Afghanistan is facing a drought. I don’t expect it to reach world headlines. It will be locally reported, locally managed, locally suffered.
The last serious drought I know of here was in 2000-2002. The rains had failed for about 3 years, and by 2001, people were eating weeds to survive. This is not exaggeration: I know it, because I saw it. In some places, they mixed sand with wheat to make the flour go further. I know it, because I ate such bread.
The strange, horrible thing about drought is that it looks almost like nothing. It is not like war, where the casualties are obvious. In drought, in the cities, you can continue to get butter, chocolate, fresh grapes, watermelon. The market place is relentless in providing what people will pay for. But in the far flung areas, in the aatraaf, as it is said in Dari, drought is visceral. I remember in early 2001, we were surveying villages to work out who should be included in emergency feeding. A woman emerged from her home, with a small boy, and a baby. The family was impoverished and the baby was hydrocephalic, but this was 2001. The woman told me: It is four days since we have eaten. There was nothing we could do. We were 6 hours drive from a hospital, two days by donkey. No food, no treatment. The baby would die, and probably the mother and the boy. I gave her some of our leftover lunch as we left.
And now it is all happening again. Rains failed this year, the winter was mild and short. And though now summer is over, the crunch is just beginning. The crops have withered, and the wells are now running dry. It will be March before the water is back and another harvest is ready – assuming people have wheat to sow. In our own yard, we can only run the pump for 5 minutes before it screams, the bearings spinning against the hot metal. There is no water.
We are trying to mount a response. But drought is hard to respond to, and whoever gives you an easy solution is naive. People need food first, and then water, but trucking food or water to the remote parts of this inaccessible, insecure country is an impossibility. Bizarrely, we persist though, in trying to keep people in their places of origin, while knowing that they will have to leave. So we participate in this charade, knowing that the response is ridiculous. Here are notes from a UN meeting in the north, a few days ago:
UNICEF Mazar on 16 August 2011
Participation: ACTED, Actionaid, Afghanaid, CARE, NPO/RRAA, OCHA, PiN, Save the Children, Tearfund, WFP, ZOA. Apologies: ACBAR, ACF, Helvetas, Solidarites, WHH.
– ERF cash for work proposals for most vulnerable people in priority A drought affected areas
– Status of NGO consortium proposals to USAID/OFDA and ECHO
– WFP request for soft food for work NGO proposals
The minutes of the meeting go on like this for several pages. It is ridiculous, but at the same time these disinterested bureaucratic procedures are sincere. They are real efforts to try to solve what cannot be solved, what can only really be suffered. I know, I chaired such meetings myself when I worked for the UN. So if drought is nothing in the cities, as we continue to eat our salads and chicken, and if it is bureaucracy in the regions, and if it is slow suffering in the rural areas, what do we do?
I don’t know. Friends in the UK have contacted us, offering to raise money. Some of our key donors have signalled they have funds to allocate to drought action work. But the bottom line is that people will die. Droughts don’t happen in developed countries with functional democracies. Droughts don’t happen in Australia, or in India. Or if they do, the worst that happens is that crops fail. This is because functional democracies link meteorological data with agricultural reports, civic feedback with media information, social security records with Government representation. It is linked together and decisions are made and action is taken and because of these links, people don’t die slow, anonymous deaths. Slow anonymous deaths are already happening here, and will continue to happen, because the Government is weak and such linkages are absent and because aid agencies are not empowered, nor equipped, nor present enough to make such links, take the action and halt the suffering. We just pick up the left over pieces and try to fit them back together.