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IRIN Special Report on the drought

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Carolyn McAskie
Emergency Relief Coordinator, Carolyn McAskie (SLENA)

Afghanistan is suffering the most severe drought it has experienced in the past 30 years, according to UN officials, humanitarian experts and the latest available reports on the situation. They have singled it out as the country worst hit by the drought in south Asia.

Humanitarian experts said the failure of rains for three successive years had caused devastating losses of crops and livestock, and a rapid deterioration in health and sanitation. This, they said, could threaten to bring famine to many parts of Afghanistan.

A regional overview

The drought has spread in a giant crescent from Iran in the west, across most of Afghanistan, north to Tajikistan and down into southwest and southern Pakistan and western India, altogether affecting some 60 million. In Iran, 18 of the country’s 28 provinces have been badly hit; Tajikistan, where nearly 90 percent of the population live below the poverty line, is expected to produce less than half its normal grain requirements; the authorities in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Sind provinces have said approximately 2.2 million people have been affected.

Afghanistan least able to cope
But after 21 years of war, the collapse of economic infrastructures and the devastation of communities, as well as continuing strife and instability, Afghanistan is the least able of countries in the region to deal with the crisis without outside assistance.

WFP has estimated that up to 12 million people out of Afghanistan’s total population of 20.9 million, would be affected by the drought this year, some 3-4 million of them severely affected. “In pragmatic terms, what we mean by severely affected are those people who without direct aid and food assistance would be in a potentially life-threatening situation. Those simply affected are those who could just about get by without assistance,” Mike Sackett, WFP Afghanistan Country Director, explained.

According to UNICEF figures, the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is among the highest in the world at 165 per 1,000 live births, compared with Mali, where the rate is 144 per 1,000, and Ethiopia, with 110 per 1,000. Some 48 percent of infants are moderately to severely underweight. Only six percent of the population has access to safe drinking water.

Fighting and landmines

The crisis is further complicated by continuing fighting and landmines which have made a population already struggling to survive still more vulnerable. According to the Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan, some 90 to 300 people a month are being killed or maimed after wandering into minefields which cover an estimated 715 square km.

A severe crisis

Humanitarian officials based in Afghanistan have told IRIN that the drought has turned what was already a precarious situation into a severe crisis. In irrigated areas, almost one third of this year’s crop has been destroyed. In rain-fed areas, the crop has virtually been wiped out altogether, with the north, west and central areas worst hit. In the livestock areas of the south and centre, they said, nomadic herders have seen up to 80 percent of their stock wiped out.

“The air is not just dry, it’s brittle,” an international aid worker, just back from a visit to Kandahar province, told IRIN. “Where there used to be fields, all you can see are huge expanses of dust.” According to an Afghan humanitarian source, a number of lakes in the south and southwest of the country have dried up for the first time in living memory. “Even in the 1970-71 drought, this did not happen,” he said.

Food shortages

According to WFP, Afghanistan needs 4.1 million mt of cereals a year. In 1998, there was a deficit of 700,000 mt. Last year, the deficit was 1.1 million mt, while this year, the deficit is estimated at 2.3 million mt - or more than 50 percent of the annual requirement. The next chance for a normal crop from rain-fed areas will not be until May-June 2001. If that crop should fail again, WFP has warned of widespread famine, unless adequate preventive measures are taken in time.

WFP said it usually provides provides 100,000 mt of food a year to Afghanistan. Over the next 12 months, it will be attempting to supply an additional 105,000 mt. Even if this target is reached, the total would still only make up less than 10 percent of the deficit, leaving a yawning gap.

“Because we cannot possibly hope to feed everyone, we are trying to target the most needy,” WFP spokesman Khaled Mansour told IRIN. He said the main priority was to stabilise communities and prevent mass migration - which would destabilise Afghanistan’s neighbours, bring additional pressure to urban centres and deal a “severe blow” to Afghanistan’s productive assets. Officials said this effort appeared to have been successful.

Samantha Reynolds, Programme Manager of the UN Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS - Habitat) told IRIN that while a number of wage earners had been moving into the cities to find work, there was no evidence as yet of a mass influx and that most movements of people appeared to be between rural areas. However, latest reports from the field indicated that people are beginning to move into cities such as Herat in the west and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. Among the efforts to contain this movement is a Drought Awareness Campaign by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan (UNOCHA), which will begin distributing leaflets all over the affected areas of the country, giving advice on basic water conservation and efficient-use measures and urging people not to move way from their homes and villages.

Women and children the most vulnerable
Aid agencies agree that the most vulnerable groups in this situation are women, who face Islamic restrictions on work and education imposed by the ruling Taliban movement, and children, who are the first to succumb to the effects of malnutrition and diseases. UNICEF has set up a child immunisation programme and is also supplying Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS), antibiotics and intravenous (IV) fluids to help mitigate diarrhoeal diseases during the summer.

UNICEF is also organising the delivery of therapeutic and supplementary feeding for the drought affected population and providing support for the construction of hand-pump wells, water system repairs and bore hole drilling.

Reducing dependency

One of the key aims shared by the relief organisations working in Afghanistan is to build up community self-help and reduce people’s dependence on outside intervention.
UNICEF has appealed for US $250,000 to support a scheme to provide safe drinking water for 150,000 rural people and to improve hygiene awareness among 300,000 rural inhabitants. The proposal also provides for strengthening communities to manage their own resources for drought mitigation.

The UNICEF proposal is part of the Strategy for Drought Response, prepared by the inter-agency Water and Environmental Sanitation sector in Afghanistan, which requires a total of US $1,045,600 in funding. This would include medium and long-term projects on drought prevention and mitigation measures, such as the construction of water systems and more efficient use of water.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been running similar projects for the past few years, and according to Alfred Grimm, ICRC regional Head of Delegation, the organisation has now begun expanding its existing activities to take account of the drought. One of ICRC’s major projects is the rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s irrigation systems, such as canals and karezes - large-scale underground irrigation systems which avoid water loss through evaporation. ICRC, he said, has been rehabilitating around 400 systems a year, employing thousands of workers on a food-for-work basis. In the first quarter of this year, it completed surveys on 250 systems and rehabilitated 110 of them.

The ICRC also assists with the provision of food and non-food items, focusing on people with special needs, such as the disabled or families supported by widows. Provision of poultry and support to kitchen gardens is incorporated into support programmes to lessen people’s dependency on direct aid. The ICRC also provides assistance through related projects to a number of indigenous NGOs and institutions.

Security concerns

Humanitarian officials said security conditions have severely hampered aid deliveries. The inter-agency International Appeal for Afghanistan 2000 stated: “In order for humanitarian and other assistance to Afghanistan to be effective, there is a need for secure access to populations in need, which is often undermined by outbreaks of fighting or, in some cases, political considerations that obstruct the movements of supplies or staff.”

It added: “The inability of international UN and other staff to provide direct support to their national colleagues in the country has hindered access to vulnerable populations in some cases.”

In a handful of opposition-held areas, humanitarian staff have found themselves having to deal with individual commanders controlling their own fiefdoms, and who recognise no other authority. Many of the roads, particularly in the mountainous parts of Badakhshan Province in the north-east, are impassable in winter. There are also enormous problems with fuel and transport. A WFP spokesperson described food deliveries as a “logistical nightmare” with transport costs running to US $100 per mt.

The UN appeal

The UN and its partners in Afghanistan have appealed to donors for US $67 million to help deal with the drought. So far, donors have pledged US $39.4 million - or about 60 percent - but considerably less than this has actually been handed over. Even if the rains arrive on time in November, they say these funds will be crucial to get the country through the next 12 months without a major humanitarian disaster.

“If we are able to raise all funds and resources, then surely this will mitigate the suffering, but it is going to be a harsh 12 months,” Khaled Mansour of WFP said. “We can only hope that there is no major new outbreak of fighting between the factions in the meantime because that really would spell disaster.” Another source said: “Only if we succeed in dealing with the drought, can the longer term projects of community development, capacity building and self-dependence have any hope of succeeding. If we fail to take the necessary measures and Afghanistan is hit by famine next year, we risk losing everything else with it.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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