Where the snow piles up six stories high

December 11, 2012
Written by Tom Dobbin, Emergency Program Coordinator, Takhar Province, Afghanistan
Photo by Peter Wilson

Afghanistan’s rugged high country endures an extreme mix of harshly cold winters, dry summers, and flooded spring seasons. It’s people, though resilient, are at the mercy of the climate. We’ve stepped in with supplies and training to brace for next year’s inclimate weather.

A flood defense system in Rustaq.

A flood defense system in Rustaq.

Takhar Province in the far northeast corner of Afghanistan is a remote and unforgiving place. High in the mountains, it has more major earthquakes, landslides, and flash floods than any other part of the country. The landscape is stark and barren and poverty is crippling.

As winter settles in, children scour the hillsides for animal dung and withered thistles to use as fuel to keep warm. In the dead of winter, temperatures can plummet to a mere five degrees Fahrenheit. Heavy snowfall makes it completely impossible to travel in or out of.

High in the mountains, it has more major earthquakes, landslides, and flash floods than any other part of the country.

Last year, which was the worst winter in decades, snow drifts were as high as 50 feet—the height of a six-story building.

When the snow melted in April, it triggered violent flash floods that washed away homes, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. One village, Rustaq, saw nearly 100 feet of river bank engulfed by water, taking with it 60 homes. In Chall District, the floods washed out a bridge that was the only connection to the nearest village for 770 villagers and 150 students who crossed the bridge every day to go to school. Some villages, like Khailan, were told they had to relocate altogether. As part of Concern Worldwide’s emergency response team, I was deployed to Afghanistan as Emergency Program Manager in Takhar to oversee a program to repair the damage that was done because of last year’s floods and brace communities for the upcoming winter and future disasters.

Dry river bed in Afghanistan.

A dry river bed in Takhar Province, which experiences flash floods every spring when the snow melts.

Without heat and proper clothing, hypothermia is a major risk to people living in Takhar, so we are distributing “winterization kits” that have supplies to get people through the winter. Each kit is custom-built to the needs of each family with items for all women of child-bearing age and culturally appropriate clothes and footwear for each individual family member.

In addition to families, we are also giving winterization kits to 38 women and 20 children and babies held in a detention center in Taloqan for “moral crimes.” The women in the detention center may or may not have refused to marry, committed adultery, or divorced their spouse and are being held indefinitely, without access to social protection services, with little to no clean water, sanitation, or even cots for their children to sleep on. Many of the children were born in the facility and have no access to education. The youngest child in the detention center is just three months old. The oldest woman is 80. I hope the winterization kits remind these women and their children that they are not forgotten. But preparation is much more than winterization kits.

A local villager who received wages from Concern to build a flood defense wall.

Abdullah, 70, is receiving a wage from Concern Worldwide to build a flood defense mechanism around his village.

For 441 people who were forced to relocate from Khailan due to the floods, Concern is providing materials (cement, brick molds, windows, roofing poles, door, and polythene sheeting) and technical advice to help them build a new home in Chab-ab that will be less vulnerable to natural disasters. We are also repairing the bridge that was washed away in Chall, paying women to weave nets that will work as a flood defense system for Rustaq, and efforts that will allow some 35,000 people to access water from canals and protect the homes of 540 people from flood waters. For the people of Khailan who were forced to relocate due to the floods, we are providing safe water near their new homes in Chah-ab. We are building water and sanitation facilities in the women’s detention center in Taloqan and providing hygiene kits and health and hygiene education in Chab-ab, Chall, and Taloqan.

I hope the winterization kits remind these women and their children that they are not forgotten.

Abdullah, 70, lives with his wife and three daughters in Hehata abi village in Rustaq. “I live in my own house, which is located near the river bank,” he said.

“We are concerned about our future because every year the flood destroys some of the land and is coming closer to our house.”

Concern is now paying Abdullah to help build the flood defense near his home. “I am very happy that Concern started these emergency activities in our villages,” he said. “I am satisfied with my income from the work and we know that now we are protected from flash floods for many years.”

But infrastructure and supplies can only do so much. Communities need to understand the areas that are most at risk to flooding, landslides, and avalanches so that they do not build their homes and plant their crops in harm’s way. To do this, we work with the local people to do hazard mapping on their villages and surrounding areas and create early warning systems that signal that a disaster could be on the horizon.

A gabion basket is sealed.

A gabion basket is sealed.

But in Afghanistan’s rugged high country, disasters will continue to be a reality. The investments we are making now will leave the people of Takhar safer and less likely to lose their homes and livelihoods next time an avalanche comes crashing down the mountainside or the snowmelt bursts the riverbanks.

It’s hard for us—even impossible—to imagine living as the people of Takhar do every day without running water, a toilet, a health clinic, a warm shelter, and access to education. Despite their hardships, I have not heard a single complaint since I arrived about the conditions they face every day. What I have heard again and again is ‘thank you’—a testament that warmth, hospitality, and gratitude can still persevere even in the most unfriendly and hostile terrain.