Avalanches cut off parts of drought-hit northeast

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KABUL, 17 January 2012 (IRIN) - Avalanches in northeastern Afghanistan have cut off tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of people already at risk of hunger due to drought, opening the door to a potential humanitarian crisis if aid cannot reach them, says a provincial official.

"If the snow continues to keep the roads to rural and remote districts closed and we don't get any assistance, we would face a severe humanitarian crisis," Abdul Maroof Rasekh, a government spokesperson from mountainous Badakhshan Province, told IRIN.

The snow has cut off 14 of the province's 28 districts from the provincial capital Faizabad, preventing people from accessing markets to get food for themselves and their cattle, he said.

At least 70 families are trapped in their homes in Eshkashim District, where rescue teams are trying to help them, Rasekh added. Altogether, hundreds of families are trapped in different districts, he said.

The heavy snow and avalanches have led to the deaths of at least 20 people, with 11 injured, Rasekh said. The cold weather and lack of animal feed in these areas also killed around 600 cattle.

According to a report received by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 150 people travelling in a convoy in Baghlan Province were found alive after surviving overnight in their cars, under two metres of snow.

Poor roads and snow in winter mean it can take days to travel from one village to another in this a mainly Tajik-speaking province with an estimated population of one million, where most people are reliant on agriculture and livestock.

Badakhshan was among the provinces hit by drought last year which, according to an assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP), led 2.8 million Afghans nationwide to require food assistance.

Rasekh said there was a lack of food for people and fodder for their animals. "The Ministry of Agriculture only sent food assistance for 10,000 families before winter. Other than that, we haven't got any assistance from the government or aid community," he added.

WFP aid

But Sediq Hassani, head of policy at the Afghanistan National disaster Management Authority, said the government and its international partners, including WFP, had sent more than 70,000 tons of food and some non-food items to these areas months ago to help farmers affected by drought and feed people in case of emergency during the winter.

The portion for drought was distributed upon arrival and provincial disaster management authorities are now deciding how to distribute the emergency rations, based on need, he said.

"In some provinces, they have already started distributing food, but in some other areas, due to heavy snowfall, they are not able to deliver food for the needy people and I think that is a bit of problem," Hassani said. "But we are still trying."

WFP began distributing emergency food across drought-hit areas in December, and had been distributing food to chronically hungry people before that as part of its regular programs.

Communities in these areas are accustomed to roads becoming impassable for six months every year, Mohammad Taher Shahim, who works with OCHA in neighbouring Kunduz Province, told IRIN. Government institutions, hospitals and food markets are present inside the districts, he said, and other needs are positioned there before the winter. These include equipment to keep roads open and help people if they get trapped, Hassani said. The districts cut off from Faizabad can also be accessed by aid agencies from Tajikistan, Shahim added.

Still, "the relevant government departments are working very hard right now to open the roads and rescue those people who have been trapped in places like Badakhshan," Hassani told IRIN, adding that snow had also closed roads to mountainous areas of the central provinces of Daykundi and Bamyan.

The Aga Khan Foundation Network has already begun work clearing 6km of road on Palfill Slope in Baghlan Province, Shahim said. But there could be further problems ahead, he added, with a high probability of more avalanches this year.