Reverse osmosis plants changing lives in Pakistan’s Thar desert

Life is a constant struggle for water in the Thar Desert. After almost a decade of drought the Pakistani government is pinning its hopes on a unique new strategy - reverse osmosis plants.


Senin, 07 Nov 2016 12:13 WIB

Pancho Devi fetching water from 800 year old historic well in Thar Desert, southern Pakistan (Photo:

Pancho Devi fetching water from 800 year old historic well in Thar Desert, southern Pakistan (Photo: Naeem Sahoutara)

Life is a constant struggle for water in the Thar Desert, an area that spreads across the Indian subcontinent.

After almost a decade of drought the government is pinning its hopes on a unique new strategy – reverse osmosis plants.

Our reporter Naeem Sahoutara traveled to the Thar Desert to find out more.

Transcript - 

This melancholic song is about a young and beautiful girl’s miseries, about life in the Thar Desert.

The song tells the story of a folktale, about a young woman called Marvi Maraich.

One day Marvi goes to fetch water from the well but is kidnapped by powerful King Umer Soomro, who wanted to marry her.

The story might be a myth, but the well is real.

I’m here with Pancho Devi, on a scorching afternoon in the desert, and she’s taking me to that historic well, Marvi’s well.

Pancho is balancing an earthen pot on her head, and carrying her son in her arms as she walks through the hot sand barefoot.

Each day she does this trip several times, half a kilometre each way, fetching water for the household and her goats.

Pancho pulls the long rope, which is tied to the rusty iron pot, to draw water from the well.

It takes 20 minutes of pulling at the rope to fill the pot with eight litres of water.

It comes up black and filled with dirt.

“I fetch water from Marvi’s well because there is no other source of water. But, the water in the well is also getting filthy. There is no other source of drinking water, so I take it from the well twice a day,” Pancho told me.

This is the world’s ninth-largest subtropical desert, it’s spread across 320,000 kilometers between India and Pakistan.

Here in the southern Pakistan region of that desert, the subsoil water, is the only source of life in the arid region. The subsoil water has high levels of salt and is barely fit for consumption.

But there isn’t much choice. Pancho can hardly remember the last time it rained.

“There are no rains. There were no rains last year. In fact there have been no rain for years. Therefore, there is no water for the crops as well and we have to wait days for showers,” said Pancho.

Inside the traditional small hut, where Pancho lives with her family, her two-year-old son Moor Chand is crying.

She knows it’s because he is sick and hungry.

But she is too weak to breastfeed him – this area has one of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world.

In the past two years two thousand people in this region have died from waterborne diseases. Among them: 350 malnourished children.

To cope with the drought the government has launched a mega-project, installing 150 reverse osmosis plants to provide clean drinking water.

Reverse osmosis, or RO, is a process in which dissolved inorganic solids, such as salt, are removed from the water to make it safe to drink.

Also in our climate change series: Dealing with India's mountains of e-waste

Here in Thar, 150 small RO plants have also been installed in far-flung villages.

Each plant, essentially a small shed with pumps that suck up the subsoil water, can desalinate 100,000 gallons of water per day.

Villagers like 45-year-old Lal Bai says the plant has changed their lives.

“I’ve seen water problems throughout my life. Earlier, I would fetch water on my head from wells in far-off areas. But that was salty. No, we don’t have any problem of water shortage anymore. This water is sweet water, it’s so tasty. Everyone in the village is so happy,” Lal Bai said.

One the best things about the plants? 

Lai says she can now take a shower twice a day if she wants to.

The animals are happy too. The last time I visited this area two years ago the desert was littered with skeletons of dead animals and people were migrating to the cities.

Also in our climate change series: Melting glaciers cause the Holy Ganges River to shrink

Ratan Lal was one of them. He moved to Karachi to find work, but he has since returned home to the desert.

It was hard being Hindu in the city, where the majority of Karachites are Muslim, and besides, now water is more readily available in Thar.

“RO plants have just changed our lives, Ratan Lal said.

“But many are built on the land which is owned by politicians and well connected people. So they can lock and open the premises whenever they want. In that happens people in the village again have to go to the wells.”

But the RO plants are not everywhere, they haven’t reached Pancho’s village yet.

Life is Thar Desert is a constant struggle for water.

Many wells like Marvi’s will continue to serve the generations in future. 


For more in our climate change series, check out these stories from around Asia

In Kabul, where the rivers run dry 

Thailand's monitor lizards under threat 

The Long Walk, Philippines climate change activist Yeb Saño 

Timor Leste's eco warriors hit the beach 

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