Cold, sick, hungry, displaced: Afghans face a disastrous winter

·3 min read
Temperatures can drop below -15C in Afghanistan’s harsh winters (Save the Children)
Temperatures can drop below -15C in Afghanistan’s harsh winters (Save the Children)

Conflict and economic collapse, coupled with the worst drought in 27 years and the Covid-19 pandemic, have brought Afghanistan to a tipping point. With 3.5 million people displaced from their homes and bitter temperatures expected to drop below -15C in places, the situation looks bleak.

Saleh Saeed, chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), said: “Afghanistan is in freefall. People are starving.

“Food shortages and skyrocketing prices mean that people are selling everything they have just to buy basic supplies.

“When there is nothing left to sell, many people are going into huge amounts of debt. They are taking every action they can, but the situation is impossible.”

The DEC, a coalition of 15 member aid charities, sounded the alarm bell on 15 December with the launch of an appeal to fund live-saving food, shelter and healthcare for millions of Afghans who face acute food shortages and a freezing winter.

Zabi, three, peers out of the tent where she lives (Michal Przedlacki/Save the Children)
Zabi, three, peers out of the tent where she lives (Michal Przedlacki/Save the Children)

Years of conflict, poverty, and the disruption caused by the pandemic were already taking their toll on the people of Afghanistan. The drought is the worst to hit the country in 27 years, causing crops to fail and herders to sell livestock. Many have been forced from their homes, looking for new ways of earning a living.

Scenes from an internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp in northeast Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)
Scenes from an internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp in northeast Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)

The total Afghan population is about 40 million. At the end of 2020, there were 3.5 million Afghans already displaced across the country, and by mid-September 2021, increased fighting meant a further 678,000 people had fled their homes – 80% of whom were women and children.

As winter sets in, many of these people will be living in flimsy, makeshift shelters (Michal Przedlacki/ Save the Children)
As winter sets in, many of these people will be living in flimsy, makeshift shelters (Michal Przedlacki/ Save the Children)

DEC members are providing “winterisation kits” of blankets and warm clothes, and are providing stoves and three months’ supply of wood.

A girl collects water in IDP camp in northeast Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)
A girl collects water in IDP camp in northeast Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)

Many of those affected by this crisis will be children: 47 per cent of the Afghan population is under 15 years old, and the UN estimates that 12.9 million children need of humanitarian assistance. Protecting the most vulnerable children is therefore a priority for DEC members. 

A child is examined by Nazo, an International Rescue Committee community health volunteer who goes door to door to visit mothers living within her community to educate them about how to prevent children becoming malnourished and contracting other diseases (Kellie Ryan/International Rescue Committee UK)
A child is examined by Nazo, an International Rescue Committee community health volunteer who goes door to door to visit mothers living within her community to educate them about how to prevent children becoming malnourished and contracting other diseases (Kellie Ryan/International Rescue Committee UK)

DEC charities have negotiated access for female aid workers to ensure that the needs of women and girls are being met.  

Older people are particularly vulnerable. Majid lives in an IDP camp in northwestern Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)
Older people are particularly vulnerable. Majid lives in an IDP camp in northwestern Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)

Afghanistan has consistently been rated one of the worst countries for the elderly by the Global Age Watch Index. Older people in Afghanistan will be at risk of malnutrition and the impacts of the cold this winter. But there are few health services available.

Aid workers are reporting increasing numbers of people travelling for miles from their homes to get treatment at health centres and hospitals. Hadi and his daughters are being seen in a hospital in northwestern Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)
Aid workers are reporting increasing numbers of people travelling for miles from their homes to get treatment at health centres and hospitals. Hadi and his daughters are being seen in a hospital in northwestern Afghanistan (Arete/DEC)

A key priority for the DEC is to ensure these services remain operational and that children continue to receive life-saving treatment.

A nurse tends a baby in an incubator (Arete/DEC)
A nurse tends a baby in an incubator (Arete/DEC)

There has been a spike in premature births due to stress and ill health in the mothers. Health services are creaking under the pressure as nurses and doctors report shortages of basic medicines and supplies.

A major issue for infants is malnutrition. Ara, 18 months, who is severely malnourished, is held by her mother Fatima (Michal Przedlacki/Save the Children)
A major issue for infants is malnutrition. Ara, 18 months, who is severely malnourished, is held by her mother Fatima (Michal Przedlacki/Save the Children)

More than 3 million children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition before March, with at least a million of these at risk of dying. The head of the World Food Programme describes the situation as “the worst humanitarian crisis on earth”.

Covid is still an issue here, but since August it has been difficult to gauge case numbers (Care International)
Covid is still an issue here, but since August it has been difficult to gauge case numbers (Care International)

In mid-December only 9.1% of the population were reported to have been vaccinated. Here at a Covid treatment ward in a hospital in the central province of Ghazni, patients have access to oxygen but there is no intensive care.

But there is hope. DEC funds are already making a difference on the ground (Arete/DEC)
But there is hope. DEC funds are already making a difference on the ground (Arete/DEC)

Member charities are scaling up their operations, and mobile teams have been deployed to screen children for malnutrition and provide treatment. Agencies have started supplying cash grants for people to buy vital basic commodities.

The need is vast. More than half of Afghanistan’s population do not know where their next meal is coming from.

A £20 donation could feed a family for a week. To support the DEC Afghanistan Crisis Appeal visit www.dec.org.uk

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals

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