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For disaster-hit Afghans, a brutally cold winter and shrinking aid

‘These small amounts won’t possibly be enough to rebuild the lives of people who lost everything.’

Snowy scene of tents with a person on a bicycle in the distance. Ali M Latifi/TNH

On a remote hillside in Afghanistan’s Logar province, the tents of some 300 families stretch across the snow-covered ground. This makeshift village has stood here since last July, when unusually strong floodwaters destroyed hundreds of nearby homes. 

Despite the icy weather, the snow that blanketed the camp in Khoshi district in early February actually came as some rare relief, driving temperatures up to 2 degrees Celsius and providing a buffer against the frigid winds that usually surround the hilltop.

“Other days, the wind sweeps through everything,” Mohammad Hussein Mirzai, who has become the leader of this community of displaced subsistence farmers, told The New Humanitarian.

The families spend their days in tents of varying quality, and at night they try to seek shelter with the few neighbours whose homes withstood the flooding in the valley below.

Even in these homes, life is far from comfortable. Six-year-old Mohammad said he struggles to fall asleep each night, amid flimsy walls that are cold to the touch and covered with mould and icy condensation. 

Across Afghanistan, a bitter cold snap led to the deaths of at least 166 people and more than 77,000 livestock in the second half of January. Last week, local authorities in the central province of Daikondi said a 50-year-old woman died when her body was buried under a snowstorm.

Millions of Afghans were already reeling from a string of disasters last year that tested the ability of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government to provide basic assistance, in the face of sanctions, banking restrictions, and large-scale cutbacks of foreign aid.

A family sits inside a tent with an open flame.
Ali M Latifi/TNH
Mirzai (left) helps build a fire for Marzia, Mohammad, and their mother, Parwin, though it quickly fills the tent with smoke.

Last June, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit the southeastern provinces of Paktika and Khost, destroying thousands of homes. Many of those families are also still living in tents. The summer also saw wildfires in the east of the country as a result of a years-long drought.

The little aid that came to Khoshi after the summer floods – including the tents, which were provided by the UN and local charities – has now dried up. Residents told The New Humanitarian they need everything from new tents, to consistent deliveries of wood to keep warm and food supplies.

These aid shortages reflect the situation across Afghanistan, where distributions have been “severely impacted” by the Islamic Emirate’s ban on female NGO workers, according to the UN. 

Suspended aid operations

At the end of last year, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, and Islamic Relief all halted their work in Afghanistan until all female staff were able to return to work.

While several of these organisations eventually resumed some health-related work, with the approval and support of the Ministry of Public Health, the UN and others maintain that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reach women and women-led households in need, especially when it comes to physical distributions and community surveys.

These setbacks come as the country struggles through the coldest winter in a decade, with temperatures dipping as low as -35 degrees Celsius. An estimated 28.3 million people are expected to need humanitarian assistance this year, including 6 million who are one step away from famine, according to the IPC system that the emergency aid sector uses to measure hunger crises.

The lack of aid has left an enormous burden on the country’s poorest.

Each day, Mohammad’s father travels to Pol-e Alam, the provincial capital, in the hope of making 100-200 afghanis ($1.11-$2.22) doing manual labour. But amid widespread capital flight, sanctions, aid cuts, and banking restrictions since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, even those jobs are hard to come by. Most days, he returns home empty-handed.

An estimated 28.3 million people are expected to need humanitarian assistance this year, including 6 million who are one step away from famine.

“One person can’t possibly make enough to provide for all 10 of us,” Mohammad’s mother Parwin said. After escorting two of her children across the snowy field and into a tent covered with condensation, she tried to light a fire using pieces of scrap wood they threw into an old, dented oil canister. However, the smoke quickly engulfed the tent and they had to put it out.

Local groups are busy trying to make up for the aid shortfall, but they say they can only scratch the surface of what’s required.

Aseel, an e-commerce platform where online donors can purchase $95 winter assistance kits for Afghan families, has provided aid to communities in Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, Kunar, Paktia, and Panjshir provinces, but millions more remain in need.

“We are helping communities where the crops have long since dried up or floods have washed away their homes – people who have to buy 10 or 20 afghanis’ worth of sugar at a time,” Ihsan Hasaand, emergency relief lead at Aseel, told The New Humanitarian.

Even when aid did arrive in Khoshi in prior months, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the losses the community suffered, according to Mirzai. Local NGOs and private donors would bring some wood, coal, blankets, food, even cash, but it rarely lasted more than a couple of weeks. 

“These small amounts won’t possibly be enough to rebuild the lives of people who lost everything,” Mirzai said. 

Because everyone lost their farmlands and apple orchards to the floodwaters, no one can afford to purchase wood and coal to properly heat even their tents, much less the surviving homes, which are now accommodating two to three families every night.

The fallout from 2022’s disasters

The longer-term impact of last year’s disasters – flooding in the east and north, earthquakes in the southeast, as well as drought in parts of the west, south, and in the capital, Kabul – has forced families across the country to make impossible decisions. 

Enayatullah, 43, moved his 11-person family from the eastern province of Nangarhar to Paghman after the summer flooding destroyed their home, hoping the district’s status as a popular picnic destination for Kabul residents would allow him and his 13-year-old son to earn enough to rent a small room in the capital.  

Instead, they too ended up in a tent in a village in Paghman that was devastated by drought and flooding over the last year. Each day, he sends his two eldest daughters to collect scrap wood to heat their tent, but mostly they end up having to burn plastic and cardboard to keep warm, a practice that has already affected their health. 

“Last night, one of the children woke up at 3am in coughing fits, I didn’t know what to do but pray,” he said.

Enayatullah has reason to be scared.

Every winter, Afghanistan’s hospitals are inundated with cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, as poorer families look for ways to keep warm. Last month, in the western province of Herat, at least 140 patients were admitted to the hospital for carbon monoxide-related ailments in a single 24-hour period.

“Last night, one of the children woke up at 3am in coughing fits, I didn’t know what to do but pray.”

If Enayatullah had decided to take his child to the nearest hospital, it would have required an arduous journey down an unpaved side-road at night, and he would be lucky to be seen quickly once he got there. Hospitals across the country are faced with an influx of patients due to seasonal winter illnesses while also trying to deal with power outages and reduced financial assistance due to the aid cutbacks. 

Moving to Kabul has also left Enayatullah’s family more vulnerable to Afghanistan’s enduring insecurity. Conflict has broadly been reduced since the departure of US and NATO forces, but the last 18 months have seen increasing attacks on places of worship and near government ministries in the capital, mostly blamed on so-called Islamic State.

Enayatullah’s 13-year-old son was injured in a 5 February explosion in the west Kabul neighbourhood of Kotei Sangi and is now unable to work. Enayatullah said the family had come to depend on the 100-150 afghanis a day his son earned, but now they don’t even have that.

The winter cold and economic uncertainty have started to take a toll on Enayatullah’s own health. He has recently started shedding hairs all over his body, including his eyebrows and eyelashes.

“When I went to the doctor, he said ‘It’s all from stress, you have to calm your nerves,’” Enayatullah said. “But how can I do that when my children have only bread and tea to eat each night?”

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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