Issue 19 - Article 5

Natural disasters and complex political emergencies: responding to drought in Afghanistan

November 16, 2012
Alexander Matheou, British Red Cross
8 min read

From Iran to western China, Central Asia is suffering its worst drought in decades. One of the states hardest-hit has been Afghanistan; poor and conflict-ridden, it is also the least able to cope

Afghanistan is in its third year of severe drought, compounding the effects of conflict and international isolation. Precarious security conditions and problems of access make needs difficult to assess, but it is clear that the food crisis in much of the country has become acute. Millions of Afghans have little or no access to food, and require international humanitarian food aid. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more have been forced from their homes, congregating in camps in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan and Iran.

Assessing vulnerability

In March and April 2001, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies did an assessment of the health, economic and security needs, as well as the nutritional situation, in Ghor province in western Afghanistan. Ghor has a total land area of 38,670 square kilometres, with most of its agricultural land 2,000 metres above sea level. It is cold and windswept, and limited to one crop a season. Its population of 80,000–90,000 households is scattered among towns and some 1,900 villages.

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Most people are farmers and livestock owners. The assessment teams visited 29 villages across the province. Reaching any more villages was not possible because of time and access limitations, and we can only assume that the information gathered is indicative of the wider situation.

The findings of the assessment reveal a population reaching the end of its coping mechanisms, with a quarter of households displaced, and the remainder perhaps only months away from being forced to leave their homes. Even before the drought, the local environment was in trouble because of soil erosion and desertification. The mission found the population of Ghor to be chronically poor. Throughout the selected villages, land was being sold to raise money – normally a last resort to raise funds. Livestock had died or been sold in the previous, drought-ridden year, and livestock numbers have subsequently decreased by between 50 and 90 per cent. Household items such as carpets were also being sold, and 95 per cent of the households assessed have undergone significant decapitalisation. Virtually all income is being spent on food, paid for either in cash or in barter.

Although food stocks are far lower than normal, in many places access to water is the chief concern. Springs and rivers are the traditional water source, with wells being a secondary source, present in less than half of the villages visited. Generally, water sources are poorly protected, and their quality compromised by being shared between people and livestock. Villages also reported that springs are drying up. During 2000, between 40 and 50 per cent of springs dried up in the summer; in spring 2001, 60–70 per cent were already dry. In response, some populations move to higher pastures to be close to springs, but the drought is foreclosing this option. Others send children with donkeys to collect water from more distant sources, up to 10km away.

These hardships, together with poor access to any sort of health care and a severe lack of understanding of health-related issues, all contribute to the mortality rates for which Afghanistan is becoming infamous. Respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal parasites and diseases preventable by childhood immunisation were all found in the subject villages. As of April 2001, however, there was no significant acute malnutrition.

Conditions for IDPs

Ghor is the second-largest source of internal displacement in western Afghanistan. In the camps around Herat, around 25 per cent of IDP households come from Ghor, and many more arrive each day. On average, 26 per cent of subject village households in Ghor province had been displaced by April 2001.

A separate ICRC/Federation assessment team visited two of the camps around Herat in June 2001 to review conditions. Accurate figures regarding the numbers of IDPs living in camps around Herat are difficult to come by. In Maslakh Camp, 10km from Herat, official figures from the Ministry for Martyrs and Repatriation put the population in May 2001 at 184,000, but other sources put the figure closer to 100,000, with an unconfirmed number arriving each day (estimates range from 125–400 new arrivals daily). The camp is approximately 3.5km in length and 800m deep, and is located on a barren, windswept plain with no vegetation. It offers no shelter from the sun or the dehydrating winds.

There is pressure to close Maslakh to new arrivals. New arrivals, regardless of the site they are allocated within the camp, quickly relocate to be closer to their communities or families. At the time of the ICRC/Federation visit, there was no obvious sign of water shortage in the camp, but a lack of tents made shelter a problem, and hygiene standards are poor despite the efforts of UNICEF and Habitat. Part of the problem is changing nomadic practices to practices appropriate to a camp environment.

Despite the harshness and hygiene problems, the situation in Maslakh Camp appeared to be under control, with no major health problems reported. And here lies the dilemma. Humanitarian organisations have to consider where best to provide aid in such circumstances: in the remote villages themselves, in an attempt to stem the flow of migration, or in the more controllable environment of the camps, with the problems of dependency and resettlement that inevitably ensue.

The ICRC has made its choice. It plans to provide seeds and half rations for some 84,500 households (over half a million people) in the province of Ghor and the Dar-i-Suf valley. It is hoped that this will allow people to stay in their villages without risking starvation, and will persuade them against moving to camps. The seeds will be distributed for planting on irrigated farm land, and if drought makes this impossible, they will be stored for the next planting season.

The impact of conflict

The drought is not the only cause of migration. Ghor is mainly under Taliban control, but opposition groups are also present, and fighting has broken out with renewed intensity over recent months. As well as contributing to displacement, the conflict has complicated relief efforts. A constant dialogue must be maintained with the Taliban and opposition groups to ensure the safe passage of relief goods and workers. At times, fighting brings work to a standstill.

To reach drought-affected areas such as Dar-i-Suf, the ICRC has to negotiate the crossing of front lines. Operations have to be conducted over long distances, across poor roads and mountain terrain. The entrance to Dar-i-Suf valley is mined, and  the valley can only be reached by secondary trails, with goods carried on the backs of donkeys. Getting into Ghor itself poses similar problems. Relief items are procured in Peshawar, Pakistan, and trucked to Herat over 15 days, then unloaded into smaller trucks and driven to distribution points in Ghor province. At a rate of 350–450 truck trips per month from Herat to distribution points within Ghor, with each truck carrying ten tonnes, it will take four months to distribute the planned 12,150 tonnes of food aid that may slow down the tide of migration.


If the drought does not ease and springs continue to dry up, people will leave for IDP camps regardless of food aid. Water cannot be trucked across Ghor province. Likewise, if fighting continues and aid cannot be delivered, people will be forced to move. The inability of the Afghan authorities to provide any sort of food security will mean that hundreds of thousands of people will depend on international aid to survive.

Alexander Matheou is Desk Officer, Central Asia/Middle East at the British Red Cross. Website:


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