An elderly farmer, his clothes covered in mud, threw himself on cracked, barren earth. Alarmed, others rushed to his side and try to pull him back up, but he was inconsolable.
Just moments before, he had waded into a shallow muddy pool of water to retrieve the carcasses of his animals.
“Oh God, destroy them. My cattle died of thirst,” he cried out, visibly distraught. “We have no protectors. God will ask them for what they have done.”
The man’s emotional scene was captured on mobile video and went viral. His curses were aimed at the Pakistani government, which he blamed for negligence as the country suffers through a record breaking heatwave that has caused misery for poor farming communities in its desert region of Cholistan.
The heatwave, which started in mid-March, has only intensified and wreaked devastation onto the most vulnerable segments of Pakistan’s population of 220 million.
“If things continue to be the way they are, we will die and you will see on the news that Cholistan’s residents have died. For the love of God, the government needs to think about Cholistan, it should give us water, otherwise we will die,” local resident Shahzad Jugnoo told VICE World News.
Farmers examine an ailing camel in Cholistan, Pakistan in May, 2022. Photo: Farooq Sindhu
Pakistan contributes less than one percent to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but the country still ranks as the eighth most affected by extreme weather changes, according to a 2021 study by Germanwatch.
In recent days, temperatures have peaked at unbearable levels in the country’s southern areas, where people and animals are at constant risk of dehydration and heat strokes.
In Cholistan, searing temperatures and minimal rainfall have dried up wells, destroyed crops and displaced scores of people from their homes, driving them to neighbouring cities.
It has also devastated the desert region’s livestock, which are the primary source of income for its population of 200,000. So far, local development authorities said at least 50 animals have perished in recent droughts. However, media reports suggest up to 200 animals have died from the extreme heat.
Relief workers from non-profit Alkhidmat Foundation Pakistan stand next to an animal carcass in May, 2022. Phoro: Ihtisham Khaliq Waseer
“The situation of Cholistan is plain to see. This time there is drought on all sides due to lack of rains. Many animals have died, some are in critical condition,” said Jugnoo.
In response to the water crisis, local authorities have set up emergency relief and medical camps, and are evacuating residents and livestock to nearby areas where water and food are available. The government has also drawn up plans to provide residents with clean drinking water, including dispatching water tankers to relief camps.
The heatwave has devastated Cholistan's livestock, which are the primary source of income for its population of 200,000. Photo: Farooq Sindhu.
However, many residents believe the current water crisis could have been averted with early intervention. They say that authorities have repeatedly failed to take timely measures to cope with such crises that hit the area during summer months.
Residents have pointed towards the lack of desalination plants for groundwater, and forced reliance on ancient water storage methods through the use of open ponds to collect rainwater.
The government has spent millions of rupees to supply water from neighbouring regions through pipelines to Cholistan, but residents say the pipes are dry.
“We demand from the government that steps be taken on a regular basis to supply water during drought seasons,” local resident Muhammad Sohail told VICE World News.
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Additional reporting from Farooq Sindhu.