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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 08:30 GMT
Afghanistan's neglected drought

Increasing violence in Afghanistan has overshadowed hardship caused by drought. Christian Aid's Anjali Kwatra writes about the problem in the western province of Herat.

Boys fetching water in Herat region

In a graveyard on a hill overlooking the village of Sya Kamarak in western Afghanistan, villagers gathered last week for the funerals of three young children who died of hunger.

They died on the same day from malnutrition caused by a devastating drought that has hit western, northern and southern Afghanistan.

There were no doctors' reports to confirm the cause of death - the parents were too poor to take them to the clinic which is one day's walk away.

Jan Bibi, 40, said she had been feeding her three-month-old daughter Nazia with just boiled water and sugar because she had nothing else.

"My baby died because of inadequate food. I wanted to breastfeed her but I was not producing enough milk."

Jan Bibi's surviving twin daughter Merzia is the size of a newborn rather than a three-month old and cries continually for food.

Dry spell

"I am worried about my baby," said Jan Bibi. "The future is dark because we don't have food or water or fuel for heating. We have to walk for four hours to get to the nearest fresh water - we don't know how we will survive."

Maryam and her grand-daughters collecting stocks for burning near Herat
Failed crops turn to stocks for burning (Photos: Christian Aid)

The villagers say 50 children have died so far this year - a far higher number than usual - because of the drought.

Almost all the 300 families in remote Sya Kamarak, which is a day's drive along bumpy tracks from the capital of the province, Herat city, live off the land.. Most lost all their wheat harvest when the rains failed in April and May.

A Christian Aid assessment of the drought in five northern and western provinces showed that farmers lost 80-100% of their crops in the worst affected areas and water sources in many villages had dried up.

The UN says 1.9 million people are at risk. The World Food Programme says it has only received one third of the funds it needs to help the drought victims.

In the meantime people are surviving on limited supplies of flour from last year and eating just boiled potatoes, meagre supplies of bread and tea to fill their stomachs. As winter approaches many villages in more remote areas will get cut off by snow and aid will not be able to get through.

Displaced

Not only is food scarce, but each day children as young as six are sent to collect water from taps or wells up to three hours away.

People praying in a graveyard in Herat region
Death due to starvation is on the rise among children

Village elders say that droughts used to occur every 15 to 20 years, but the last drought finished just two years ago. They also say that winters are not as cold as they used to be and summers are hotter. Some experts attribute these changing weather patterns to climate change.

The drought has also hit hard in the south of the country where British troops are fighting an insurgency. The government has said that 20,000 families have been displaced in the south because of a combination of fighting and drought.

Poppies for food

Although the west of the country is not a Taleban stronghold, many of the poor farmers said they could understand why people would sign up to fight when they were desperately poor.

People in Afghanistan are only thinking about what they can find to eat, not about fighting
Ramazan, a farmer

Attalullah, 40, was one of the fathers who buried their children. Sitting in his two-room mud hut, he explained their situation as his wife Rabia wept for their daughter Uzraa, who was two.

"We have just a few kilograms of flour left to make bread with and we spend all day collecting twigs to use for fuel for cooking and heating. If anyone will provide us with a means of livelihood then we would rather join them rather than starve to death. "

Many villagers said the international community was so focussed on the insurgency, that those suffering from the drought were being forgotten. "The world does not know that people in Afghanistan are only thinking about what they can find to eat, not about fighting," said Ramazan, 40, a farmer who also lost all his crop.

Others said they would consider growing poppies which grow well in dry climates just to earn enough to buy food.

Mullah Niaz, 80, appealed to the international community to help farmers affected by the drought.

"There are many families in this village who don't know where they will get their next meal from. They are eating just bread and relying on the charity of better off neighbours from day to day. We are expecting that more people will die unless we get help. We need food, water, medicines and fodder for our animals. We need help now."

SEE ALSO
Afghan 'threat to wider region'
18 Nov 06 |  South Asia
Afghans struggle in face of drought
26 Jul 06 |  South Asia
Afghanistan's prospects in 2005
05 Jan 05 |  South Asia
Afghan wetlands 'almost dried out'
07 Feb 03 |  Science/Nature
War 'has ruined Afghan environment'
29 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature

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