Resources & Climate

Desert Solitaire: Why India and Pakistan Should Collaborate to Combat Desertification

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By Sreya Panuganti – Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sat down in early April – their first meeting in three years – to discuss regional and security issues, from the situation in Kashmir to the Mumbai terror attacks. While there have been no new developments in these talks, this recent meeting hopefully indicates a thawing of bilateral relations. One area in which these two countries may find common ground is the environmental degradation in their shared desert border region.

Desertification,  a process of gradual land degradation afflicting many arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas around the world,  can lead to environmental deterioration, natural resources depletion, agricultural losses or food shortages , and substantial hardships for affected populations. In South Asia, this phenomenon already impacts drought-prone sub-humid regions across India and Pakistan, including the shared Thar Desert. In response, the two countries have individually taken substantial strides to combat desertification risks. But more direct collaboration between Delhi and Islamabad could help preserve natural resources and protect agricultural lands threatened by encroaching deserts.

Desertification can have both natural and manmade causes, including changes in rainfall frequency; reduction in vegetal cover; improper agricultural management practices; overexploitation of natural resources; inapt use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; extensive cultivation of a given area without allowing soils an adequate recovery period; and tourism in ecologically sensitive areas. Such factors have placed unprecedented strains on ecosystems, accelerating desertification the world over. In India and Pakistan, rapid population growth and the attendant spike in food demand have placed immense pressure on cultivable lands, resulting in the decreased soil fertility, forest clearance, and livestock overgrazing.

According to India’s National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, of the country’s total 329 million hectares of land, 120.4 million hectares are in deteriorated condition, with 81.45 million hectares affected by desertification.  Left unchecked, increased desertification across India in the coming years could trigger migration within the country, as farmers and others find themselves displaced from the areas where they traditionally earned their livelihoods. Recognizing the need to protect the land and livelihoods of vulnerable populations, the Indian government is implementing some twenty-two programs around the country, including the “Mission for Green India” under its National Action Plan on Climate Change.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, at least 400,000 hectares of land are taken out of production every year due to soil degradation, loss of fertility, and desertification. Given that Pakistan’s arable lands have never been exceedingly fertile, the country’s need for soil replenishment and land regeneration is paramount. Analysts suggest that if Pakistan does not return to intensive small-scale organic farming, the country’s agricultural future could be threatened by advancing deserts on the peripheries of the Indus basin. The government has already passed a series of strategic initiatives to counter desertification, such as the National Conservation Strategy and the National Master Agriculture Research Plan. Working alongside the United Nations Development Program, Pakistan’s Environmental Minister has also launched the Sustainable Land Management to Combat Desertification in Pakistan project, and the nation is beginning to implement improved water conservation measures and more efficient irrigation techniques.

Given that the two countries have independently sought ways of preventing desertification-driven deterioration of their arable land, a bilateral effort to safeguard their natural resources might be considered as a confidence-building measure. One potentially promising setting for collaboration could be the Thar Desert, a large arid region forming a natural boundary along the border between India and Pakistan.

Both countries have already shown interest in protecting communities and farming operations that lie on the desert’s fringes. For instance, Pakistan’s Tharparkar – a largely unproductive region prone to soil erosion, shifting sand dunes, and long periods of drought -is one of the only fertile deserts in the world, and home to more than 900,000 people. Within the district lies the town of Nagar Parkar, the Thar’s veritable green zone. As the only area in the desert where groundwater stocks are favorable for pumping, it is crucial to maintain the water levels there, as several communities are extremely dependent on seasonal rains for both drinking and agricultural purposes. A collaborative project between Pakistan’s Integrated Rural Awareness and Development Organization and the One-UN Joint Program on Environment aims to build check dams, rehabilitate ponds in the area, and construct earthen embankments to help store water and promote conservation.

On the Indian side of the Thar Desert, the Churu district of Rajasthan is facing acute water scarcity due to poor groundwater quality and a lack of access to rivers and canals. The Bhoruka Charitable Trust, an Indian NGO, is encouraging villagers to build and renovate water tanks, ponds, and dug-wells to preserve potable water. Local materials such as clay, silt, lime, and gravel are used to build these tanks, and while they are not entirely impermeable, maintenance is easy.  In the western Rajasthan district of Rajsamand, a local voluntary organization, the Mewar Krishak Vikas Samiti, has constructed nearly 30 ponds, and has promoted afforestation of these ponds’ drainage basins to prevent water siltation. Farmers independently construct these structures in their own fields using local materials, rendering the process affordable for most in the region.

The scientific communities within India and Pakistan promote the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of data as a means of encouraging interaction among experts and decision-makers across national boundaries. With the shared threat that desertification poses, particularly in areas surrounding the Thar Desert, Indian and Pakistani policy makers could both benefit from discussing best practices regarding how to contain shifting sands, achieve balanced soil fertility management, and manage the area’s scare surface- and groundwater supplies. Taking up such a dialogue could allow both countries the opportunity to open up a rare unified front in tackling a pressing transboundary issue.

Photo Credit: Honza Soukup, via Flickr,

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