In September, the United Nations (UN) published a report that said about 275,000 people in Afghanistan are currently displaced by the ongoing drought. They reported that 250,000 of those displaced are in the western region and that approximately 120,000 people were displaced from Badghis to Qala-e-Naw during the reporting period. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that there is currently a 70% precipitation rate registered across most of the country due to La Niña conditions. Major news outlets have reported on the on-going environmental crisis, highlighting the shocking takeaway from this data: drought has displaced more Afghans than the Taliban. The UN reported that a total of 1.9 million people were internally displaced in Afghanistan for various reasons. They also reported that there were over 60,000 refugees who returned to Afghanistan and need assistance, and at least 2.6 million refugees being hosted by Iran and Pakistan.
This precarious environmental situation is not new. Although it is more common to see coverage of political instability and violence in Afghanistan, drought has been a major environmental issue for over a decade. This focus is due to Afghanistan’s geopolitical importance since the Cold War. While the international community has responded to various humanitarian issues in Afghanistan, it now needs to focus on the underlying environmental issues in the region. In addition to the ongoing drought, violence in Afghanistan has increased since international forces formally concluded their combat mission in 2014. The Taliban are now reported to control more territory than ever since the 2001 invasion that brought them into power. These competing crises have led to tremendous suffering. An Afghan woman told the BBC that, “there was no rain for more than a year. Everything dried up. We didn’t even have water to give to our children. On top of that, there was fighting between the Taliban and the army. It was chaos.”
The UN has called for the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to address the worsening displacement. Although Afghanistan has been receiving humanitarian assistance, the country requires more, as well as improved strategies to resolve the current displacement issue. According to the UN, nearly 4.2 million Afghans desperately need humanitarian assistance. The United States Agency for International Development reported that through partnerships with NGOs and UN humanitarian agencies, they contributed over $100 million towards Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs in 2017. Meanwhile, on October 16, the UN announced that $34.6 million in emergency aid would be used to distribute seeds and food, support health services, build emergency shelters, provide safe drinking water, improve sanitation and hygiene, treat malnutrition, and help protect farmers’ livestock.
Humanitarian assistance has already begun to be implemented. UN reports suggest that around 690,000 people have already received assistance under a response plan which aims to help 1.4 million people by the end of October. The reports suggest that sites of displacement in Badghis and Hirat provinces are receiving assistance and that efforts are being made to increase assistance in rural areas. Approximately 190,000 people in these provinces have received safe drinking water during their reporting period. According to reports, there are over a dozen sites in Qala-e-Naw and its surrounding areas where 42,000 people have inadequate access to safe drinking water and over 130,000 people cannot access sanitation facilities. So far, there has not been an emergency shelter response. Reports suggest that people are living in their own makeshift shelters.
The international community lacks a broader approach to the region’s underlying issues. A report on the relationship between Afghanistan’s climate, food security, and rural issues was published by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Food Program in November 2016. The report emphasized the importance of not letting environmental issues, such as climate change, be overshadowed by “more immediate and visible concerns around conflict and economic crisis.” It suggested that climate change will make it challenging for Afghanistan to maintain or increase its economic and developmental gains. The report also suggested that more frequent droughts and floods, accelerated desertification, and a decrease in water flow in rivers will affect rural life and make it increasingly difficult to grow the economy and feed the country. The international community should continue responding to this humanitarian crisis by providing immediate basic assistance to those suffering from the drought. They should also focus on prevention and preparation for such disasters. Such planning would help foster stability, prevent displacement, and avoid the need for such urgent humanitarian response. For example, strategies that involve improving food security and basic healthcare would lessen the impact of environmental crises and foster long-term development in the region.
In 2004, the World Bank reported that 18 million Afghans lived in rural areas with low standards of living. This amounts to 75% of the country’s population. Approximately 75% of rural Afghans did not have access to reliable safe water and 89% did not have access to proper sanitation facilities according to the World Bank. They also reported a 25% child mortality rate; preventable water-borne diseases were responsible for half of these deaths. Droughts have exacerbated healthcare issues and contributed to the country’s instability. According to UN reports, water, sanitation, and hygiene products are urgently needed in the displacement camps. Food security is another issue. UNOCHA reported that Afghanistan’s main harvest this year is expected to be below average for the fifth year in a row. According to Reuters, Afghanistan has endured a 45% decrease in agricultural output this year because of the drought. This is a massive issue as almost 20 million Afghans rely on farming. In September, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network cautioned that drought in Afghanistan was contributing to high risk and potentially emergency food insecurity levels.
These urgent crises generate a necessarily reactive humanitarian response from the international community. However, the international community should also address these environmental issues proactively. Natural disasters are generally unpredictable and unpreventable, but we can mitigate the damage and lessen the suffering. The international community has a responsibility to evaluate such crises from a broader, scientific lens. This can help create and improve systems that lessen the devastation of environmental catastrophes and modify those that contribute to the problems. This is especially important within the context of global warming, widespread pollution, and other human-made environmental problems. Environmental stability is a necessary foundation for lasting political stability, safety, and well-being.
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