Afghan families abandon homes as drought claims first victims

Humanitarian organisations and government warn of a repeat of the disaster of 2018

Pictured: Khan Mohammad, 40, with one of his sons, standing outside of the mud hut they now call home, having fled their village due to drought. The family now lives in an unofficial IDP camp in Herat.
Photo by Charlie Faulkner
May 2021
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Wali Mohammad was six years old when he died from drinking dirty water in Afghanistan's north-western Badghis province.

His death this month was the final straw for his already desperate family. Days later they followed others and fled the seemingly endless dry period, travelling to Herat, about 200 kilometres from their home in Badghis.

Sitting in a mud hut in a humanitarian camp in the city, Khan Mohammad wept quietly as he spoke about his son's death, explaining that the drought forced his family to drink unsanitary water that regularly made them unwell.

“My son’s death made me realise just how bad the situation was, so I decided to come here. I just had to save my family. I thought I would lose my other children if we stayed put,” he said.

More than half of Afghanistan is experiencing drought this year, and humanitarian organisations and the government have issued warnings that the situation could become as bad as a disastrous drought in 2018.

It affected 22 of the country's 34 provinces and displaced more than 260,000 people. It also exacerbated the country’s food security issues and left nearly 10 million people facing a food crisis that year.

Last winter, Afghanistan received 34 per cent less snow than the long-term average and 44 per cent less rainfall, according to the National Water Affairs Regulation Authority. It is the 10th most vulnerable country to climate change but one of the smallest contributors.

Families such as Mr Mohammad's rely on snow and rain for drinking water. They collect and store it either by digging holes in the ground or catching it on the roofs of their houses. When this fails, they are forced to drink dirty and salty groundwater.

Everyone in the family is sick. My wife had to go to hospital as soon as we arrived in Herat
Khan Mohammad

“Everyone in the family is sick. My wife had to go to hospital as soon as we arrived in Herat. I have been taking all kinds of medication on instructions from the doctor because of kidney pains – my children suffer in the same way,” said Mr Mohammad, whose blue shalwar kameez hangs loose over his skinny body.

Lack of water means crops are unable to grow, leading to the loss of work opportunities and food – for people and their animals.

Conflict also played a role in the Mohammad family’s desperate situation but they say drought was the overarching factor.

“I couldn’t feed my three sheep because there wasn’t enough water, so they all died,” he said.

Mr Mohammad has racked up debts of about 50,000 Afghan Afghanis ($640) from medical and travel expenses, but the prospect of finding work to support his family is barely any better in Herat.

A UN report published in April said weather-related crises have become a bigger threat than conflict worldwide, displacing twice as many people over the past decade.

Afghanistan's almost 4,000 glaciers have lost about 14 per cent of their total area in the 25 years up to 2015. Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region could melt by more than 60 per cent by 2100 because of increasing temperatures, according to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

An estimated 14.1 million people – more than a third of Afghanistan’s population – are at emergency levels of food insecurity, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this month.

"What we are seeing is a looming potential disaster, in addition to what the country is already facing in terms of the deterioration in the security situation and the ongoing impact of the Covid pandemic," said Norwegian Refugee Council spokeswoman Eileen McCarthy.

The pandemic caused an increase in food prices and these are expected to rise further owing to the effect of reduced rainfall on crop yields.

These problems, in addition to the pandemic-related disruption to employment, are forcing people to take on more debt. Paying for food was the primary reason for 53 per cent of Afghans who took on debt last year, the World Health Organisation said.

The NRC and other humanitarian organisations fear that lessons have not been learnt from the 2018 crisis.

“This should be more of a preventable disaster but people are already starting to move from places like Badghis,” Ms McCarthy said.

An early warning committee is in place and the country's disaster management agency has developed a drought response plan, but a lack of funds means it cannot be introduced yet.

Organisations and the government are trying to help by improving access to clean water and offering alternative livelihoods for short periods, cash assistance or food drops.

The focus this year is on getting humanitarian assistance to the worst-hit areas to prevent people moving in the first place, said Waliullah Jalal, deputy minister of finance and administration at the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.

“This time around there is much better co-ordination. We first began talks about this issue two months ago,” he said.

The 2018 crisis was particularly devastating because agencies and authorities were unaware of drought indicators before disaster struck. This time they are more prepared but there are still challenges.

Evan Jones, co-ordinator of the Asia Displacement Solutions Platform, said more could have been done in the past two years to mitigate the long-term effect of drought, including food drop programmes, distributing drought-resistant seedlings, and rehabilitating and recharging water supplies.

But aid to Afghanistan is also dropping and it is difficult for organisations to lobby for funding from donors until the government officially announces a drought, which it cannot do until it has the data to back up the declaration.

“One thing we’re already seeing from local government authorities is a call for urgent support. In Badghis they have reached out to the Kabul-level government for funds for water trucking and things like that,” Ms McCarthy said.

“The government has limited resources and capacity. It is dealing with other disasters, including the issue of flooding, while also preparing for a drought. The sheer need is massive.”