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In Afghanistan, a wrenching choice between drought and migration

Hussain Ali, 37, has returned to his village to work as a farmer

Hussain Ali, 37, has returned to his village to work as a farmer, but there's little left to grow in Bamyan, Afghanistan, 22 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Stefanie Glinski

What’s the context?

Conflict, water shortages, and economic crisis have wiped out jobs, ruined crops and left millions of Afghans in humanitarian need.

  • Climate change-induced droughts cause strife nationwide
  • Humanitarian crisis worsening since Taliban takeover
  • Water shortage could force people to migrate to survive

BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Having lost his job as a police trainer after the Taliban takeover last August, Hussain Ali moved back to his village in Afghanistan's central highlands with the intention of farming once more to provide for his family.

Yet Ali's despair deepened when he returned home to find a village hit so badly by drought that not only his relatives but the entire community were contemplating migrating elsewhere.

During the five years that the 37-year-old had been away, a well and a stream had dried up, ruining harvests and, ultimately, the father-of-three's hopes of growing crops again.

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"For the past year, I've been watching our trees here slowly die," Ali said, standing next to the area's last remaining water source, a natural stream near the village of 40 homes.

He asked to withhold the name of the village in Bamyan province for fear of retribution from the Taliban.

"We used to be able to harvest at least twice annually, but this year, we're going to harvest early," Ali added.

"There's not enough water for the crops to fully grow."

And the plight of Ali's community is far from unique across the country. Afghanistan is one of the world's most vulnerable nations to climate change, and among the least equipped to deal with it, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.

This is exacerbating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis as Western nations have frozen billions of foreign-stored Afghan bank reserves, and suspended development aid which previously made up about 75% of the nation's public spending.

Villagers look down a well that has dried up in Bamyan, Afghanistan

Villagers look down a well that has dried up in Bamyan, Afghanistan, 22 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Stefanie Glinski

Villagers look down a well that has dried up in Bamyan, Afghanistan, 22 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Stefanie Glinski

No water, no home

The previous U.S.-backed government worked with the United Nations in mobilising resources to foster climate change resilience, tracking rainfall, for example, or providing aid to farmers.

Supplying direct government funding had been simple, but has since become impossible due to the sanctions imposed last year on the Taliban.

While the Taliban has provided emergency assistance for recent disasters including floods and is coordinating with NGOs, the group has little cash due to frozen Afghan assets - which the United States this week announced would not be released "in the near-term" - as well as the sanctions.

An updated plan, worked on by the former government and the United Nations, presenting Afghanistan's climate actions through 2030 and detailed next steps has been left unfinished due to the Taliban takeover, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) said.

The U.N. agency last October launched a crisis response initiative to support local communities in various ways, such as improving natural disaster mitigation and resilience.

It prioritises community-level interventions and work with local NGOs, with a "robust" vetting and risk management system that "fully insulates the flow of any funding to the de facto authority", said UNDP communication specialist Won-Na Cha.

Yet as droughts and erratic weather intensify, a growing number of people are at risk of losing their livelihoods and incomes, and may end up forced to migrate despite the nationwide instability, U.N. and climate change experts have warned.

In his role as a police trainer in Kandahar province, Ali earned 18,000 afghani ($199) monthly, most of which he sent to his family. Now, like many other former breadwinners who have returned to the village since August, he fears for the future.

"This is our home, but if the water disappears, we'll have to go too," Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Children fetch water ten minutes from their village as all other water sources have dried up

Children fetch water ten minutes from their village as all other water sources have dried up in Bamyan, Afghanistan, 22 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Stefanie Glinski

Children fetch water ten minutes from their village as all other water sources have dried up in Bamyan, Afghanistan, 22 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Stefanie Glinski

"I lost my job and now I might lose my village."

Triple threat

Conflict, severe drought and economic crisis have left 24.4 million people - more than 60% of Afghanistan's population - in need of humanitarian aid, the United Nations says.

"Recurrent drought and erratic climatic shocks are resulting in a below-average harvest - further threatening incomes and livelihoods," Ramiz Alakbarov, acting head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan, said in emailed comments.

Last year, a drastic reduction in rainfall caused water and food scarcity across 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, he added.

Bamyan, where Ali lives, is one of those 25 provinces - and climate change-linked droughts have been on the rise.

In Khoja Bidak, another village in Banyam, situated on a hilltop overlooking the Hindu Kush's snow-topped peaks, water reserves - mostly from snowmelt - have also declined.

"We already wash our clothes and our carpets less because there just isn't enough water," said Zakia Musa, a 50-year-old mother of four.

"Our lives depend on water. So if we can't find any, we'll pack our clothes, carry them in a bundle on our heads, and migrate elsewhere," she added, stressing that it could be a matter of months until they are forced to move.

Stay or go?

Her husband, Ali Musa, stands up on a nearby hilltop with several village elders, gazing over barren fields that stretch into the horizon with mud-brown houses dotting the landscape.

"This year, the usual rains didn't come, so the wheat we planted died," the 50-year-old said.

The community had asked for help from the former government, which built a water basin to collect snowmelt, he said. But it stood empty after a particularly poor two years for the village.

Musa said he had sold most of the goats he previously owned and that the economic downturn had left him almost empty-handed - and with little to eat apart from bread and potatoes.

People have been spending up to 90% of their income on food since January, according to the United Nations - while salaries have been shrinking and prices rising.

"Poor governance by the Taliban will make things worse", said Erin Sikorsky, director at The Center for Climate and Security, a U.S.-based think-tank.

"It is likely Afghanistan will see more internally displaced people going forward, as disruptions to substance agriculture intersect with other security risks."

While the war has been declared over, threats - including from the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) - remain, and Hazara communities - the Shia minority ethnic group Ali Musa and Hussain Ali both belong to - have specifically been targeted.

The possibility of migrating poses a dilemma for Ali Musa.

"This is not a good place," he said, gazing over the landscape. "But it's home, it's our land. We can't afford to go elsewhere, but we can't survive here without water either."


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Extreme weather
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