Sunday, July 19, 2009

July news from Thatta, Sindh in southern Pakistan

Bernard went to Thatta District of Sindh region in southern Pakistan in early July for a few weeks to implement a project baseline survey for the US branch of the French NGO Action Against Hunger. The project is very interesting as it is about doing action-research to assist coastal communities address the unrelenting issue of increasing soil and drinking water salinity, a pressing issue worldwide due mainly to poor irrigation practices, reduced fresh water volumes in natural water courses and now more droughts and rising sea levels.

Islamabad is a new (1960) modern, green and spacious city, with women in public, right next to the very contrasting old British garrison town of Rawalpindi. There are green hills overlooking the city and it feels a great place for shopping after Dakar. I was able to get a pair of prescription glasses made in one day with good frames for about $25!

Thatta is the just the opposite: crowded, no women in public, and dirty with only basic shopping (cannot even buy a fly-swatter or a table!). It only rains 250mm here, like in the Sahel, but we have just started the rainy season with violent thunderstorms. There are a couple of interesting cultural sites locally which I have not yet been able to visit due to little time and a case of the Thatta trots. Safe drinking water has to be trucked in from Karachi in 20l bottles.

Environmentally friendly all-terrain vehicle.

What's left of the the mighty Indus River below the last dam.

Urban camel cart.

Monster trucks for fodder. Tricky on windy days!

First impressions of Sindh, South Pakistan. The good: rural men are very hospitable and friendly and one could spend the whole day drinking tea with them and at their expense, no matter how much protesting. They are genuinely touched that foreigners would go visit them. The Indus delta area is interesting with greenery in the desert, irrigated and rain-fed agriculture, livestock (incl. camels!), fishing, a bit of wildlife left (yet to be seen but to be investigated), waterways and boats (even sailing dhows - to be attempted for sure) and clean air (unlike the neighouring metropolis of Karachi). Half the people live in the creeks, only accessible by boat. Personal security is no problem here, the main dangers are the usual suspects: food, traffic, mozzies and perhaps tea-overdosing. There is a nice selection of fruits in the market (peaches, plums, mangoes, dates, apricots, grapes, apples).

A small example of soil salinisation and no easy solutions.

Precociously old but very hospitable fisherman, his boat and his son.

Sea fishing boats in Keti Bunder.

A rare glimpse of rural women during a training.

Life on the creeks of coastal Sindh.

The not-so-good: it is hot and humid (35-40C) but at least there is a good breeze and sometimes we have air conditioning; public life without women is a very sad state of affairs as it makes the men even more lazy, complacent and proud; our mustached cook is nearly lethal. The big trick will be to get some of those nice and fresh vegetables (cabbage, green beans) from the Thatta market into our stomachs without being poisoned by drenching in oil with heavy spices and chili.

First impressions of the assignment (3 weeks in): it is still early days for the project and even basic infrastructure and staffing is not resolved. We live (out of our suitcases), work, eat (badly) and sleep in the office (with internet, at least) and we have frequent and irregular power and water shortages. When it rains, the office floods and most things/services work intermittently with guaranteed break-down when you need it most. One cannot walk to a decent market (5km away in Thatta). One cannot get decent maps in Pakistan due to the general military situation, so we have to start with doing our own mapping so we feel less "blind". It takes 2.5 hours to reach the project area and it may be inaccessible when it rains but we are hoping to have a sub-office and proper living quarters in a couple of weeks, Insh Allah. So it will be a challenge to get the baseline survey done in the time allotted with the intermingling and chaotically compounding institutional, climatic, health, cultural and religious constraints (Ramadan starts on August 21st). But the senior staff are all great and can keep laughing even when it goes all wrong and the expats vent their frustrations (me first, I am the senior), which occurs occasionally.

The local brand of pink toilet paper is called "double horse", and somehow, only "double camel" might describe it better.