The deadly struggle with Afghanistan’s bitter winter is only likely to get worse in the coming years, a top UN official warned, as he called for more aid money to be dedicated to emergency relief.
At least two children are already reported to have died from the cold this winter in Kabul’s makeshift refugee camps, crammed with tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled violence or desperate poverty, despite a drive by aid groups to prepare for sub-zero temperatures.
“Each family already has two or three people who are sick,” said 77-year-old Shah Ghasi, who has squatted in the Bagh Dawood camp outside Kabul for nearly a decade. “We only have hot water to try and keep warm — no stoves, no fuel.”
In 2011, the bitterest winter in decades caught the country by surprise and more than 100 children died in the squalid camps. Last year, there was a more organized effort to get food, blankets, fuel and medicine to people who sometimes have little more than a sheet of plastic to shelter them from snow and ice.
“A couple of days ago, an organization came to the camp and gave each family plastic sheeting for the roofs, three blankets, a dish for cooking food and two packages of coal,” said Abdul Malek, a 45-year-old community leader in the Dewani Bigi camp, which is home to more than 1,000 people.
The scale of the problem is growing as violence across Afghanistan worsens. Nearly half a million people have now left their homes, but remain inside Afghan borders, said the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main organizations working with “internally displaced people,” as the settlers are known.
About one-third of them — approximately 166,000 — fled last year alone and the problem of sprawling settlements is only likely to grow in a country that is struggling with war, urbanization, harsh weather exacerbated by climate change and a population boom.
“The real message is that displacement isn’t going away, but we haven’t yet found the right ways of addressing it because of the complexity of the problem,” said Mark Bowden, the UN’s deputy envoy and humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan.
Land ownership is one of the most complicated and explosive issues in Afghanistan, and the government is wary of giving the camp inhabitants land rights that might encourage them to improve their homes for fear it could encourage others to flood into the capital or other cities. However, without better homes it will always be hard to protect families from the winter.
Forecasts for milder weather than 2011 could help blunt the impact of the cold in camps, but Afghanistan is already plagued by some of the world’s worst child mortality rates, rampant malnutrition and other health problems that make winter particularly challenging.
“It is, I think, going to get worse. We do need to have stronger support,” Bowden said, referring to the grim toll winter takes on the country’s poorest.
“What you are dealing with is a very vulnerable population. When you add on that it’s also at greater risk of natural hazards such as cold and floods and drought, it does require a far stronger humanitarian response capacity than we have at the moment,” he added.
Bowden estimates that only a tiny percentage of aid money coming into Afghanistan — perhaps just single figures — goes to supporting urgent humanitarian needs. Donors stumped up less than half the cash the UN sought for Afghanistan’s emergency response fund last year and at one point, it was completely empty.
Efforts to build up the Afghan government have not focused on its ability to provide emergency relief.
“All the money that has gone here has not prioritized the safety nets and social services that are required, and the institutions associated with that,” Bowden said.
Nor are the challenges of surviving the winter confined to Kabul. Many in remote villages or traveling on exposed roads are also vulnerable, but struggle to get support.
Up to 10 people froze to death waiting to cross into Pakistan last week when the border closed temporarily over a haulage dispute, Afghan officials said.