'But not a drop to drink ...'

Every day, Ali Akbar and his team drive from village to village to check on how the villagers are faring in this remote part of Thar. They are determined to provide clean drinking water to countless hamlets that dot this desert.

Their first stop is the village of Samoo Rind. For their everyday needs, the villagers here rely on underground water which is contaminated with high levels of fluoride and hence unfit for human consumption. Consequently, people are crippled and disabled with multiple health issues.

Ali Akbar brought a doctor with him to advise the villagers on how to deal with their ailments. “We use a variety of ways to convince people to drink clean water. Calling in doctors is one of the ways to try and convince villagers that their illnesses are caused by water,” he says.

According to the World Health Organisation, water contamination levels should not exceed 1,200tds (total dissolved solids). In Thar, the contamination level is over 4,000tds. This amount can be fatal.

As the doctor moves from patient to patient, ailments change. Some villagers have no teeth, others have kidney problems, still others are crippled while some have had to have their limbs amputated.

Ali Akbar’s next stop is the village of Mao Akhayraj where the villagers are divided on the basis of beliefs, caste systems and class. Since they don’t sit together with one another, it makes his task even harder. Here the villagers believe that their health is affected by supernatural elements rather than physiological conditions. As though they have been cursed and can be cured by prayer.

Ali Akbar knows that it will take time to shatter this long-standing myth. This time he doesn’t bring a doctor but a villager from Samoo Rind with him.

“My companion is from Samoo Rind, his name is Jiyendo Khan. He is unwell, just like you. He will now tell us about his illness. And tell us about various treatments he underwent.”

Jiyendo steps forward and as if on cue begins:

“I am about 25 or 26 years old. I first experienced pain in my knees and in one finger. Eventually the pain spread to all of my joints. All our teeth are rotten, even though we don’t chew tobacco or eat paan. This entire crisis is due to the water we use,” he explains, as the crowd nods. “A filtration pump was installed in our village and after drinking filtered water for two to three months, the pain in my hands disappeared. The pump separates contaminants from the water.”

The villagers pepper Jiyendo and Ali Akbar with questions, which they patiently respond to. They hope that the session has convinced the community to install a filtration pump that everyone in the village can have access to. Time is a luxury they do not have because they know that without this pump, those who are severely crippled will soon die.

Ali Akbar was born and raised in this very desert. His earliest memories are of his paternal grandmother and mother filling their water-pots from a nearby well.

“There used to be a drought every few years and people would migrate from one place to another,” he tells us. “At that time there were not many cars and communication was difficult. People who were really poor and possessed few goods and animals had to face problems. They used to leave their house and move to an area near a barrage.”

In 2003, Ali Akbar realised that the water in his area was salty and unfit for consumption. “I would often see birds drinking the water and dying,” he says. “I realised something had to be done.”

He got a group of friends together and discussed the issue with them. Together they laid the foundation of an organisation called AWARE. Its objectives included water and energy. Initially, they focused on water issues.

“First we tried to figure out the intensity of the problem, where the water is salty, how salty it is, what salts it might contain and what are the effects of these salts on the human body and animals.”

It was then that they discovered the culprit — fluoride —which is colourless, odourless and tasteless and thus, when Ali Akbar’s team would ask the villagers about their water they would say it was clean because it wasn’t salty.

“The problem was that even though the water wasn’t salty, it was still hazardous to people’s health. Their teeth, bones and nervous system were badly affected by it.”

On a cool November evening, Ali Akbar addressed a group of young students encouraging them to write about their problems. “I will be handing out postcards that are pre-stamped and addressed to various organisations.

Write your problems on this postcard, and we will mail it out so that your issues are conveyed to these organisations, he told the school.

“When we post these, people outside of Thar will hear of your problems and understand the conditions that you are living in.”

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