Better Water Management Needed for Thousands Displaced by Drought in Afghanistan

“I feel like I need to do something. I don’t know why, but I feel responsible,” Jaweed tells me over a spotty Skype connection. “People in the United States and even in cities here in Afghanistan don’t think about not having access to clean and safe water.”  

 Jaweed is an Afghan Fulbright grantee working in Afghanistan’s northwestern Badghis province. Through his work, he has personally seen the devastating effects of a 10-year drought and extreme flooding in Afghanistan’s northern provinces. This experience has only intensified his desire to study Water Resources Engineering in the United States and find solutions for his country’s future. 

The drought affects 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. The government has drawn direct ties between the climate and the country’s economy, food security, and overall stability, so people displaced by climate change-related emergencies could slow Afghanistan’s growth and undermine efforts to reach a successful peace plan.  

 In 2018, the drought in the northern provinces displaced 275,000 individuals, about 50,000 more than those displaced by the conflict. Farming constitutes one-third of Afghanistan’s economy, meaning drought hits it hard. Compounding the misery, in March 2019, El Niño caused heavy rain. Flash floods displaced thousands more when the hard, dry ground was unable to absorb the rain, adding to the region’s vulnerability. Extreme food insecurity was the result. At the end of March, nearly 13.5 million people were eating fewer than one meal a day.  

The flash floods damaged critical infrastructure across the country. Flood waters rushed through the valley and highway running between Herat and Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis. Jaweed describes the scene as told to him by survivors: “Drivers climbed the mountain to save their lives and escape the flood,” he said. “Others were not as fortunate and passed away.” Damage to roads and bridges left certain areas hard to access even a month after the initial deluge.  

Furthermore, the existing water management infrastructure is underdeveloped and cannot efficiently harness water, causing water systems such as dams to burst. This hinders Afghanistan’s ability to manage rainfall and recover from the drought effectively. 

When the flood waters recede and the crisis falls from headlines, those not directly affected tend to forget that impacts last much longer than the event itself. Durable solutions and post-disaster support are just as crucial as emergency response support. Priorities for support must include not just humanitarian assistance such as food, water, and blankets, but also livelihood assistance such as seeds, fodder, and means to replenish lost livestock. 

Donors are generously covering portions of the humanitarian appeal for the nearly 3.5 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) currently in Afghanistan, but there is a need for increased disaster resilience funding. There is no universal solution to address the needs of both conflict IDPs and climate IDPs. Investments in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programming can help prepare communities and mitigate the effects of hazards such as droughts and floods. Providing stable structures for climate IDPs can minimize barriers to future stability in Afghanistan. 

Jaweed tells me, “People don’t realize that their delay in planning effective water infrastructure has caused the death of many people here.” Afghanistan needs solutions now. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states, “climate change in Afghanistan is not an uncertain, ‘potential’ future risk but a very real, present threat— whose impacts have already been felt by millions of farmers and pastoralists across the country.”