Afghanistan: Government vows to keep roads open in winter

News and Press Release
Originally published
KABUL, 11 November 2008 (IRIN) - The Afghan government has said it will keep all main and secondary roads open this winter, and has earmarked about US$2.5 million for two ministries to clear snow and flood debris from over 10,000 roads.

"The Ministry of Public Works [MoPW] is responsible for all highways and the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development [MRRD] is responsible for district-level roads," Mohammad Akram Jalalzada from the MoPW told IRIN.

Last winter road access to districts in Badakhshan, Ghor, Daykundi, Bamyan and Nooristan provinces was blocked by heavy snow, hampering aid deliveries and the provision of services.

At least 72 locations in 19 of the country's 34 provinces are considered vulnerable to blocked roads from November to March, officials said.

Over 2,000 people lost their lives last winter due to extremely cold weather, diseases and lack of access to medical care and adequate food, according to the Afghanistan National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA).

Despite government assurances, people in a number of vulnerable provinces have expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of extended road blockages during the winter.

"The government always makes false promises and does very little in practice," said Ahmad Jamil, a resident of Herat Province, western Afghanistan, where cold weather killed over 1,000 people last winter.

ANDMA also expressed concern.

"We were unable to access many affected and needy communities last winter because snow had blocked roads. We have similar concerns about the coming winter," Mohammad Siddiq Hasani, director of ANDMA's planning department, told IRIN.

The overall humanitarian situation has deteriorated due to drought, conflict and high food prices, and aid agencies have warned about the additional threats posed by the approaching winter.

UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other aid organisations are in the process of pre-positioning food and non-food relief supplies in highly vulnerable areas in case snow hampers access in the months ahead.

The landlocked country is highly dependent on roads for imports of essential commodities such as food, medicine and fuel.

Aid deliveries by air?

In October, a UK-based research institute - the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) - suggested food aid should be delivered by air to avert a possible humanitarian catastrophe during winter.

"Exactly 60 years ago, the Berlin airlift was under way. It brought food to millions and prevented a strategic defeat. Today, a much smaller, yet strategically significant operation could have a similar effect in Afghanistan," RUSI said in a briefing note.

However, some experts consider the airlift idea "unfeasible" due to lack of funds, poor infrastructure and geography.

"Afghanistan is entirely different from what Berlin was in 1948," said Sultan Ahmad Sultani, a local aid worker.