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The Guardian, September 1, 2020

'Many people are still missing': Afghanistan families devastated by flash floods

Floods, droughts, avalanches and landslides are common in the mountainous, arid terrain

By Stefanie Glinski

Khoja Zada found his son around noon; his body was under layers of rubble and mud. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining again when the 70-year-old dug him out. At midnight, he buried him again.

Less than a week after flash floods killed at least 116 people – including Zada’s 35-year-old son – and injured 120 more in Charikar, the capital of Afghanistan’s Parwan province, Zada’s house lies destroyed, each room filled almost to the ceiling with what is now dry mud. Like dozens of others, the family has lost everything and is homeless; caught between tiredness and sadness.

“Many people are still missing, so we have to keep going,” the vegetable vendor tells the Guardian. “We don’t have enough tools and shovels, but we work as hard as we can.”

After heavy rains on Tuesday, flash floods hit the outskirts of Charikar city in the early hours of Wednesday morning, washing away houses and cars before the sun had risen.

“Rescue teams are still in the area and searching for the missing bodies,” Wahida Shahkar, Parwan’s governor’s spokeswoman says.

Zada explains that most houses in the area – once a cluster of colourful buildings with tree-lined roads and a mosque in the middle – had been built between 15 and 30 years ago. Much of the neighbourhood had developing informally, meaning that houses were not immediately registered with the municipality and residents did not necessarily consider the risk of building near the steep barren mountainside. The area was later connected to the power grid and a school and clinic were built, but nothing was done to stop potential flooding.

Flash floods are common in Afghanistan, with the mountainous, arid terrain meaning that millions of people are exposed to hazards such as floods, droughts, avalanches and landslides, a Climate Security Expert Network report found.

Afghanistan ranks as one of the most vulnerable countries in the 2019 Climate Risk Index, the report said. In the 19th century, the country was covered by a mix of open woodlands and closed forests that stabilised slopes and slowed the flow of water on mountainsides. Large-scale deforestation has reduced forest cover to just 1.5% in today’s Afghanistan, increasing the risk of flash floods throughout the country.

In Parwan, about an hour’s drive north of Kabul, about 15,000 people have been displaced by disasters including floods since 2012, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“Barren mountainsides like the ones in Parwan lead to rainwater flowing rapidly, resulting in the destruction of soil and causing floods,” says Jalaludin Naseri, director of national heritage protection at Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency.

In Charikar, residents are worried more flooding might occur in coming months as more rain is expected.

Diana Raufi, 25, says she always felt safe in her neighbourhood until last week. “I woke up to what sounded like an earthquake,” she says, sitting in a room with several other women and Fatana, 4, one of her two daughters. “When I heard the water rushing, I screamed. I took my Qur’an and started praying. I still don’t know how we survived, but I’m afraid more floods will come.”

Raufi has since been staying with friends in a house that was spared from the waters, sleeping on a mat on the floor with her daughters, her own house reduced to a pile of rubble. Her husband, an opium addict, “roams the streets and doesn’t work” and has not found a new home for the family.

Raufi says she would have liked to help, but few women are seen outside the neighbourhood, with mostly men taking on the post-flood labour.

Women and children have left to stay with extended family in nearby villages, while men who usually work in the capital, Kabul, returned to Charikar.

Abdul Wakil is one of them. The 30-year-old lost his mother, a sister, a brother and two nephews to the floods. His wife and five children survived.

“They called me immediately after it happened,” he says. “I took a taxi right away, crying throughout the entire journey.”

A week on, he sits with Ebrahim, his six-year-old son, who has barely spoken since the floods destroyed the family home. “He is still afraid,” Wakil says. “He was with us when we buried our family, including his two best friends – cousins who were about his age.”

Frustrated, he says little help had arrived. “Today we received two new kettles for cooking, but how does it help us? We need help digging out our houses and we need flood protection walls installed further up the hill,” he says. “If nothing changes, I will take my family to Kabul with me.

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