Drought Plagues Returning Refugees

A chronic shortage of water for drinking and irrigation means many refugees who've returned to their old villages are being forced to leave once more.

Drought Plagues Returning Refugees

A chronic shortage of water for drinking and irrigation means many refugees who've returned to their old villages are being forced to leave once more.

The fall of the Taleban brought more than 90 families back to the village of Chinar from refugee camps in Pakistan. But the drought that has afflicted the south and south-east of the country has drained the springs that once supplied the village and surrounding farms.

Now the village women wait for hours for their turn to fill water pots at a standpipe. The water itself is stagnant and infested with parasitic worms. But it is all that there is. "Sometimes the women fight over the water," said one woman who gave her name as Malalai.

Chinar, in Khak-e-Jabar district, 24 km from Kabul, has two natural springs. Before the drought they irrigated more than 1,600 acres of farmland. With no rainfall for months, the flow from the water sources has been reduced to little more than a trickle.

Women and children gather around the pipe that carries water from the spring to a pool. Shah Babo said she tied bags around the mouth of the pipe to stop the parasites from getting into the water. Many people were still sick from drinking it, she added.

A clean supply of drinking water was installed by the government in 1999, with the help of the UN children's agency UNICEF. But it no longer works. When the returning refugees tried to sow new crops, they failed to grow in the dried-up soil. Many refugees have been left with no alternative but to move on again.

Khan Mohammad said five families had already left for the neighbouring districts of Lata Band and Gazak, where water supplies were said to be better. "Seventeen families are also planning to move on," he said, "but most will go to the city."

With its chronic housing shortage and lack of job opportunities, Kabul is a poor prospect. But the situation is desperate. "Sahima, the girls school's only teacher, also wants to go to the city," Khan said. "If she goes, the school will close. We can't live here anymore. People are just going to leave."

Haji Abdul Jabar, head of the nearby village of Chunghar, said, "If this year is as bad as the previous ones we will have to leave. Our wells and drains have dried up. Our orchards are dying and are infected with parasites."

Mohammad Tahir Ghausi, head of the water supply and environmental health department at the national ministry of rural rehabilitation, said the water table had fallen by as much as 70 m in parts of south and south-west Afghanistan.

The health ministry says it will start a programme to chlorinate wells in the city in May, but it has no resources to repeat the work in the countryside.

Health officials are particularly concerned that waterborne diseases will increase in summer. The poor quality of the water has already led to a rise in typhoid and diarrhoea.

The refugee care organisation, ZOA, plans to bring a mobile clinic to Khak-e-Jabar. It has found 80 cases of serious malnutrition among under-fives, recorded an increase in the number of anaemic mothers and a growth in scurvy and beriberi, conditions caused by vitamin C and B deficiencies.

"We will see if deeper wells can give good results," said ZOA project manager for Khak-e-Jabar Haji Wazir Gul. He said villagers would be better off trying to solve their problems at home rather than taking their chances as refugees somewhere else in the country.

Haji Mohammad Akbar Barakzai, deputy minister of irrigation and water resources, said the United Arab Emirates had promised to provide equipment for drilling deep wells. Japan has also pledged support. "The government and the world community should turn their attention to this drought," he told IWPR. "Afghans are fleeing their homes just to survive."

Danesh Karukhail is a freelance Kabul-based journalist.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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