By Naheed Maalik, Pakistan Red Crescent
It's hard to tell how old Zulekha Bibi and Jan Mohammad area. They may be in their fifties or even in their forties -- one can't tell because years of hard life in the extremely difficult terrain of Baluchistan can add wrinkles to anyone's face.
Jan Mohammad is the sardar (village elder) of Killi Peer Jan, a small settlement of mud huts, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but actually just about 45 minutes drive from the bustling town of Noshki and five hours from the provincial capital of Quetta. The whole of Baluchistan has been in the ceaseless grip of a drought for six years now, but Killi Peer Jan and many others like it in the district of Chagai where Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, are the worst hit.
Jan Mohammad believes there is a link between the two. "I had fields of watermelons this big", he gestures with his arms, "and Yaseen here, had apple orchards," he motions to his friend. "But now we have nothing left."
Their frustration is apparent and the depressed body language heartrending, but Muhammad's wife Zulekha has more urgent concerns. "We don't even have water to drink. You see this?' she points to a camel skin bag called mashk. "We bring four of these every few days and that's all the water we have."
Zulekha volunteers for the Pakistan Red Crescent as a community health worker on its Mobile Health Project. She is illiterate and speaks only her native Pashto but nonetheless manages to communicate information and key health messages. "We are taught that for good health, hygiene is important and I am to tell the villagers to bathe everyday. Now, isn't that funny?" she laughs. "We don't have water to drink at times. A bath is a luxury."
Driving on from Killi Peer Jan to Killi Gaznali, there are tents put up by nomads amidst the endless expanse of sand and rolling dunes. Zulfiqar, the Baluchistan provincial programme officer of the Red Crescent, believes the prolonged drought is a major catastrophe for this particular group of people as their movements totally rely on where the best food, water and employment are.
"They move from one place to another with their source of water being highly unreliable. Their health conditions, never very good, are now a serious worry, with gastro-intestinal, respiratory, skin and eye problems topping the list," he says. The Pakistan Red Crescent Mobile Health Service is a lifesaver for many as are the army water trucks that often run on these roads. Upon spotting one such vehicle, a group of women and children come running, arms flailing, holding assorted sized and shaped containers.
Recognising the need for more action as the drought situation worsens, the Red Crescent conducted an assessment of 15 villages and selected the four hardest hit for a water-provision programme funded by the British government's department for international development, DFID.
In Killi Gaznali, a tubewell (water mine) was installed, initially run by diesel, the costs of which were borne by the community at first, and then by OXFAM-UK. But now, the Red Crescent has electrified the tubewell pump and provided water to other surrounding villages through a network of pipes leading to storage tanks.
Now assured of at least 8-10 hours of water each day, the villages have decided to jointly pay the monthly electricity bills. With the electrification project now over, potable water is now reaching 2300 people in villages close to Gaznali including Killi Peer Jan. And yes, Jan Muhammad, Zuleka and their children are among those benefitting. The village's storage tanks, dry and unused for years, have also been cleaned to make that water supply last longer.
In other villages, the Red Crescent has also repaired and rehabilitated a series of traditional water harvesting systems, such as the karez, a series of underground tunnels that collect run-offs from snow and rain and basic dams such as the chak dam.