “We have started a joint assessment with the Pakistan government only today and we can’t know the real situation on the ground until the assessment is complete.” Pakistani media said the children were dying due to drought-related malnutrition. No figures for deaths in March have been released. Local media have said relief goods were not reaching the affected area promptly. One report said 60,000 sacks of flour had been dispatched to Sindh but only 900 had been distributed. “He (Sharif) directed to ensure swift provision of edible commodities, drinking water and medicine to the people,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement. It said Sharif had also ordered strict action against those responsible for “negligence” in distributing wheat in Tharparkar. NDMAdirector Raza Iqbal attributed the distribution problems to delays in paying transport companies. “There are administration issues,” he said, but gave no details. Provincial authorities, relief groups and political parties have sent food, medicine and other items to the drought-hit areas.

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