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Afghans brace for a bitter winter

‘I can try to keep them warm, but how will I feed my family?’

Afghan men walk down a Kabul street during snowfall in January 2022. Ali Khara/Reuters
Afghan men walk down a Kabul street during snowfall in January 2022.

Gol Mohammad has spent the past five years selling wood in a market in Pol-e Alam, the capital of Logar province. Long considered one of Afghanistan’s most insecure and underdeveloped regions, its residents are facing particular challenges this winter.  

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mohammad told The New Humanitarian, pointing out how quiet the market was. Usually at this time of year, there would be dozens of buyers milling about, moving from stall to stall to stock up before the coming cold.

But on this cloudy November day, there were only two customers, part of a worrying trend for woodsellers in this city, a 40-minute drive south of Kabul.

Traditionally, Afghan families stock up on bulk wood purchases for the winter, but this year, increasing food prices and shrinking spending power means families will have to try and make due with less. 

Mohammad said he’s seeing 30-40% fewer customers this year, even as temperatures, which average less than 20 degrees F (-6 to -7 degrees C) through January and February, start to fall. And those who do come are buying far less than usual. “In the past, people used to buy in bulk, enough for the whole winter,” Mohammad said. “Now, they’re buying little bits at a time and hoping to stretch it out for as long as possible.”

While the cold months in Afghanistan have never been easy, this winter is shaping up to be brutal. Sixteen months after the Islamic Emirate came to power, there’s no end in sight to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Up to 900,000 jobs have been lost since August 2021 and the rising prices of staple goods, including wood and coal, mean many Afghans will struggle to keep warm this winter. International aid organisations say some 24.4 million people will need emergency assistance.

Pol-e Alam residents told The New Humanitarian that the price of one kharwar – about 560 kilos of wood – had risen from about 5,000 afghanis ($57) to between 6,000 ($68) and 7,500 ($86) over the past year. Coal has also jumped in price – from 10,000 afghanis ($115) per metric tonne in 2021 to 14,500 ($167) this year. In rural Afghanistan, extended families often share a single, poorly insulated home that requires significant amounts of coal or wood to heat. 

Summer floods worsen the winter cold

Mohammad Nazir is one of the Logaris cutting back this year. Usually, he would buy nearly 2,000 kilos of wood to heat his 16-person household. This year, however, he has had to resort to purchasing just 350 kilos for 4,500 afghanis ($52). 

To earn that much money, the 25-year-old had to drive his cab around the streets of Pol-e Alam for more than 10 days, so he’s hoping to make the wood last as long as possible. “We have to make do,” he said. “I know it won’t last all winter, but we at least have to try.”

This winter will be especially difficult for the Nazirs, who lost their family home to the flash flooding that struck at least a dozen Afghan provinces in August. Theirs was among the 3,000 homes destroyed in Logar.

They have since relocated to a rental home on the outskirts of Pol-e Alam, where Mohammad is the family’s only breadwinner.

The floods dealt a big blow to households across Logar that used to be able to pad their meagre salaries with the money they made from apple orchards and wheat fields. 

Hasibullah, who sells potatoes on side streets off Pol-e Alam’s main market, told The New Humanitarian the summer floods have had a devastating effect on his family of 28. 

“I know it won’t last all winter, but we at least have to try.”

The 21-year-old said most of their potato fields were destroyed by the floodwaters, and he’s selling what little produce they have left so they can get by.

Hasibullah said he makes about 800 afghanis ($9) a day selling potatoes from the back of a small pickup. With more than two dozen mouths to feed, the money goes quickly. His family is fortunate to have leftover wood to burn this winter. However, with the prices of other staples rising, Hasibullah doesn’t know how he’ll be able to feed them all as the temperatures continue to fall.

The World Food Programme estimates that average food prices have increased by 18% compared to last year. But the prices for flour and rice, two staples in a family’s typical bulk winter purchase, have risen by a lot more – 29% and 32% respectively. 

“I can try to keep them warm, but how will I feed my family?” Hasibullah asked.

Hasibullah is also the embodiment of another harsh reality of life in Logar. For 20 years, it was considered one of the most dangerous and poorest provinces of Afghanistan, despite being so close to Kabul, so the educational and job opportunities are grim.

The fighting and lack of development meant Hasibullah had to drop out of school in second grade, which is why he started selling potatoes as a teenager.

“We came from the villages – everyday it was misfortune,” he recalled of his life growing up in the rural district of Charkh. “There were bullets flying. How could we study under those conditions?” 

More support needed  

Aid agencies are trying to help Afghans through the harsh winter, but they’re facing a huge funding shortfall. Less than 55% of the $4.4 billion required for the country’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan had been received.

Smaller local organisations told The New Humanitarian they too will be facing an uphill battle to deliver assistance to the most vulnerable communities this winter. 

Mohammad Nasir is the technical lead of Aseel, an ecommerce platform that allows online donors to purchase $95 winter assistance kits for Afghan families in need.

Nasir told The New Humanitarian his organisation is creating aid packages that will include 500 kilos of wood, a small wood-burning heater, lighter fluid, food, and warm clothing for residents in the provinces subjected to the harshest winter weather. 

In a bid to keep the prices down, the Aseel team has reached out to vendors in Kabul and other cities to try and lower the prices of goods as much as possible, including wood.

“We’re fortunate,” said Nasir. “They know what we do and what our intentions are, so we’ve been able to get good prices from them.”

Noting the huge numbers in need this winter, Nasir said the amount of hard work they do will be a sign of their success: “Our hope is that we will spend all winter travelling from province to province to help as many people as possible.”

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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