In Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain, bracing communities for natural disasters

October 12, 2012
Written by Peter Doyle, Asia Desk Officer, Concern Worldwide
Photo by Peter Wilson

As seasons changed in Afghanistan, drought transitioned into flooding, which led to avalanches across the region. Concern stepped in with hazard mapping and cash transfers to repair the landscape and the many affected livelihoods.

Peter Doyle standing with Muhammad Niaz

Peter Doyle with Muhammad Niaz.

Travelling through Afghanistan’s spectacularly scenic mountainous northern region, it was immediately evident to me how vulnerable this area is to natural disasters.  The steep mountains have been badly deforested and the soil constantly eroded, stripping what should be fertile agriculture land of its nutrients and leaving the communities that call this unforgiving terrain home at constant risk of flooding and landslides.

Last year was particularly tough—a severe drought was followed one of the harshest winters in recent times. This led to avalanches and later in spring, as the snow melted and rains came, severe flooding.  Yet despite all this, people live here, clinging to the edge and at mercy to Mother Nature.

I recently visited the village of Lab i Ab, situated in Kohistan district in the northeastern province of Badhakshan.  This is an extremely mountainous and isolated area, frequently affected by natural disasters.  Lab i Ab is located along a river path with steep mountains on either side.  Flooding this past April caused widespread damage, destroying a number of houses and agricultural plots.

Erosion caused by flooding in Lab i Hab.

Flood damage and erosion in Lab i Ab.

Concern Worldwide quickly responded, but we knew that these floods would not be the last to hit Lab i Ab, not to mention avalanches and landslides. We needed to not only help families get by today, but also work with the community to prevent future disasters from occurring.

In the international aid and development community, we call this “disaster risk reduction.” What it meant for Lab i Ab is that they had our support to check dams to prevent further flooding and soil erosion, and increase soil moisture and vegetation. Concern paid them for this work, giving families a source of income, and helped them purchase the materials that they needed to get the job done.

Because not everyone in Lab i Ab was able to carry out physical labor, we also provided people with direct cash transfers so that they were able to meet their household needs. Mohammad Niaz received approximately $162. “I am unable to work, but thanks to this money I was able to buy food—mainly rice, oil and potatoes,” he said.

Hazard map of Lab i Hab.

Hazard map of Lab i Ab.

Concern also worked with the villagers on hazard mapping.  These maps highlight the areas of the village that are at-risk of natural disasters like flooding and landslides.  This information helps the community better plan where and where not to construct their housing or plant crops, making them less vulnerable when mother nature strikes again.

We firmly believe that it is our job as a humanitarian community to not just respond, but to prepare communities the very best that we can so that they are more resilient to predictable emergencies. When it’s done right, disaster risk reduction can save lives, protect livelihoods, and prevent damage.

For Lab i Ab, the focus on disaster risk reduction has very real and tangible benefits. The dams are secure. The community knows what areas hold the greatest risk. Houses will no longer be built in the path of flood waters and landslides, and crops are less likely to be wiped or washed away.

We can’t say when the next landslide will come crashing down or the next time the river will swell past its banks, but we do know that this emergency will not be Lab i Ab’s last. And when the next one hits, the people of Lab i Ab will be better prepared to withstand it.

November 13th is International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. Help Concern advocate for a stronger emphasis on preventing emergencies by sharing this blog on Facebook or Twitter.