Displaced by drought: Her daughter froze to death in the desert

8AFGHANISTAN/Badghis: Sultana, 24, recently had to bury her youngest daughter, who froze to death in the Afghan desert.*

Thousands of families have settled in tents on an arid field in the northwestern Afghan desert. After four years of failed rains, hunger has forced them to flee. They are farmers, but have long since sold off the livestock that would have provided them with food through the winter. Now, the cold has already claimed its first victims. The youngest children die first. Sultana’s daughter was only three months old.

"We came here and slept in the open with nothing but a tarpaulin over our head. My daughter first got pneumonia. Then she died," the young mother says, crying.

260,000 displaced by drought

Over 260,000 people have so far been displaced by drought across four provinces in western Afghanistan.

"We fear that cold and hungry children will be hit by winter illnesses leading to entirely preventable deaths," warns Chris Nyamandi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) country director in Afghanistan.

Temperatures have already dropped close to zero degrees at night and the next few weeks will be really testing for families with freezing temperatures coming up.

The grass stopped growing

"When grass didn’t grow anymore and the water sources dried up, we understood that we would have a difficult year ahead," says Nazoo, 36.

Nazoo and her family were forced to flee their village. First, they sold the livestock and she and her husband shared the money between them. Then, he went to Iran to find work. Now, Nazoo has lived for two years in a tented settlement in the northwestern province of Badghis.

"We could only bring some blankets, plates and teapots. The rest of our belongings are stored at home."

Every day, she makes eight naan bread. Together with some tea or water, that’s the only thing she and her five children eat that day.

No more livestock to sell

Four years of failed rains have led to massive loss of livelihoods for half a million Afghans in Badghis. Ninety-five per cent of the population in the province rely on agriculture and livestock to survive. People have been left without enough food to feed their families. Now, they are fearing the coming winter.

"Some people sold all their animals to buy food last winter and now have nothing to sell or use to feed themselves," says Qamar Gul (35), who is staying with her family in a displacement site in Badghis.

People in the displacement settlements in Badghis are sleeping in flimsy makeshift shelters that are ill-equipped to withstand Afghanistan’s harsh winters. In addition, once winter sets in, the dry river beds where many displaced families are settled will flow with water and flash floods will dangerously compound the already dire situation for drought-hit communities. Water-borne diseases may become rife, and claim the lives of already malnourished, cold, displaced children.

"Better shelters must be built, and food stocks put in place, so families can survive the freezing months ahead. We have to ensure Afghans survive this winter despite the odds," says Nyamandi.

Our work in the area

NRC is mapping the needs, distributing emergency shelters and setting up latrines and water tanks to assist displaced Afghans in the region.