19 March 2001

Overshadowed by Buddhas, drought cries out for attention

19 March 2001
The Times of India

In Taliban country

Times of India News Service

HERAT: Unknown to most of the world, Afghanistan today is in the grip of a drought so severe that more than half a million people have been forced to migrate from their home districts in search of food. Bamiyan's Buddhas may have hogged the news headlines for more than two weeks, but what is happening to this country's fragile peasant communities is no less tragic.

Every day, 100 families arrive at this oasis town near Iran from Bamiyan, Ghor, Badghis, and even far away Kunduz, near the border with Uzbekistan. According to Hans-Christian Poulsen, the UN's regional coordination officer for western Afghanistan, there are already 100,000 refugees -internally displaced persons, or IDPs, to be precise - living in makeshift camps in and around Herat. They are provided the equivalent of 750 kilocalories of free rations a day, barely a third of the recommended calorific requirement. Desperate to earn money to feed themselves and their families, many IDPs are prepared to work for as little as 10,000 Afghanis - or Rs 8 -- a day. During the cold wave that struck Herat in early February, around 200 refugees died. Aware of the power of images, the province's governor allowed TV crews to film inside the refugee camps, hoping that the violation of the Taliban's edict banning the photographic or filmic representation of the human form might bring in foreign aid.

The drought actually began in the winter of 1999 but it was only after the summer of 2000 that farmers started getting desperate. By then, they had exhausted their food stocks and started eating their seeds. Next was the turn of their livestock, which could not be sold easily because all their neighbours were facing the same predicament. When their animals were gone, people dismantled their homes, selling their wooden beams and thatched roofing on the highway in exchange for transportation up to Herat.

The farmers' response is quite typical, say UN officials. "In a drought, it is quite common for the victims to exhaust all their coping strategies and migrate only when they are close to starvation", said Poulsen. The migrants this correspondent met at Manora camp said there had not been such a shortage of rain for the past 29 years. The UN says the last time such a drought occurred was 70 years ago.

Aid agencies here agree that they failed to act upon the drought's early warning signs. However, they point out that international donors are far less willing to spend money on long-term measures that can ameliorate the effects of a drought -such as investing in the development of new water sources - than on emergency relief.

Another problem was the Taliban's reluctance to accommodate IDPs in camps. They were afraid of the pull factor' - that the assurance of relief might lead to greater internal displacement. "But once they realised the enormous logistical problems involved in providing relief, they had no choice but to agree to camps", an aid worker with an NGO said.

The UN in Herat says that although it is coping well now, it is imperative that measures be taken in the provinces to stem the flow of refugees. "The situation could still easily spin out of control", said Poulsen. "In any case, the dynamics of a drought are such that even if there is normal rainfall in the coming season, people here are going to need food assistance for at least the next year and a half".

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