Unveiling the Enigma: The Thar Desert’s Ancient Secrets and Changing Landscape

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Indian Hump Days: A Remote Camel Safari in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan — Shaun Busuttil

by Abdul Waheed Bhutto   19 September 2023

Introduction: The Thar Desert, a vast expanse of arid land situated in the northwestern part of India and the southeastern part of Pakistan, has long captured the imagination of historians, archaeologists, and geologists alike. This seemingly inhospitable terrain, with its rolling sand dunes and scorching temperatures, has a rich and multifaceted history that spans thousands of years. It is a land of ancient secrets and changing landscapes, where the ebb and flow of civilizations have left their indelible mark.

Historical Significance of the Thar Desert: Throughout the centuries, the Thar Desert has been a region of remarkable historical importance, with its rivers, particularly the Saraswati, playing a central role in the ancient Indian civilization. The Saraswati River, mentioned in revered texts like the Rig Veda, held immense cultural and religious significance. Its existence and flow were intertwined with the lives of the people living in the region, and it was celebrated as a mighty river despite its intermittent nature.

The Thar Desert, situated on the eastern fringes of the desert belt that extends westward across Arabia and the Sahara, has traditionally been seen as an inhospitable environment for early human settlements. However, research indicates that during periods of greater humidity in the past, humans not only survived but thrived in these landscapes. The Indus Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, serves as a prime illustration. It prospered on the periphery of the Thar Desert along the path of the now-seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra River between 3200-1500 BCE, and it is believed to have inspired the legendary Saraswati River mentioned in the Rig Veda.

The Saraswati River holds immense significance in the Indian Subcontinent, once having its own distinct course separate from the neighboring Indus River. In 1832, James Tod referred to it as the “lost river of the desert.” He described its origin in the Siwalik Himalayas and its journey through various places, including Hansi, Hisar, Bhatner (now known as Hanumangarh), Rangmahal, and Phulra, ultimately reaching the vicinity of Derawar and Uch. Beyond this point, it followed the dry bed of a stream known as the ‘Khaggar,’ which stretched from Jaisalmer to Rohri. It then converged with a branch from Dara (possibly Nara), eventually contributing to the eastern branch of the Indus Delta.

Ancient Indian texts offer intriguing insights into the Saraswati River, with the Rig Veda being the oldest and most comprehensive, containing significant descriptions of this river. In the Rig Veda, the Saraswati River is revered as the mightiest and most splendid among all rivers, even though the term ‘Saras’ itself signifies a pool of water or a lake. Originally, the Rig Veda, along with the three subsequent Vedas, consisted of oral teachings covering diverse aspects of the environment, life, and society. Later, these teachings were compiled into a closely guarded written text in Sanskrit, becoming a comprehensive repository of knowledge.

Another ancient literary work, the Mahabharata, contains references to the Saraswati River vanishing into the desert sands and subsequently reemerging at different locations downstream. Across the Indian subcontinent, individuals with a basic education possessed fundamental knowledge about the Saraswati River and its primary tributaries because the Vedas were an integral part of the standard curriculum for basic education.

R.D. Oldham in 1886 concurred with these findings and added that historical texts like the Chachnama and the Beglarnama provided evidence that the river maintained a significant perennial flow in its middle and lower reaches until the 11th Century AD. Intriguingly, he observed that the Indus River never contributed to the Saraswati’s sustenance. Due to its intermittently dry and obscured state, the river bore various names over time, including Ghaggar, Sotra, Sotar, Choya, Hakra, Sakra, Sankra, Wandan, Dahan, Wadhawah, Dadhawah, Wahind, Nara, among others.

The decline of this river system can be attributed to geological activity and changes in monsoon patterns, eventually leading to its drying up around 4,000 years ago. This captivating story unveils the intricate relationship between climate, civilization, and the ever-changing landscape of the Thar Desert.

Recent Discoveries: Challenging Desert Paradigms: Similarly, a groundbreaking research study, helmed by PV Rajesh from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune and BN Goswami from Cotton University in Guwahati, made waves when it was published in the renowned Earth’s Future journal on July 31, 2023. This study disrupts the long-standing belief in the established principle that “wet areas become wetter and dry areas become drier,” heralding a profound shift in our comprehension of the intricate dynamics at play within the enigmatic Thar Desert. Their findings were astonishing: contrary to conventional wisdom, the Thar Desert is experiencing a progressive increase in annual rainfall. This shift, attributable to changes in the monsoon system, challenges the conventional perception of deserts as static and unchanging landscapes.

One leading theory is that the Indian Ocean, which plays a pivotal role in monsoon circulation, is undergoing transformative changes due to global climate factors. The changing oceanic conditions are, in turn, impacting the monsoon winds that bring moisture to the Thar Desert.

As we navigate these new discoveries and insights, it becomes clear that the Thar Desert is not just an arid wasteland, but a dynamic and evolving landscape that continues to surprise us with its secrets. From its ancient history intertwined with the Saraswati River to its shifting climate patterns, the Thar Desert is a testament to the ever-changing nature of our planet and the importance of ongoing scientific exploration to unravel its mysteries.

Challenges in the Thar Desert: However, beneath its picturesque exterior, the Thar Desert faces a multitude of social welfare challenges, spanning education, healthcare, employment, food and water scarcity, and environmental conservation.

Limited access to quality education, particularly in remote areas, results in high dropout rates and low literacy levels, especially among girls. Inadequate healthcare facilities lead to health disparities, with malnutrition, waterborne diseases, and infant mortality posing significant concerns. The region’s economy, heavily dependent on agriculture and livestock, struggles with a shortage of employment opportunities and a high unemployment rate.

Moreover, the people of Thar Desert grapple with food and water scarcity. The arid region’s limited rainfall makes it challenging for local farmers to sustain their livelihoods, leading to food shortages and malnutrition, especially among vulnerable populations. Additionally, access to clean and safe drinking water remains a major concern due to scarce and unreliable natural water sources, exacerbating health risks. Despite the strategic construction of several small dams in certain areas of the Karoonjhar mountain range to mitigate water scarcity, their impact has been limited.

Returning to the present, insights from a local farmer highlight the Thar Desert’s reliance on a specific rainfall pattern characterized by three to four intermittent intervals. To support robust crop cultivation in this arid region, approximately 150 to 170 mm of rainfall is deemed essential. Farmers have a particular timeframe in mind, anticipating rain around mid-July, in the middle of August, and at the outset of September. These well-timed rainy episodes are instrumental in securing successful crop yields by supplying the essential moisture required for plant growth.

The year 2019 brought abundant rainfall to the Thar Desert, but unfortunately, the productivity of the land suffered due to an invasion of locusts. This situation highlights a clear example of the obstacles the region might face during wet years if proper management is not in place. Additionally, a recent development has taken root in Pakistan’s Thar region – the cultivation of crops like cotton, wheat, and vegetables. What’s interesting is that this effort is being supported by the use of solar-powered submersible water pumps, even though the water table is about 200 feet below the surface. Another Thar farmer pointed out that those with the financial means to invest in solar energy are taking the lead in driving forward this initiative.

Potential for Economic Growth: The Thar Desert hosts a myriad of plants boasting remarkable nutritional and medicinal attributes. These plants exhibit a unique ability to thrive even in environments characterized by limited resources and drought conditions. Another challenge involves recognizing the potential of these adaptable plants for cultivation, moving away from water-intensive agriculture that demands significant irrigation, fertilizers, and expansive land usage. Importantly, this journey underscores the paramount importance of preserving the delicate ecosystem.

The connection between the people of Thar and their animals is deeply rooted in history, dating back centuries, and is as old as the desert itself. Mobilizing animals between Tharparkar and its adjacent barrage areas, like Badin and Mirpurkhas, is a common practice, and it serves as a lifeline for both residents and their livestock. During floods, those from the barrage areas move their animals to the desert in search of greener pastures. Conversely, when droughts strike parts of the Thar Desert, the people of Tharparkar move their animals to the barrage areas to ensure their survival. The importance of this practice is underscored by the fact that the availability of fodder varies with the changing seasons.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan for the year 2022-23, the livestock sector has emerged as a dominant force in the country’s agriculture, contributing approximately 62.68 percent of the agriculture value added and making up 14.36 percent of the national GDP. Additionally, this sector plays a significant role in generating net foreign exchange earnings, accounting for around 2.1 percent of the country’s total exports.

Given the significance of livestock in the Thar Desert, where droughts are a recurring challenge, providing training and support to cattle farmers to help them cope with weather changes is a crucial step. This assistance can significantly contribute to the well-being of both the community and the over nine million animals that depend on this arid region for their livelihoods.

Environmental Concerns: Compounding the existing challenges, Thar coal mining and the establishment of power plants in the Thar Desert region have raised serious environmental concerns. While the primary aim of these projects is to enhance the country’s energy production and reduce dependency on imports, they come with significant environmental consequences. The process of land clearance for mining and plant construction has resulted in deforestation and habitat destruction, posing a threat to the local flora and fauna.

Moreover, the operation of coal-fired power plants leads to the release of harmful emissions such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which adversely affect air quality and public health. Additionally, these activities contribute to land degradation and increase the risks associated with climate change. Furthermore, the traditional practices and livelihoods of indigenous communities in the area have been impacted by these developments. Despite profiting from these operations, there have been complaints that the company is not adequately contributing to the social welfare of the local people. The lack of significant investment in the community has left the local population without proper benefits or support.

Furthermore, the disregard for historical sites in the area is clear, and there have been minimal to no endeavors aimed at their restoration and conservation. This neglect has given rise to discontent among residents who hold their cultural heritage and history in high regard.

To rectify these issues, it is of paramount importance for the authorities to acknowledge their responsibility for the environmental impacts stemming from industrial and commercial activities. They must take proactive steps to invest in the welfare of the local population. This investment should encompass the restoration and protection of historical sites, not only for the betterment of the community but also for the overall benefit of the region.

Solar Energy Potential: Thar holds significant solar energy potential due to its strategic location within the sun-drenched Thar Desert. The region benefits from abundant sunlight and minimal cloud cover throughout the year, making it an ideal site for solar energy harnessing. The flat terrain offers ample space for large-scale solar power projects, and both utility-scale and distributed solar solutions hold promise.

Recently, Thar Desert has witnessed a surge in controversies concerning granite mining, which has evoked widespread public outcry and led to protests, compelling the government to reevaluate its proposals. The matter of granite mining came to the forefront after an advertisement for auction of a granite mining lease in Nanagarparkar, Tharparkar district, was published in newspapers in July 2023, triggering strong opposition.

Preservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage: The Thar desert serves as a testament to the rich religious, cultural, and social fabrics. Concerted efforts from the government, NGOs, and the private sector are required to address socioeconomic issues and protect the region’s natural heritage. Stringent regulations, sustainable alternatives, and renewable energy investments can help mitigate the consequences of mining activities.

Balancing Progress and Preservation. Thar Desert represents a landscape of immense historical, cultural, and environmental significance. It stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of human civilization and nature’s resilience in the face of challenges.

Exploring avenues of sustainable development, such as harnessing the abundant solar energy potential, presents a promising path towards achieving a harmonious balance between economic growth and environmental conservation. Additionally, recognizing and supporting the deep-rooted tradition of cattle farming in the region can contribute to its economic vitality.

Moreover, preserving the Thar Desert’s cultural and natural heritage is of paramount importance. This involves implementing stringent regulations to mitigate the adverse effects of industrial activities, embracing sustainable alternatives, and investing in renewable energy solutions.

Collaborative efforts between nations, fostering mutual understanding, and promoting regional security through cooperation are essential in today’s interconnected world. Prioritizing the long-term well-being of the Thar Desert’s people, culture, and natural resources over short-term gains is a forward-thinking approach that ensures the enduring prosperity of this unique and cherished region. As the adage goes, we must avoid “killing the bird to get the golden eggs” and instead adopt a holistic perspective that safeguards the legacy of the Thar Desert for generations to come.