Reluctant to Migrate, Afghans Face Drought, Conflict, Covid

Abdul Baqi, 67, and his family are among those Afghans already displaced by drought. Photo by Enayatullah Azad courtesy Norwegian Refugee Council) Posted for media use

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 13, 2021 ( News) – “The sky has stopped raining on us, the earth has stopped growing grass for us, and eventually the government has also stopped helping us,” said Abdul Baqi, 67, who was displaced to Qala-e-Naw, in Afghanistan’s Badghis province during a previous drought in 2018-19. He fears what will happen to his family in the coming months.

In a new briefing note, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), sounds a loud alarm on behalf of Baqi and three million Afghans whose water is drying up – just as ongoing conflicts intensify, and they must cope with spiking Covid-19 cases, a lockdown, and the economic impact of the virus on their communities.

“This year’s drought will be the final straw for millions of Afghans struggling to survive after decades of conflict and more than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic. Memories of being uprooted from their homes due to lack of water during the 2018 drought are still fresh in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people in the country,” said Astrid Sletten, NRC country director in Afghanistan.

The number of people affected this year already exceeds levels seen during the previous drought, according to the NRC briefing paper, “Running out of time – A looming drought in Afghanistan.”

The NRC reports, “12.2 million Afghans, 32 percent of the population, now face ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ levels of food insecurity – placing Afghanistan among the top three countries in the world with the highest number of people in emergency food insecurity and already exceeding levels seen during the 2018-19 drought.”

More Drought as Climate Warms

Three million people in the north and western provinces of the country face the worst consequences of drought due to their reliance on farming.

In places all across the country many people are taking on “catastrophic levels of debt” to pay for food, rent, and healthcare even before the impacts of a drought fully hit, the NRC says.

The 2018-19 drought in Afghanistan affected more than two-thirds of the country, leaving some four million people in the worst-affected provinces in need of life-saving assistance and more than 371,000 displaced as drought conditions devastated livelihoods and pushed millions into food insecurity.

“Many Afghans displaced during this period remain in protracted displacement, unable or unwilling to return to their areas of origin and facing reduced assistance,” the NRC reports.

Assessments undertaken by NRC researchers in March in Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, and Faryab provinces indicate “urgent needs for livelihood support and water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance in order to prevent displacement and save lives,” they state.

NRC focus group participants spoke of displacement, selling livestock and household assets and borrowing large amounts of money just to survive as their fields dried up and livestock died due to lacking food and water. Few respondents stated that they received aid.

Many focus group participants indicated they would be unable to cope if government, national and international organizations did not provide them with support.

Interviewees expressed concern about the risks of lost livelihoods and potentially having to sell livestock, land, and productive assets at a low price should they face a drought. In Badghis and Herat provinces, livestock prices have already decreased significantly by roughly 40% from March to April 2021.

More than three-quarters of respondents to NRC researchers in Badghis indicated that they would go to displacement sites to seek assistance if they lost their livelihoods.

Hand pump in northern Afghanistan funded by ECHO, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, was installed in 2011 to address the impact of an earthquake and floods in the district. It is the only access the community has to clean drinking water. July 12, 2012 (Photo by Malini Morzaria courtesy ECHO) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Nearly 20 percent of respondents indicated they would travel to Iran or send one of their family members in search of work. Other likely coping mechanisms mentioned by participants included migration to Iran, child labor and early marriage, as well as joining armed forces and armed groups. Others mentioned migration to Pakistan.

The NRC conclues that for this population of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the prospect of a durable solution is remote.

“Most IDPs have indicated that they are unable or unwilling to return to their area of origin, yet have no intention to relocate and are prevented from being able to locally integrate,” the NRC reports. “As a result of restrictions by host communities and local authorities, IDPs and humanitarian organizations are unable to construct more sustainable solutions, such as transitional shelters and additional bore wells.”

Funding Hope for the Future

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), which makes loans to Afghanistan, projected in late April that Afghanistan’s economic growth will recover this year and accelerate next year after a sharp five percent decline in 2020 due to the pandemic, continued violence and instability.

“Afghanistan’s economy experienced unprecedented disruption in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic, political instability and continued violence, which cut remittances, trade, and revenue,” said ADB Country Director for Afghanistan Narendra Singru.

“With a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout and post-pandemic recovery, the country should be on track to achieve economic growth this year and in 2022 as business activity and market sentiment normalize,” Singru said.

However, the bank takes note of the risks that remain – vaccinating people in remote and insecure areas, conflict, criminality, corruption, political instability, and broader social fragility.

The ADB is not alone in its conclusions about Afghanistan’s recovery.

On June 7, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed the first review of Afghanistan’s economic reform program supported by the Extended Credit Facility arrangement, making SDR 103.6 million (about US$149.4 million) available immediately for disbursement.

Adding another element of change to the mix, military troops from the United States and NATO are leaving Afghanistan shortly.

“Security has deteriorated and uncertainty has risen as the peace talks between the government and Taliban stalled, with the U.S. and NATO troops set to withdraw by September,” said the IMF Executive Board in its review.

After the IMF Executive Board discussion, Mitsuhiro Furusawa, deputy managing director and acting chair, said, “Afghanistan is confronting the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic amid rising insecurity and uncertainty. Aided by donor support, the authorities boosted health and social spending to cushion the impact on the vulnerable. Nevertheless, the pandemic caused an output loss, worsened poverty and set back self-reliance efforts.”

“Growth is expected to resume this year, but the outlook is subject to considerable downside risks, including from adverse security developments, drought and the pandemic,” Furusawa said.

“Should they materialize,” he said, “it will be essential to boost spending for healthcare, support to the vulnerable, and food security, using fiscal space created by spending reprioritization and grants.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, met with President Joe Biden at the White House on June 8 to prepare for the U.S. President’s meeting with NATO leaders this week. Stoltenberg stressed that “as NATO ends its military presence in Afghanistan, the Alliance will continue to provide support for the Afghan forces and people.”

On June 8, the U.S. State Dept said, Samantha Power, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to discuss “USAID’s enduring partnership with the government and people of Afghanistan, especially Afghan women and girls.”

Power stressed the U.S. commitment to alleviate urgent needs in Afghanistan through a new contribution of US$266 million in humanitarian assistance.

Contributions Could Keep Afghans From Becoming Migrants

The Norwegian Research council has recommendations for life-saving actions:

* – “The humanitarian community in Afghanistan must step up coordination and planning as drought conditions worsen and early displacement accelerates in the coming weeks.”

* – “Continued monitoring and analysis should be undertaken and shared in a timely manner to all relevant institutions, particularly the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) and Ministry of Refugees And Repatriation (MoRR).

* – International donors should support a needs-based response so that partners are able to act early and in line with the revised humanitarian response strategy to prioritize emergency needs while also supporting vulnerable people to prevent them from slipping into more serious

humanitarian need.

* – Local and national authorities must be empowered to lead the drought response and, accordingly, ensure that timely humanitarian access is facilitated for response actors by, for instance, accelerating project approvals and permissions.

Afghanistan suffers reccuring droughts. Here, people trudge on in search of food and water in Oruzgan. Mazar, Afghanistan 2002. Photo: Stephen Dupont courtesy Dept. Foreign Affairs Australia)

* – Humanitarian and development partners should promote integrated approaches to prevent displacement and build communities’ resilience to

cope, adapt and prepare for climate-induced shocks, including through sustainable livelihoods and access to safe water.

“This is a disaster that can be prevented but time is running out,” concludes the Norwegian Research Council’s briefing note.

Many millions of migrants are on the move across the world at this moment. With a timely response from the humanitarian community, it is possible that reluctant migrants will not have to leave their home country of Afghanistan.

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