KARACHI, Pakistan, July 30 (News Lens Pakistan) -- When officials in Pakistan's Sindh province constructed hundreds of desalination plants, they were only thinking of how to counter a long-running drought.
Along with providing much-needed drinking water, however, authorities hope to provide an economic boost and new jobs for the impoverished Thar majority – in the form of fish farms. They are planning to populate the brackish water left behind by the desalination process.
"This is a revolutionary step, which will bring sustainable development in the area," Sen. Taj Haider, who heads the Thar Drought Relief Operation, told News Lens Pakistan. "It will also generate revenue, which will be spent for the local development."
Sindh's Thar Desert, which covers 77,000 square miles in southeastern Pakistan, has been in the grip of a drought since December 2013 that has left more than 1,000 dead, most of them children under the age of 5. The drought, blamed on a lack of rain, has also devastated agriculture and killed nearly 4,000 cows, sheep and goats.
As part of the massive relief operations, Sindh officials have launched plans to build hundreds of desalination plants that use reverse osmosis to covert salt water into drinking water. They promised to build 750, but so far have built 345.
When pure water is produced by reverse osmosis, thickly contaminated salty water is left behind.
Authorities came up with the fish farming plan to use that remaining salt water. They plan to collect the remaining water in tanks and use it for the fish farms. Farms are set to start operating this month and will be funded by the Pak Oasis, the company that built the desalination plants – with a farm being constructed on the grounds of each facility.
So far, the plan has received a mixed reception from local residents. Some complain it will do nothing to alleviate the drought and may just be a short-term fix.
"Reverse osmosis plants are not a permanent solution," said Kanji Bheel, a resident of Chacharo city. "We need permanent solution, like a canal."
"The government is unable to save sheep for which desert is habitat. How can they introduce fish farming in the desert?," Bharumal Amrani, a social activist, told News Lens Pakistan. "It's nothing but a joke [for] the people of Thar."
Others are happy to find the desalination plants in their area and see the fish farms as a chance to make extra money.
"It always took long hours every day to fetch water, and even that water is brackish. But now we have filtered water at our doorstep," said Mohsin Ali Rahimoon, a resident of Bakhwo village.
Kewal Ram Menghwar, whose four cows died during severe drought, said the fish farms offer him a second chance to escape poverty.
"There is a reverse osmosis plant in our village, and I am sure that I will get a job on this proposed fish farm, and also we will be able to buy fish for our families, which one cannot even imagine in this desert," he said by phone.