A man walks on the dried, cracked landscape near Hanna Lake near Quetta, Pakistan. AFP Image Credit: AFP

Islamabad: Rivers are drying up, animals are dying and people struggling to feed themselves as drought tightens its grip on Pakistan’s largest province of Balochistan.

The ongoing drought has affected nearly half a million people, officials say, and is threatening rare species.

Crops and livestock — the mainstay of province’s economy — have not been spared.

“At least 20 of the 33 districts of Balochistan are facing drought where over 100,000 families and 1.7 million livestock have been affected so far,” Provincial Home Minister Saleem Ahmad Khosa said.

A total of 11 districts in the province — including Gwadar, Quetta and Mastung — are facing moderate to severe droughts, according to a January 2 report released by the National Drought Monitoring Centre (NDMC) of Pakistan.

Weather experts have long warned of a drought-like situation in the region due to scarce rainfall and decreasing groundwater levels.

To provide relief to the drought-stricken families, Balochistan chief minister imposed health emergency in all affected regions and announced a package of Rs500 million (Dh26 million) to provide essential food and medical supplies. The government has also announced a package of Rs25,000-Rs30,000 per affected family as well as camps for the treatment of sick animals. The rehabilitation of more than seven million affected people is under consideration.

Since October 2018, the drought situation had forced thousands of people out of their homes in Balochistan’s Noshki district where 33,000 people were affected, according to the district administration.

Wildlife under threat

The dry spell is not only affecting the province’s human population but also threatening the survival of rare species.

“The drought has forced endangered species, especially Sindh Ibex (wild goat), Balochistan Urial (wild sheep), and Chinkara (deer) to come down from mountains in search for food and water, forcing them to leave their natural habitat”, according to Raja Asif, a conservator at Hingol National Park, one of country’s largest wildlife park.

Chinkara deer is one of the affected animal species due to severe drought in Balochistan province. Image Credit: WWF Pakistan

It has also affected rare species including mountainous deer, cheetah, fox, hedgehog, porcupine, wolf and rabbit.

“Scarce rainfall poses a severe threat to our rare animals,” Asif said, appealing to the government for a financial package to protect country’s national asset — wildlife.

Why is Balochistan facing drought?

Balochistan lies in an arid region that receives 200mm of rain annually and there has been less than sufficient rainfall since last four years.

“The drought situation has become serious due to persistent dry spell in the province in both summer and winter time,” Pakistan met office spokesperson Dr Khalid Malek, told Gulf News.

“The dry conditions are likely to endure in southern parts of the country as low rainfall is expected from January to March 2019”, he said.

The little expected winter rain would not help reduce the drought effects, he informed.

With scant rainfall and changing climate, there is not enough water to recharge groundwater, which is fast depleting because of excessive water pumping by people to use it for drinking and agriculture.

How can drought-hit Balochistan farmers adapt to climate change?

Balochistan has a history of droughts but recently climate change has exacerbated drought situation, says Nadir Gul Barech, chief executive officer of the Balochistan Rural Support Programme, a local NGO.

Talking to Gulf News, Nadir Gul Barech said, “Learning lessons from history of droughts is critical to help our farmers become resilient to climate-related risks and impacts.”

The country’s largest province hosts only 5 per cent of total population that is sparsely spread around depleting water sources.

“Not enough dams and reservoirs have been built to store water in the province that produces more than 50 per cent of Pakistan’s livestock,” Nadir said.

Prolonged drought has decimated livestock and agriculture — two sectors that provide main source of household income for many and contribute greatly to country’s economy.

The shortage of water has severely affected the province, also known as the fruit-basket of the country, producing 90 per cent of grapes, cherry and almonds, 70 per cent of dates, and tonnes of peaches, pomegranates and apples.

He urged the introduction of low delta crops, efficient use of water and irrigation to adapt to climate change.

“We need to switch from water-intensive crops like apples, onions and potatoes to low delta crops such as olives, pistachios, almonds, grapes and pomegranates.”

For long-term sustainability, he suggested the government should explore alternative livelihood options in the region and urged the private sector to develop economically viable value chains on crops and livestock, “which will benefit the locals, promote Balochistan agribusiness and boost country’s agriculture and food industry.”

The least developed province has enormous potential to emerge as Pakistan’s new economic zone as it has huge reserves of gold, copper and silver besides gas and minerals such as coal and marble.

The province is also a key route of the $64 billion megaproject, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).