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9/14/04

AFGHANISTAN: Living with the drought in Ghazni

GHAZNI, 13 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - Baz Mohammad is looking for work, even though he is only 10. He was forced to leave the village school just outside the provincial town of Ghazni after his father died - a victim of the drought that is devastating this part of south-central Afghanistan. His 34-year-old father died two weeks ago after falling into a deep well used to irrigate his small garden and wheat field.

The death of Gul Mohammad, the sole breadwinner in his family, is not the only example in an area where deep wells are the only way of obtaining water for irrigation. Local people told IRIN that at least five people had died in similar accidents involving unmarked, unfenced wells over the past 12 months.

Southern and eastern Afghanistan are the areas worst affected by drought, the United Nations said earlier this month when appealing, along with the Afghan government, for US $71 million to help 6.3 million Afghans affected by a drought now in its sixth year.

Grain prices in these regions increased by about 50 percent in recent weeks, making them too expensive for many villagers, the UN said. About 37 percent of Afghanistan's 28.5 million people are classed as "food insecure", twice as many as a year ago, the UN warned.

Traditionally, agriculture in the region has been nourished by a system of canals bringing surface water to the fields, but more than 95 percent of such waterways have dried up in Ghazni as a result of the six-year drought that continues to undermine food security and health.

Digging deep into the earth for water is the only alternative to starvation for many rural people. But now such wells have to reach down at least 30 metres - twice the distance of just two years ago - to draw precious ground water to the surface.

Even drinking water is becoming increasingly hard and energy-consuming to find for people already weakened by malnutrition. "I go to a water source over that mountain to bring drinking water every day. It takes me three hours to reach the water with two donkeys," Amiro, an emaciated farmer with seven children, told IRIN, pointing to a distant hill south of his village in Waghez district.

The number of Afghans needing assistance is increasing as refugees return home from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. On 2 September, the UN registered the one millionth Afghan refugee to return home from Iran since its repatriation programme began in April 2002. More than 2.1 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Livestock herds are also rapidly shrinking due to a lack of water. "Our village had 102 cows before these years of drought. Now, we have only two cows out of that number," Safar Ali, an elderly farmer from Jaghori district, said.

Traditional coping mechanisms have also been blighted, leaving a vulnerable rural population. "Those who had fruit trees as a means of ensuring some income during difficult times have suffered the severest losses because there is no water to irrigate the trees now," Ali added.

Those with the means have left the region, while those without are lucky if they can turn a family member into a labour migrant. "I was pretty well-to-do five years ago thanks to my small orchard of grapes. But now, I cannot water the orchard and I am in debt to every person left in this village," Abdul Hakim, 56, said. His only alternative is to send his son to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to make money.

Some relief supplies are reaching the region but not nearly enough, local officials say. "Several hundred trucks loaded with wheat and cooking oil came last month from Pakistan for the drought-affected people of Ghazni and Wardak provinces, but it was too little to meet the needs of the people," Qadir Ghazniwal, Ghazni's provincial planning chief, told IRIN.

The country's minister of rural development, Hanif Atmar, recently called on people badly affected by the drought in southern provinces to remain in their villages where possible as urgent aid was imminent. "Thirty-seven percent of people in villages have lost access to food," the minister said, adding that an estimated 4,000 families had been displaced already from their homes in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand due to a lack of food and water.


The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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