Thursday, October 18

Millions of starving Afghans flee drought-stricken farms. But STAY IN PLACE has worked where it's been used

“It’s hard to put into numbers, but the humanitarian community agrees that the response could have been cheaper if large-scale migration could have been prevented.”

Afghan displaced persons' tent camp on outskirts of parched town

Photo: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

The drought crisis has been building all this year in Afghanistan's farming regions, mainly in the north and west. By July the United Nations had estimated that at least 1.4 million Afghans would urgently need food aid in coming months. But by their own admission the UN greatly underestimated the scope of the crisis -- not really their fault given that the Afghan government had been slow to declare an emergency. (1)

On Monday, October 15 the UN announced that at least 3 million Afghans were in the emergency phase of the five-phase food security index, which is one phase away from famine. The organization is scrambling to pull together  international aid in efforts to get food by December to 2.5 million of the 3 million Afghans who are surviving on less than a meal a day -- the "less than" amounting to tea and bread.  

The drought was fueled by a La Nina weather cycle that caused record low snowfall in Afghanistan last winter, followed by high temperatures and up to 70 percent less rain in some areas, which meant water tables couldn't recharge, drying up many wells. (2) 

The rest has been a predictable pattern of dying livestock and destitute farming families heading to the nearest cities, where they set up flimsy tents and try to find work that isn't available, and wait for government help that so far has not been forthcoming. With winter closing in, the tents are no protection against freezing temperatures. 

More than 260,000 destitute, starving Afghans have already fled to tent encampments -- a displacement crisis now larger than the one caused by the government's war with the Taliban.   

Many of the displaced want to flee to Pakistan or Iran but the doors are closed; both countries, dealing with their own severe problems, have deported large numbers of Afghan refugees from earlier crises, and set up stringent entry requirements. The deportees have returned to no jobs and drought.

The familiar pattern has features unique to the 21st Century, and I will discuss them in due time, but because of these features the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan is a triple disaster on top of the usual drought-driven one. So if Afghanistan's (legit) farming belt doesn't see significant precipitation soon, the drought-driven famine in the country from the late 1990s to 2002, which touched off a massive refugee crisis, will seem like small chips. 

Moreover, al Qaeda/Taliban will pick up many more of recruits. And cultivation of the country's technically illegal poppy crops, which can exist on little precipitation, will skyrocket all the more. (3,4) 

All that is on the way in Afghanistan if this winter sees measly snowfall and the spring brings little rain.


Against the nightmare scenario is an approach to aid that can stop much of humanity from going the way of Afghans. The approach is still so new that it doesn't yet have a name, beyond Stay in Place, and you won't find an article about it in Wikipedia -- although one needs to be written 'yesterday.'  

STAY IN PLACE is pretty much what it sounds like; the idea is to apply relatively cheap, simple methods to helping farmers in drought- and flood-prone regions stay on their farms rather than becoming internally displaced or fleeing to other countries. 

STAY IN PLACE is not a magic bullet, and in my view has to be combined with a modernized type of subsistence farming to be effective over the long-term in many regions. But SIP has allowed farmers to beat the odds where it's been applied. The approach has been used during Afghanistan's present drought crisis. So here I turn over the podium to the IRIN organization, which has a free website that provides the 'inside story' on mass emergencies around the world. 

Note that the report was filed before the UN's latest announcement, on October 15, about the fast-moving Afghan crisis, so some statistics cited in the report are already out-of-date.  

Also, please see IRIN's website for great photographs accompanying the report (taken by the reporter), one of which I've featured above.
Oasis amid the drought: Local water systems give Afghans a reason to stay home
By Stefanie Glinski, regular IRIN contributor
October 11, 2018

The dusty, barren hills of western Afghanistan stretch far into the horizon. Here in Badghis Province, a severe drought has left barely any vegetation alive. But some villages in Abkamari District are an exception.

(ABKAMARI DISTRICT/Afghanistan) - Parts of the district are full of life – a green oasis with verdant vegetable gardens stretching between parched hillsides.

Although Abkamari has not been spared from a drought that has destroyed harvests, killed livestock, and forced 250,000 people from their homes across the country, here one simple solution has made a difference: New water systems and rehabilitated pumps have allowed farmers to grow food – and kept hundreds of local families from abandoning their homes in search of help.

While emergency aid is necessary for the most desperate, some NGOs worry it’s also pulling people away from their homes, creating new displacement and adding to the costs of what’s now a half-billion dollar humanitarian response in war-torn Afghanistan. Instead, they say, the broader aid sector could have mounted a drought response far earlier, and done more to prevent people from leaving in the first place.

The United Nations estimates that $116 million is needed to respond to the drought. This includes both emergency aid – such as food assistance totalling $14 million a month – and longer-term help. According to NGO World Vision, rehabilitating a water pump costs about $80, while a new purification system is priced at $58,000.

Haji Bismillah, a 45-year-old farmer, is one of the people who decided to stay along with his two wives and 15 children. In his sun-bleached traditional dress and a white cap, he proudly pulls weeds between the tomato plants in his vegetable garden – a patch of greenery surrounded by sparse hills.

“I’ve always been a farmer, but all of my rain-fed crops have died,” he said. “This plot has changed our lives.”

Aid groups and the Afghan government are struggling to keep pace with soaring humanitarian needs caused by the drought. An estimated 1.4 million people need help with water, food, and shelter, but funding shortfalls and conflict have prevented aid from reaching everyone who needs it. Sprawling tent camps of displaced rural families have emerged on the outskirts of urban centres like Qala-i-Naw, the provincial capital an hour’s drive from Bismillah’s home, and in Herat city to the west.

Bismillah decided to stay for a simple reason: Access to water in his remote village.

The cost of clean water

A five-minute walk uphill from Bismillah’s plot, World Vision set up a solar-powered water purification system for the 700 families living around the area. The system pumps salty groundwater from a deep well, which is then filtered into drinking water. Before the system was finished, the NGO trucked water to the village to make up for the shortages.

Dwain Hindriksen, operations director for World Vision in Afghanistan, said the organisation set up water systems to help people stay home rather than join the ranks of the displaced.

“We wanted to meet the needs in the communities and support people to get back on their feet,” he said. “If we can help people maintain their livelihoods, it will sustain them long after the emergency has passed.”

Since last November, the organisation has constructed two water purification systems, rehabilitated old pumps, and built solar-powered irrigation networks in the district.

In Abkamari’s Zingar village, where a water purification system has been in place for almost a year, none of the 300 families have left. In Bismillah’s village, Qapchiq, 100 families left before the system was installed, but 188 other households decided to stay once water was available, according to Saskidad, a community leader and member of the village-level water management committee.

The drought had already destroyed his crops, he said, but access to water has helped him survive.

“This water system is saving us time,” he said. “We used to walk up to six hours to find enough water. We’re also receiving food to make up for our lost harvests.”

NGOs operating in other parched areas of Afghanistan have found similar results. In Nimroz Province, along Afghanistan’s southwestern border with Iran, 30 percent of the population of the district of Chakhansoor had fled to packed Zaranj, the provincial capital, according to Relief International. Many migrants planned to head to Iran, even though the country is facing its own economic crisis and Afghans there are returning home – or being deported – in droves.

But Relief International is building new wells in Nimroz, giving some communities access to water. People in affected villages told NGO staffers they would stay if they had water – even though the drought had stripped farming communities of their livelihoods and worsened health conditions.

Preventing a crisis

Drought is a frequent concern in Badghis, as well as elsewhere in the country, and some aid groups say the government and the humanitarian sector could have lessened today’s emergency by responding far sooner. Last August, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a multi-agency body that monitors food insecurity around the world, marked Badghis as an “emergency” – the fourth level on its five-point warning scale, just below “famine”.

This year, a July statement by 10 major NGOs working in Afghanistan called on the broader aid sector to view humanitarian assistance to displaced people as a “last resort”, and to invest in measures that would build livelihoods in the remote communities many Afghans are now leaving.

The statement urged “greater leadership” from the UN-dominated cluster system – the organisational structure used to coordinate the many humanitarian and development groups working in Afghanistan.

In a separate statement given to IRIN, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development, which represents 146 Afghan and international NGOs, said that OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm, had “failed” in organising an effective response to the drought.

“We are now facing a drought situation which could have been mitigated with better coordination with government and other stakeholders,” the statement said, citing “weak relations among the humanitarian [and] development donors as well as [the] Afghan government”.

David Throp, the deputy head for OCHA in Afghanistan, said: “It’s hard to put into numbers, but the humanitarian community agrees that the response could have been cheaper if large-scale migration could have been prevented.”

Osman, an engineer at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, said that the government did not officially declare a drought until April, delaying an earlier opportunity to fund a response. The UN says that more than 1.4 million people nationwide will need some form of emergency assistance due to the drought.

Osman, who uses one name, noted: “If it doesn’t rain this coming season, people will be facing a major catastrophe far beyond their ability to cope.”

☰ Read more: Numerous reasons behind migration [see website]



See also IRIN's October 4 report
“If the water finishes, we will leave:” Drought is forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghans from their homes. Barren fields, rising debt, and desperate measures: What daily life looks like in the drought-stricken regions of Herat and Badghis

1) I've based my summary of the crisis on a number of news reports; see the following ones for more details.

BBC, October 17: Afghan drought 'displacing more people than Taliban conflict'

RT, October 15: UN warns 3mn Afghans are in ‘urgent’ need of food amid ‘worst drought in living memory’

AFP, October 11: Afghan farmers fleeing drought face more hardship in camps, August 12: Farmers in war-torn Afghanistan hit by worst drought in decades

The Telegraph, July 22: Afghanistan faces worst drought in decades, as UN warns 1.4 million people need help

(2) From the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, an explanation of what Afghanistan's climate is like

(3) For the latest on the allover conflict situation, listen to Long War Journal's October 15 report for the John Batchelor Show, "US now negotiating an exit with the Taliban and Al Qaeda." (Ten minutes.) 

(4)  Read the November 2017 Brookings report on skyrocketed poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. When last I checked Brookings is considered the world's #1 'think tank.' But I'm not sure whether they're correct in claiming that the booming poppy-growing in Afghanistan has had virtually no connection with the booming opioid prescription industry in the United States -- although I understand an official probe based on the question would not be welcomed by the pharmaceutical companies that make opioid pills. 

But aside from that caveat I found the report valuable, and it contains current information on Taliban 'taxation' schemes and legit businesses. Those Islamist fighters are making so much money it partly explains why they're hard to dislodge. 

The other part, as always, is Pakistan's regime and the longstanding unwillingness of several other regimes, notably British, Saudi, Chinese, and American ones, to cross Pakistan's generals in any significant way. As to whether the generals are getting a cut of Taliban profits -- another question that is Taboo.) 


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