Harrowing statistics give some idea of the damage which has so far been inflicted on this beautiful country. At least 28 people have lost their lives, with an estimated 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 15.6 million acres) left scorched.
Traumatic reports of death and destruction which continue to emerge, with an almost inconceivable loss of wildlife causing shock waves across the planet. But, sadly, Australia is far from the only country currently suffering the crushing force of extreme weather.
Afghanistan has long been known for its bitter and often fatal cold snaps, with midwinter temperatures commonly dipping to -9 °C (15 °F) in the Hindu Kush region. And there have been some truly ferocious winters in recent years.
In 2008, Oxfam reported some 500 deaths in central and western Afghanistan, many of whom were either elderly people or children. More mountainous areas were engulfed in six feet of snow, with many citizens struggling to survive without heating, food or basic shelter.
As reported by The Guardian in the winter of 2017, 27 children under the age of five died due to freezing conditions in the northern Jawzjan province in January alone. This was also the winter where an avalanche killed 53 people in just one village in the north-eastern province of Nuristan, on the Pakistan border.
The chill has been particularly intense this year, even for a region where the cold season has long brought such unbearable heartache.
This winter, Afghanistan and neighbouring country Pakistan have once again been hit by heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures and avalanches; spelling death for many of those who are unable to keep the cold at bay.
Many photos flooding social media show picturesque scenes straight from a Christmas card; roads dusted with icing sugar snow, and children sliding about with delight. But the cruel reality beneath the sparkle is anything but beautiful.
According to figures from the Associated Press, the combined death toll due to severe winter weather has risen to 160 for Pakistan and Afghanistan, after a further 21 bodies were pulled out from beneath an avalanche in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
As reported by Reuters, at least 17 Afghan citizens died on Saturday, January 11 alone; a day when temperatures plummeted to – 12 °C (10 °F) in some parts of the country .
More than 300 houses have either been destroyed or partly damaged across Afghanistan, with the majority of casualties said to be due to roofs collapsing under thick layers of snow.
During one notably tragic incident, the roofs of two homes in the western province of Herat collapsed beneath heavy snow piles; ending the lives of at least eight people, with children said to be among the dead.
Many roads have been blocked off, preventing people from getting to medical centres for help with weather related illnesses and injuries. This also means the full extent of the tragedy in the most isolated rural areas is yet to be understood.
In some particularly remote areas, communities live without electricity or gas; with villagers burning wood in order to cook and stave off some of the chill. And for those who must now walk through heavy snow to collect fuel, their path is a dangerous one.
According to a heartwrenching video report filmed by by Al Jazeera in the rural village of Adraskan in Herat Province, one young man has frozen to death while out collecting brush to warm his family’s fire.
With two months of dreaded snowfall expected to come, one villager told Al Jazeera:
Here in the forgotten corners of Afghanistan, people are only living, waiting to die.
With heavy snowfall, flash floods and rain continuing to batter the country, officials at Afghanistan’s Natural Disaster Management Authority are still working to compile a complete figure.
And this grim task is made even more harrowing with the knowledge that the country reportedly hasn’t seen the last of the cold waves this year.
Natural Disaster Management team spokesperson, Tamim Azimi, told Reuters further snowstorms are to be expected in the weeks to come:
We were not expecting such a bad cold wave in the country. […] We have received reports that heavy snowfall has caused casualties, but at the moment we don’t have information on the exact number.
Many of us in the UK will recall bitterly cold winters, with the Big Freeze of 2010 perhaps being the one which sticks out most prominently in recent memory.
With recorded temperatures as low as −22.3 °C (−8.1 °F), the UK suffered 25 casualties during what was reportedly the coldest weather in over 40 years. I for one still remember my breath tightening in my throat, making walking, speaking – breathing – feel near impossible.
But for countries like Afghanistan – where there is widespread poverty, instability and growing concerns over internal displacement – the situation is far more perilous. And without adequate economic resources, winter will continue to be deadly for this scarred country, year in, year out.
An Oxfam spokesperson told UNILAD:
Winter is an extremely difficult time for people who have been forced to flee their homes and are at the mercy of freezing temperatures.
More than 600,000 people [the Afghanistan Shelter Cluster] in the country are at risk of potentially fatal hypothermia while they shelter inside tents that provide little protection against the elements. To make matters worse, people often go hungry in winter, when farmers struggle to produce enough food.
Oxfam is providing people with warm clothing and blankets in Daikundi province this winter as well as our ongoing work providing water and sanitation facilities, cash assistance and agricultural packages throughout the country.
Afghanistan’s internal refugee crisis is among the worst in the world, exacerbated by decades of conflict and upheaval as well as individuals having to flee their homes due to natural disasters such as floods, avalanches, draught and earthquakes.
Many of those who are internally displaced are those who had previously fled the country in desperation, only to be forced to return to the country under even more dire conditions.
According to the United States Institute of Peace, hundreds of thousands of refugees – documented and undocumented – returned to Afghanistan in 2016, adding to a population of over one million internally displaced persons.
Large-scale ‘spontaneous’ returns of Afghan refugees from Pakistan were reportedly triggered by political tensions between the two nations. Unfortunately, the basic needs of returnees – including services and assistance with integration – have yet to be fully met.
According to the International Organization for Migration, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) returnees are living in tents, the open air or ‘in semi-ruined, abandoned houses’.
Drawn to urban areas in search of improved security, services and work opportunities, IDPs and returnees will live in ‘informal settlements’ with poor standards of hygiene and limited access to water.
According to a 2018 report from The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 4.2 million people in Afghanistan require humanitarian assistance due to conflict, displacement and natural disasters.
A further 8.7 million people desperately need assistance caused by ‘abject poverty, high unemployment and loss of livelihoods due to the effects of climate change’.
Indeed, CARE International estimate that one-third of Afghan citizens require humanitarian action as a matter of urgency, with more than 10 million people suffering from acute food insecurity.
This unusually cold winter season has added to such miseries; further revealing the underlying lack of basic protection afforded to Afghanistan’s most at-risk citizens.
UNILAD spoke with Hamed Warasta, a Kabul based CEO who has expressed grave concerns about how such vulnerable individuals will be affected:
I am a concerned citizen for the homeless, yes. I’m definitely concerned for the elderly living in concrete buildings that shut down electricity for days. This impacts your daily health, capabilities and hygiene.
When one thinks about electricity, it’s not only light bulbs. We are talking about heat, warming waters, visual capabilities, access to information and communication.
It’s not about the road infrastructures, we don’t have road blocks but we have unpacked roads that turn into mud, which later turns into dirt and dust in the air.
The quality of our air is already under question due to such socio-economic issues. Sanitation and urbanisation concerns multiply. When will we deal with the inherited issues.
This winter, I’ve seen families ask for more financial assistance for heat. This winter is harsher due to the heavy snow than in the past, in which the temperature drops dramatically at night. Health, security and political outputs are all concerns with our hazardous winter.
Response and Operations Director for World Vision Afghanistan, Dwain Hindriksen informed UNILAD that ‘thousands of families’ in Afghanistan face great danger from this current cold snap, which is causing particular concern for new mums and children.
Thousands of families in Afghanistan are experiencing a lethal cocktail of freezing cold weather and the threat of conflict and displacement from their homes. It’s left them often living in makeshift shelters such as tents with very little food, clothing and without heating.
It is absolutely brutal for those who are already incredibly vulnerable – especially children and new mothers. The danger of contracting pneumonia, influenza and other deadly diseases is a real and constant threat.
Most families in these rural areas rely on farming income to survive, but food stores are running out and the next harvest season is a long way away.
Hindriksen explained how World Vision is currently working to assist vulnerable families, with mobile medical teams providing lifesaving medicine and food to children in some of the most remote regions.
However, it’s proven extremely difficult to get to families who live in areas made inaccessible following heavy snowfall and flooding. Time is now of the essence to reach such individuals before the death toll rises once again.
According to Hindriksen:
We desperately need more funds to ensure that aid workers can reach these families before it’s too late.
Aid workers from other NGOs, such as CARE International, have also faced challenges in their efforts to reach affected people in remote areas who have been effectively cut off by the extreme weather.
CARE International’s regional director for Asia, Deepmala Mahla, told UNILAD:
Extreme cold winters are not new to Afghanistan but such severity was not expected and more cold waves are now projected.
Heavy snowfalls impede our abilities to access the most vulnerable as it cuts off key roads, and this is only further deepening the problem of limited access as reaching out to people in need requires passage through conflict lines, along with complexities of bad road conditions, and mountainous terrain and instances of severe flooding.
Mahla has also expressed specific concern for vulnerable women and girls, who are being further constrained under the current perilous conditions:
Women and girls continue to take the brunt and this extreme cold weather tests their resilience further; yes, they are very resilient, but do they have a choice?
Accessing health and education facilities has always been a challenge for women and girls due to cultural norms and insecurity, and the extreme cold weather constraints it further. Women and girls take a large chunk of the labor to clear the snow from their rooftops and alleys.
The biggest climate hazards to Afghan livelihoods are drought, floods and extreme weather. Hopefully, fighting will not stay forever but climate change would, so we need to act fast.
People may or may not know about the science of climate change but they clearly see the changes in their environment and how it is negatively affecting their crops, animals and weather.
Mahla went on to emphasise the importance of the international community begin to turn their attentions towards the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, which will only worsen without ‘peace, stability and adequate resources’.
Aid workers devote their lives to bringing relief to those who need it most, offering comfort and patching up the human agony of catastrophic events.
But – however invaluable – their work should never be viewed as an anecdote to the complex socio-economic issues which require long term policies and cooperation between nations.
Afghanistan has received more US aid than any other country since the Americans invaded to oust the Taliban in 2001.
But, despite billions of dollars in assistance over nearly two decades, over half of Afghan people remain impoverished, with much of the aid going towards to security efforts. There are also concerns that some aid has been wasted through a mixture of political corruption and bad management.
In September, the US withdrew $160 million in direct funding for Afghanistan. With the Afghan government being almost entirely dependent on international assistance, further concerns about ongoing issues have been sparked.
Mahla told UNILAD:
Humanitarian agencies like CARE can provide high quality emergency response if there is security and funding, but humanitarian response cannot be an answer for a political problem.
Unless you’re living through it, it’s impossible to really relate to having to live through extreme weather without the means to stay safe; to see your neighbourhood transformed by hellfire or ice. And yet many of us can empathise with what is surely a universal fear.
Adequate long term support is urgently required which will give impoverished families a better chance of surviving such extreme drops in temperature, offering the world’s poorest citizens basic levels of protection well in advance.
Find out more about how you can help on the Afghan Aid website