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Northern Afghanistan Struggles With Severe Drought

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, July 10, 2008 (ENS) – The wailing of children pierces the air over the tent city on the banks of the Shulgara river, just south of Mazar-e-Sharif. But even that sound may soon be stilled – so many children are dying of dehydration, starvation and disease that families no longer mark the occasion.

“In the past, when a family member died, we would hold a mourning service,” said Mohammad Zaman, who has a tent at the camp. “But now all we can think of is ourselves. No one pays attention to children dying any more.”

With the fierce summer sun sending temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, life is becoming untenable for the 2,500 families camped out in the desert that borders the river.

The Shulgara has been their only source of potable water since the spring rains failed to arrive. Rivers and brooks have dried up in the scorching heat, and well water levels have sunk to record lows. Livestock are dying due to lack of fodder, while the soaring price of wheat and rice is making it difficult for families to purchase even the most basic foodstuffs.

“We have not been given any assistance,” said Mohammad Zaman. “We drink the river water, but if the government doesn’t do anything, we will all die when winter comes.”

The displaced people brought with them only bags of clothing, food, and other essentials, as well as carpets to sit on. They say they will remain by the river for as long as necessary.

They are receiving some help from the Red Crescent, along with assistance from the government and from local merchants. But they say it has been woefully inadequate.


Afghan man travels by donkey through
Faryab Province. (Photo byAlex Strick
van Linschoten)

Much of Afghanistan has affected by drought this year, and the situation in the northern provinces, especially Jowzjan and Faryab, is approaching disaster.

No one has precise figures on the scale of the problem.

“This year there is a state of emergency,” said Mir Shafiuddin Mirzad, who heads the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in northern Afghanistan. “But no survey has been done due to the lack of adequate budget funding, so all the figures are based on guesses.”

He added that the lack of reliable survey data was creating serious problems, making it difficult to determine how much aid is needed, and of what type.

“We have no exact information about what kind of threat people are facing, so this could be very dangerous. We’re urging donors to pay more attention to this situation,” said Mirzad.

The figures available so far are worrying.

According to Abdul Haq Shafaq, the governor of Faryab province, more than 100,000 families in this northwestern region are in imminent danger.

“Ninety-eight percent of agriculture and livestock in Faryab has been affected,” he said. “If assistance is not delivered soon, we will have a humanitarian crisis on our hands.”

He said hundreds of people are coming to his office every day in hope of receiving assistance, but he has nothing to offer them.

“We need 120 tonnes of flour immediately to keep people from starvation,” said the governor.

In Sar-e-Pul province, east of Faryab, officials are fearful of food riots.

“People are very hungry,” said Sar-e-Pul governor Sayed Iqbal Munib. “They are leaving their districts to look for food. I am afraid that one day, people will storm in from the villages and take everything from the government offices. The situation is very dangerous.”


An Afghan family on the move in
Badghis (Photo by Juliette Seibold)

Badghis, further to the west, has also been severely affected, according to parliamentarian Azita Rafat. She described an almost total loss of livestock and agricultural crops due to the drought.

“More than 200 families a day are leaving Badghis,” she said. “They are going to other provinces or trying to get into Iran illegally.”

In late June, the UN’s Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes, paid a visit to Kabul and briefed journalists on the emerging crisis.

“The most serious immediate problem … is food insecurity as a result of the global food price rises, which have had an effect here in Afghanistan, and drought in Afghanistan,” said Holmes.

“I think the government of Afghanistan together with the United Nations and the humanitarian community were quick to recognize that, which is why we issued an appeal for 81 million dollars in January this year. That appeal was well-funded and is enabling us to help around 2.5 million particularly vulnerable people here in Afghanistan,” he said.

“But we also recognize that it was not enough, so we are working together with the government of Afghanistan on a further, larger appeal to meet some of these needs and also to tackle some of the problems facing agriculture in this country,” Holmes said.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture has announced an emergency plan to deliver aid to the affected provinces.

“We have asked for 89,000 tonnes of wheat from the international community,” said Sadruddin Safi, head of the ministry’s department of food security. According to Safi, they already have promises of 83,000 tonnes, which means the ministry will be in a position to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

“The wheat is going to be distributed in the drought-affected provinces for free or in return for labor,” he said. “China has donated 4,380 tonnes, which will be given to affected families in 17 provinces.”

In addition, said Safi, the ministry has purchased 50,000 tonnes of wheat from Pakistan which will be sold at a reduced price.

“We have requested other assistance from the international community through a separate program, and it should arrive by the end of the year. We have a plan to cover more than 6.5 million persons in 2008, which will avert a crisis,” he said.

But these promises ring hollow in the ears of the people most affected by the drought.

“All of my farmlands have dried up,” said Ekramuddin, 54, a farmer in the Dara-e-Suf district of Samangan province. “My wheat plants are destroyed. My animals are dead. I have nothing left, so I am going to Iran to work so that I can send something to my family for the winter.”

Farmers like Ekramuddin have lost any faith that the government will help them.

“There is no news of any assistance,” he said. “I’m going to Iran because I can’t wait any longer.”

Abdul Ghani, a farmer in Sar-e-Pul, echoed Ekramuddin’s complaint.

“The government always makes promises, but the assistance will be delivered to us after we’ve died of starvation,” he said. “What will our dead bodies do with that assistance? We urge the government to help us while we are still alive.”

{This article originally appeared today in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting [www.iwpr.net].}

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

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