The Heat Is Online

Worst Drought in 30 Years Threatens Afghan Nomads

Drought in Afghanistan Threatens Millions

By Cat Lazaroff, Environmental News Service, June 6, 2000

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 6, 2000 (ENS) - Afghanistan’s worst drought in almost 30 years is parching crops, draining wells and causing widespread famine and economic hardships. The United Nations has appealed for international aid to help millions of people facing water and food shortages.

"Afghanistan has been hit hard by every possible catastrophe in the last twenty years - war, earthquakes, displacement, border controls, sanctions, economic deterioration, increased poverty, and now the worst drought in thirty years. Such a combination of disasters would tax any country," Ahmad Farah, acting UN coordinator for Afghanistan, told a press conference today at the Office of the UN Coordinator in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Farah said that new assessments showed that the impact of the drought was even more widespread than previously estimated and that the entire country had been seriously affected. Rain fed crops in the north have failed almost completely, and preliminary estimates are that the cereal deficit may be as high as two million metric tonnes compared to 1.1 million tonnes last year.

Total annual cereal requirements in the country are between 4 and 4.5 million metric tonnes.

The UN estimates that between now and June 2001 at least half of the population of Afghanistan may be affected by drought. Three to four million people may be severely affected and another eight to 12 million moderately affected. "This indicates the gravity of the situation," Farah said.

Last winter brought much less snowfall than the winter of 1998-1999, which was also a drought year. The water table has dropped throughout much of the country, drying up the shallow wells relied upon for drinking water in most areas.

Where deeper wells exist, much of the equipment needed to pump water from deep aquifers has failed, a victim of the country’s ongoing internal strife and conflicts with neighboring countries.

Afghanistan is already thought to have one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates on the globe. Only an estimated 23 percent of the total population has access to safe water, 12 percent has access to adequate sanitation, and only 19 per cent of rural dwellers have access to clean water.

With the continuing drought, access to safe drinking water is becoming a critical problem, the UN says. Both piped water supplies and wells need chlorination, but few have access to chlorination equipment. Shallow wells run high risks of pollution from the contaminated shallow water table and from the surface.

Farmers and livestock owners are most affected by the drought, as failing crops and parched pastures threaten their only sources of income. Most of the country’s cultivated land produces just one rain fed crop a year. For a second year, the majority of Afghanistan’s wheat and other cereal crops are expected to fail.

An estimated 2.5 million wheat producers in northern Afghanistan have lost their crops already this year.

Only about one third of the needs identified in the UN's 2000 Consolidated Appeal for aid to Afghanistan, announced in early May, have been met so far, Farah noted. Almost all the $67 million in funding requested today to address the drought is for new needs, over and above those identified in the Consolidated Appeal. Without renewed commitment to funding for the Consolidated Appeal, both humanitarian assistance and the drought response would be seriously compromised, Farah said.

The drought strategy of the assistance community requires funding in six essential areas: food security ($48 million); potable water and sanitation in urban and rural areas ($ 2.4 million); protection of livelihoods in the fields of livestock and crops ($12.8 million); preventive health ($113,000); contingency planning ($2.7 million); and coordination, monitoring and evaluation ($700,000).

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is already working to feed hundreds of thousands in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Zabul. Mike Sackett of the WFP visited those provinces earlier this year, reporting, "there are no walking skeletons yet, but without an adequate response, thousands of Afghans would face a merciless summer."

Some of the drought victims in those southern provinces are kochis, nomads that migrate every year along traditional routes. Several hundred families have taken refuge around Kandahar City after being evacuated by local authorities from the Registan area.

In the north, people who have experienced total crop failure and have no alternative income are selling their remaining household goods and leaving rural areas. Some intend to migrate to larger towns in search of work, or to reach neighbouring Pakistan or Iran.

The recent war with the Taliban, an Islamic sect that imposed martial law over much of the country, sent Afghan refugees into Iran and Pakistan, countries that are also experiencing drought. Many of these refugees are suffering from deteriorating economic conditions in those countries, the UN says, and may return to Afghanistan only to find even more difficult conditions at home.

The UN has stopped supporting voluntary repatriation efforts for all Afghan refugees.

Because Afghanistan does not receive summer rains, no rainfall is expected until at least November.

In Dysfunctional Afghanistan, a Torturing Drought

By Barry Bearak, The New York Times, June 8, 2000

NALGHAM, Afghanistan -- Most often, drought is a mere annoyance to the Kuchis of the Registan Desert, for these nomads can find water where others cannot. They herd their sheep and camels over great distances, resettling in an oasis. Or they dig wells by hand, divining an aquifer and burrowing into the hidden moistness as deep as 50 yards down.

But rainfall has been a rare visitor to Afghanistan for three years running, and even the best of the desert dwellers have been humbled. The Kuchis of the Registan have fled north only to find that the snow-melt from the mountains has failed to refresh the rivers below. Their customary refuges have become a broken thread of narrow, vanishing ponds.

Some 20,000 of them can now be found in places like Nalgham in the parched Arghandab Valley, a spot ordinarily lush with grapes, apricots and pomegranates. They pitch their tents in depleted pastures, where they watch the last of their livestock die.

"Allah has taken away all my sheep, but this is not what worries me," said Sado Khan, a tribal elder red-eyed with misery. "We pray now he doesn't take our children."

Regions of India and Pakistan are also suffering from the momentous drought, with millions of people facing severe water shortages. But these nations -- poor as they are -- have functioning governments and coordinated relief efforts. Most of Afghanistan is ruled by the Taliban, a militia preoccupied with completing its conquest of the country and enforcing a puritanical interpretation of Islam. Only fragments of a government exist.

With most of the nation's wheat crop lost, with shallow wells going dry in the cities, with only bleached bones to show for thousands of head of livestock, the Taliban have appealed to the world for help. In turn, United Nations aid agencies have asked donors for $67.8 million in emergency money, but money for Afghanistan has been hard to muster in recent years.

"This country is certainly not the flavor of the month," said Erick de Mul, who coordinates humanitarian programs in Afghanistan for the United Nations. "The Taliban are not especially liked or appreciated by the international community. And that's quite a problem because Afghanistan has tough times ahead. Food is now an issue. Water is scarcer and scarcer. There are alarming reports all over, about rivers going down or drying up."

Twenty-one years of unremitting war had already left this a country of demolished cities, torn-up roads and hungry people. The drought is a visitation of yet another plague, and the Taliban, in their own fashion, have tried to deal with it. They have twice declared a national holiday, beseeching the faithful to pray for rain. Last year, rain came. But this year, three days of focused worship extracted nothing from the grudging skies.

Other means have also been tried. The militia sent trucks and helicopters into the Registan, evacuating hundreds of families in an expensive operation. But the Taliban have no food to distribute.

"They brought us here, but what are we here for?" Mr. Khan, a hawk-nosed man in a white turban, asked despondently. "Once, we owned hundreds of animals, but now we have only this one sheep and two goats."

He pointed to the skinny survivors of what was once a herd. One of the sheep had a purple cloth draped over its back, where much of its wool had fallen out.

"Our animals died of hunger, and now our way of life will die too," Mr. Khan said. "Either someone must help us or they should just make a big fire and throw us in."

The temperature on this recent afternoon in the valley was 119, a springtime omen of the scorching summer to come. Mr. Khan's clan -- perhaps 30 people in all -- had five tents spread out near a spent river. Many of the men sat down together to speak of their troubles. Their hearty camels, tied up nearby, brayed beneath the punishing sun.

A young woman in a colorful tunic entered slowly, someone helping her walk. Her stomach was bloated, and she complained of "a pain like no other pain." She held a 3-month-old child wrapped in a blanket. His body was frighteningly shriveled, and the family had seemed to accept the inevitability that both the woman and the baby were soon to die. "I have no milk for my baby," the woman said. "I have no strength for myself."

Ahmad Jan, one of the younger men present, said he knew about such hard dying. He had lost his infant son a few weeks back while the family was yet in the desert.

"We had no water," he said. "The boy just shrank away."

Even before the drought, such mortality had become one of the saddest parts of Afghanistan's long run of tragedy. More than one in four children die before age 5, according to United Nations estimates. That mortality rate is the worst in the world.

The absence of rain has surely hastened death's pace. Relief workers tell of recent deaths, but it is hard to say whether the drought was the cause or merely a contributing affliction.

Since the Afghans went to war -- first against the Soviets and then against each other -- it has been hard to estimate the nation's population with so many fleeing, so many killed. Calculations vary from 18 million to 24 million.

Perhaps 10 percent of these people are the nomads known countrywide as Kuchis. And of these wanderers, the Kuchis of the Registan are among the most isolated. Some are even unaware that the Taliban have taken command of 80 to 90 percent of the nation.

In most years, the arid summer would cause many of these nomads to move to the fringes north of the desert, where water was abundant and the pastures green. They would sell part of their herds, careful to keep the best of the animals as breeding stock. Other Kuchis would stay deeper in the desert, digging their wells with camels hauling up the fill.

Muhammad Ayub once had 250 animals. He brought them to the Arghandab Valley, but instead of a broad waterway, he found a river of rocks. He now has 90 sheep left, their bones showing through their thick puffs of hair. No one will buy them.

"We have left these animals to fate, and ourselves too," Mr. Ayub said. "If it rains, we will go back to the desert. If not, we will just stay here and pray."

But no rain is expected until November, with the days ahead likely to bring not only more heat but furnace-hot winds that torment the afternoons with dust storms.

Aid workers are hurriedly trying to survey the needs of the Kuchis, a task made more difficult because the nomads live spread out in small encampments. At the same time, plans must be made for city-dwelling Afghans, whose shallow wells are rapidly going dry.

In Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban's base, more than 90 percent of the people are dependent on such wells, said Leslie Oqvist, the local coordinator for the United Nations. Frightened people are drilling deeper, but that is sapping the aquifer. Nearby, farmers trying to save their orchards are using water that will soon be needed for drinking.

"We are trying to get ahead of what's going to be a very serious crisis," said M. Fayyaz Shah, who heads the World Food Program's office in Kandahar. "This country's rain-fed wheat crop has been destroyed; so has more than half of the irrigated crop."

Mr. Shah, a Pakistani with a deep affection for the Afghan people, dourly shook his head. "I don't know if I should say this, but this country is cursed, year after year, 20 years of war, one thing after another."

Paradoxically, as aid workers from the United Nations are feeding about one million Afghans each day, the member countries of the same organization -- at Washington's urging -- have imposed economic sanctions, banning all flights to and from the country and freezing the government's assets that are held abroad. They demand that the Taliban discontinue their hospitality to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile accused of terrorism. Yet more sanctions are threatened.

"The world's humanitarian assistance is tied to the whims and grudges that certain governments have against us," said Mullah Muhammad Hassan, the governor of Kandahar Province and one of the Taliban's most influential figures.

He is a stout man, once a storied battlefield commander. Like many of the Taliban's leaders, he is missing a limb and ambles about on his one good leg.

"Aid shouldn't be tied to politics," he said. "Are you willing to help the Afghan people pure and simple -- or only if they satisfy your political objectives?"

That complaint overlooks the humanitarian aid -- however insufficient -- that is already coming to the country. The United States is the largest donor.

But many Afghans, whether in battle-scarred government buildings or heavily mined farm lands -- believe America ought to be paying a larger debt of gratitude. After all, Afghanistan's mujahedeen rebels defeated the Soviets, helping to remove the Iron Curtain.

"We both fought for a common cause, so I don't understand how the United States can turn its back on us," said Khaliq Dad, who owns a small restaurant in Kandahar. "Americans may not like how we treat our women, but we are a conservative Muslim country. Doesn't President Clinton believe in freedom of religion?"

But those were the relatively sophisticated questions of an educated man, someone boastful of his several visits to New York years ago. Talk of geopolitics does not roll off the dry tongues of the Kuchis, eating the last of their scraps.

Abdul Qudir sat with the few remnants of his flock of sheep under the green canvas of his tent. A dust storm had begun to twist its way through the openness. His children had wandered away, and he had grown concerned. Finally, they came back, holding a small basket of grass, a bounty accumulated after hours of collection.

A little boy felt he needed to explain his chore. "We must save the young sheep," he said.