Deserts in Pakistan constitute a significant part of the country’s geography, especially in the central and south-eastern regions. The major deserts of Pakistan include Thar, Cholistan, Thall and Kharan deserts (see Map of Deserts in Pakistan below). These areas receive very little rain fall and are characterized by large tracts of barren wastelands with formation of sand dunes rising sometime to 150 meters above ground level. The vegetation cover in these deserts is sparse and primarily comprises of drought resistant and stunted bushes and trees, mainly acacias, and grasses. The vastness and isolation of these desert areas also support a number of wildlife including desert gazelles, bustards, jackals, foxes, wild cats, lizards and snakes etc.
Despite harsh living conditions these desert areas are also inhabited by a significant number of people and livestock. The desert people mostly lead a semi-nomadic life and are on the continuous move from one place to another in search of water and fodder for their animals. Generally prevalence of poverty is high and resources are scarce among desert dwellers. Development and communication infrastructure in these areas is also very poor or even non-existent. However, despite difficult life conditions the specific desert life style of the people has also given rise to very unique cultures, traditions and arts.
Thar Desert is the largest among all and mostly falls under the territory of Sind province, extending eastwards from irrigated plains on the left bank of River Indus towards the Indian states of of Rajhistan and Gujrat, constituting the largest desert in South Asia, also known as the Great Indian Desert. The approximate area of greater Thar Desert in total is around 200,000 square KM, of which around 50,000 square KM falls in the Pakistani territories, covering the districts of Tharparker, Mirpur Khas, Umerkot, Khairpur, Sukkar and Ghotki in Sindh Province.
Thar desert is among the most populated deserts of the world. The total estimated population living in these Thar Desert districts, according to 1998 census, is around 4.5 million. Most of the population in these district live in settled cities and villages, however a significant of number of people live deep inside the desert and live a nomadic life style and depends heavily on raring livestock for their livelihoods. Thar dwellers are most famous for their colourful culture, of traditions and unique arts. The vegetation type can be classified as Tropical Thorn Forest, comprising of scattered trees and bushes, mainly thorny and drought resistant species and grasses etc. However, whenever there are rains lush green grasses sprout all over providing rich source of fodder. The desert also supports good deal of wildlife including 23 species of lizard and 25 species of snakes and great numbers blackbucks and chinkaras.
There are different theories on the origin of the Thar Desert, some estimates that the desert formation is relatively recent from 2000-1500 BC, this is also the time when the famous Ghaggar-Hakra rivers ceased to exist due to changes in physiological and climatic conditions. Whereas others estimate that desertification in the region started much earlier from 4000 to 10,000 years or even beyond.
The Cholistan Desert, locally known as Rohi, constitutes the south eastern region of Punjab Province with an estimated area of 26,000 square KM, covering the districts of Bahawalpur, Rahimyar Khan and Bahawalnagar. Towards the eastern flanks Cholistan extends into the Indian states of Rajhistan and Punjab and joins the greater Thar Desert. While on the north-western front it is bordered by the irrigated plains of Indus and Sutlaj rivers. The total estimated population living in these desert districts in around 7.5 million (1998 Census). In ancient times the Hakra River use to flow through the area, along the banks of which a number of Indus Valley civilization settlements have been discovered, however the river had long dried up. Beside the unique landscape and unique nomadic culture, the major attractions of Cholistan include Lal Suhanra National Park, Drawar Fort and Annual Desert Car Rally, the biggest motor sport event in Pakistan.
Thal desert is the third largest desert in Pakistan, situated in the central Punjab it covers an estimated area of 20,000 Square KM. It is boarded by Indus and Jhelum Rivers on its western and eastern flanks respectively and, in the north it meets the foothills of Salt Range of Potohar Plateau. Administratively the Thall desert mainly falls in the districts of Bhakkar, Khushab, Mianwali, Jhang, Layyah, and Muzaffargarh and is supporting a considerable population of 9.4 Million (1998 Census). Most of the area is barren wasteland with scanty drought resistant trees, shrubs and grasses. However, unlike the Thar and Cholistan deserts considerable efforts have been made, through building the greater Thall Canal and tube welling to bring considerable desert areas under cultivation. Furthermore in contrast to Thar and Cholistan the roads network in Thall desert is well established and people are living more settled lifestyle, widely practicing irrigated and rain-fed agriculture.
The Kharan Desert is situated in the western regions of Baluchistan Province of Pakistan. Overall all of Baluchistan plateau is characterized by extreme arid conditions and very barren terrain. However Kharan desert can be separated from the rest of the arid landscape due to its sandy nature and more even terrain, ranging from 1000 meter in the north east to 500 meters in the west. It mostly falls in the Kharan District covering an estimated area of more than 20,000 Square KM with a population of only 0.23 Million. In the north, east and west it is surrounded by hills, up to 3000 meters, while on the west it extends in to Iranian territories. It is the most inhospitable deserts in Pakistan with extreme dry climatic conditions supporting very little vegetation cover of mainly desert bushes. Due to its vastness and isolation Kharan desert was selected for Pakistan’s second nuclear test executed on May 30, 1998.
See Map of Deserts in Pakistan in below;