Drought reduces life to a torture in Afghanistan

The Frontier Post
June 13, 2000

Most often, drought is a mere annoyance to the Kuchi nomads of the Registan Desert in Afghanistan, for these nomads can find water where others cannot.

They herd their sheep and camels over great distances, resettling in an oasis. Or they dig wells by hand, divining an aquifer and burrowing into the hidden moistness as deep as 50 yards down.

But rainfall has been a rare visitor to Afghanistan for three years running, and even the best of the desert dwellers have been humbled.

The Kuchis have fled north only to find that the snow-melt from the mountains has failed to refresh the rivers below. Their customary refuges have become a broken thread of narrow, vanishing ponds.

Some 20,000 of them can now be found in places like Nalgham in the parched Arghandab Valley, a spot ordinarily lush with grapes, apricots and pomegranates. They pitch their tents in depleted pastures, where they watch the last of their livestock die.

“Allah has taken away all my sheep, but this is not what worries me,” said Sado Khan, a tribal elder red-eyed with misery. “We pray now he doesn’t take our children.”

With most of the nation’s wheat crop lost, with shallow wells going dry in the cities, with only bleached bones to show for thousands of head of livestock, the Taleban have appealed to the world for help.

Twenty-one years of unremitting war had already left this country of demolished cities, torn-up roads and hungry people. The drought is a visitation of yet another plague, and the Taleban, in their own fashion, have tried to deal with it.

Other means have also been tried. The militia sent trucks and helicopters into the Registan, evacuating hundreds of families in an expensive operation. But the Taleban have no food to distribute.

“They brought us here, but what are we here for?” Talib Khan, a hawk-nosed man in a white turban, asked despondently. “Once, we owned hundreds of animals, but now we have only this one sheep and two goats.”

He pointed to the skinny survivors of what was once a herd. One of the sheep had a purple cloth draped over its back, where much of its wool had fallen out. “Our animals died of hunger, and now our way of life will die too,” Khan said. “Either someone must help us or they should just make a big fire and throw us in.”

The temperature on this recent afternoon in the valley was 119, a springtime omen of the scorching summer to come.

“We are trying to get ahead of what’s going to be a very serious crisis,” said Fayyaz Shah, who heads the World Food Programme’s office in Kandahar. “This country’s rain-fed wheat crop has been destroyed; so has more than half of the irrigated crop.” —— Internews

His body was frighteningly shrivelled, and the family had seemed to accept the inevitability that both the woman and the baby were soon to die. “I have no milk for my baby,” the woman said. “I have no strength for myself.”

Ahmad Jan, one of the younger men present, said he knew about such hard dying. He had lost his infant son a few weeks back while the family was yet in the desert. “We had no water,” he said. “The boy just shrank away.”

Even before the drought, such mortality had become one of the saddest parts of Afghanistan’s long run of tragedy. More than one in four children die before age 5, according to United Nations estimates. That mortality rate is the worst in the world.

The absence of rain has surely hastened death’s pace. Relief workers tell of recent deaths, but it is hard to say whether the drought was the cause or merely a contributing affliction.

No rain is expected until November, with the days ahead likely to bring not only more heat but furnace-hot winds that torment the afternoons with dust storms.

Aid workers are hurriedly trying to survey the needs of the nomads, a task made more difficult because they live spread out in small encampments. At the same time, plans must be made for city-dwelling Afghans, whose shallow wells are rapidly going dry.

Shah, a Pakistani with a deep affection for the Afghan people, dourly shook his head. “I don’t know if I should say this, but this country is cursed, year after year, 20 years of war, one thing after another.”

Abdul Qadir, a nomad, sat with the few remnants of his flock of sheep under the green canvas of his tent. A dust storm had begun to twist its way through the openness. His children had wandered away, and he had grown concerned. Finally, they came back, holding a small basket of grass, a bounty accumulated after hours of collection.

A little boy felt he needed to explain his chore. “We must save the young sheep,” he said.

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