After five years of severe drought, the western Pakistan province of Balochistan is in what seems to be an irreversible downslide. Hostile terrain, desertification, degraded agricultural lands, contaminated and inadequate water supply, and poverty at a mass scale all paint a bleak and depressing picture.
Last year, 22 of the province's 26 districts were all categorized as drought areas, and although there were some rains last winter, the situation has not improved significantly. The rains will not come until winter, if they come at all, leaving residents in a highly vulnerable state for at least the next seven months. Residents do not expected to fully recover from the drought and lead normal lives for another three to four years.
"Some of the hardest hit areas of the region are villages of the Afghan refugees that have not received drought assistance from the government of Pakistan," says Attilio Lenzi, a Mercy Corps Emergency Program Manager working in Balochistan.
In December 2001, Mercy Corps launched a major drought assistance project for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, funded by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM). Surkhab, a refugee village located 75 kilometers northeast of Quetta, is one of the areas Mercy Corps began work in. Founded after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, Surkhab was the first refugee camp in Balochistan and is currently home to 28,000 Afghan refugees. The residents of Surkhab are a mix of "old refugees" those that fled Afghanistan several years ago due to war, and "new refugees" those that arrived in the village since the post-September 11th conflicts and recent drought problems.
"The village of Surkhab has been barely surviving for the past year," says Attilio Lenzi. "As a result of the drought, water sources have been depleted. Deep wells and water distribution systems built in the 80's have fallen into disrepair over the years, and the water table has fallen substantially."
Prior to the drought most families relied on shallow, hand-dug wells typically located in family compounds for water. Now with a falling water table, these wells have dried up. Many residents are reliant on water from open irrigation channels or streams for drinking water. "This water is dirty, it is used for bathing, washing clothes and drinking. People in our village are getting sick from the water, but we've had no other choice," says Abdul Salam, the village chief elder.
The Mercy Corps/BPRM project was designed to increase availability of potable water to refugees villages, help improve response to drought-related illnesses and health problems, better understand the impact the drought has had on nutritional status of families, and provide increased health services to refugees. Mercy Corps is working in five Balochistan districts: Pishin, Kia Abdullah, Loralai, and Chagai.
In Surkhab, Pishin district, the results of the project are dramatically visible. On the hill overlooking the arid village and dry riverbed is a newly constructed pump house and 400-foot deep well that provides the community with 150 gallons of water a minute. A reservoir and water distribution system is being built to provide water to the residents. Every few blocks there are neighborhood-based, communal storage tanks that make it easy for the residents to collect their water. But perhaps the most impressive site is the new windmill. This wind pump is used to extract water from the wells.
"Running on wind energy, it does not require fuel, so poor people can have water without paying for fuel or having to pump it manually," says Mercy Corps' Engineer Arshad. "This windmill is a first. So far the results are even better than we expected, and if it is proven successful we plan to install 10 more windmills in various refugee villages."
"But just providing water to these villages is not enough," notes Attilio Lenzi. "The people must be educated in basic hygiene awareness and empowered to maintain the water systems if the project is to have a positive long-term impact."
To this end, Mercy Corps has worked to establish community-based Water Management Groups to oversee the operation, maintenance and water distribution. In addition, Mercy Corps has started awareness and hygiene education programs in the refugee villages. Previously, residents had little knowledge of safe water collection, storage and usage.
One elderly woman noted, "Before I attended the community meeting Mercy Corps held, I used a goatskin bag to carry water. I learned this can make the water dirty. Now I use plastic jugs instead."
When asked what the community would have done if the drought relief project had not been implemented, Surkhab village elder Abdul Salam replied: "We would have had to move. There was no other option. We are thankful for the help Mercy Corps and BPRM has provided us."