Northern Afghanistan Winter Deepens Drought Victims' Misery

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, February 2, 2009 (ENS) – “I can never recover from my failure to provide food and medicine for my children,” said Abdul Rahman, leaning against a ruined house in Dehdadi, a district in Balkh province. “My 18 year old daughter died one week ago.”

Rahman is one of tens of thousands of Afghans who have fallen victim to a severe drought, which has plagued northern Afghanistan for the past year. With the onset of winter, many families have left their homes and are moving in search of food and shelter, straining the government’s ability to cope.

Afghanistan is a dry country in which drought is frequent, especially for the past 10 years. Sometimes the rains fail to arrive for years at a time, causing severe hardship for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the land.

This year has been harder than most for farmers in northern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab, Sar-e-Pul, and Takhar. Thousands have collected in Dehdadi district of Balkh province, where they hoped to find assistance. But, according to the displaced families, help has been slow in coming.

“There was employment opportunity for these refugees during the summer,” said Khalifa Baaz Mohammad, a representative of the displaced families in the Yaka Toot area of Dehdadi. “They and their children were collecting cotton, spinach and onions. But now they have almost nothing.”

 Children go on donkeys to fetch water in Zare, Balkh Province, Northern Afghanistan (Photo by Dzaidek Mroz)

In addition to food, the families also need fuel to keep themselves warm in the freezing winter weather.

“The concerned Afghan departments have surveyed them several times and have promised assistance,” said Baaz Mohammad. “But nothing has been done so far to help us overcome our problems.”

Officials, meanwhile, appear to be passing the buck, each accusing the other of failing to act.

Wali Shah, the district governor of Dehdadi, confirmed the difficulties facing the displaced people, and said that he had shared these problems with the heads of the provincial refugees and repatriation department and the department for disaster preparedness.

“I told them that [these problems] are a real concern, but there is still no assistance provided to them,” he said.

Rahmatullah Zahed, head of the disaster preparedness department in the north, said that his office had also tried to get the government to act.

“We have conducted a survey that shows that 74,000 families all over the north are in urgent need of food during the current winter,” he said. “Most of these are people who had left their homes because of the drought.”

 Children in Balkh Province, Afghanistan (Photo by Josephescu)

Some assistance, he said, had been provided.

“We have shared the problem with senior government officials,” said Zahed. “The disaster preparedness department has provided 5,592 tonnes of foodstuffs to the displaced people during the current winter. Most of the foodstuff has been sent to remote districts and the remainder is now being transported.”

Some of those in need live too far away for easy assistance, he explained. Those in the Alburz mountain area of Dehdadi were in particular danger, he added.

The Alburz mountain area is 60 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh. More than 800 residents left their homes earlier this year due to the lack of potable water and food.

“They moved next to the Hajdanar river,” said Zahed. But the area quickly became overcrowded with refugees from all over Balkh, he added, and provincial officials had to act.

“In order to relieve the pressure, Balkh provincial officials decided that the displaced people should return to their home districts,” he said. “Nearly 7,000 families were moved back to their homes with the help of Rural Rehabilitation and Development Department of Balkh, the Red Crescent Society in the North, UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency], the Balkh department of refugees and the department of disaster preparedness.”

But those who went back to Alburz are still in trouble.

“The problems of the refugees near the Alburz mountain are not being solved,” he said. “We will need more assistance.”

According to Zahed, it is up to the Balkh province department of refugees to deal with the problem.

Women gather for food distribution at a Dehdadi school (Photo by Jill)

But according a refugees representative in the Choqnak area of Alburz, Islamuddin, who goes by one name, the department of refugees is part of the problem. He claims the department siphons off much of the assistance that is supposed to go to the needy families.

“Twenty out of a 100 bags of wheat are distributed and the remainder is sold in the markets,” he said.

“For example, 315 refugees in the Alburz mountain area were supposed to get assistance provided by China. The assistance was delivered to the area but not given to the refugees.”

Sayed Mohammad Tahir Roshanzada, head of the Balkh chamber of commerce, confirmed that food given to assist refugees was diverted.

“The donated foodstuff is sold in the market for a very low price,” he said. “Nobody does anything to stop this.”

Shir Mohammad Babri, deputy head of the Balkh department of refugees, downplayed the allegations.

“This is the opinion of the displaced families who are not aware of the problems and facilities of this department,” he said. “We distribute the assistance we receive to really poor and needy people.”

Babri added that some16,000 refugees have gone back to their homes in different parts of Balkh province, and about 12,000 displaced people have been registered. He acknowledged that the problems of all of these people needed be solved, but said that his department does not have the capacity to provide help to the displaced people on time.

“We do plan to distribute aid to families in the Alburz mountain area in the near future,” he said.

But until assistance is distributed in the stricken districts, those displaced by the drought will be in severe distress.

“I have collected bread from several houses last night to give to those in need,” said Baaz Mohammad. “If assistance is not delivered soon, there will be a humanitarian disaster.”

By Samiullah Bawar

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