Concern in Action: Fighting a Flood of Destruction in Afghanistan
‘Concern in Action’ is a recurring field report from Concern Worldwide. Founded in Ireland in 1968, Concern Worldwide is a global organization tackling extreme poverty in the world’s poorest and most danger-ridden countries.
He strides purposefully across the harsh, rocky landscape, a heavy chapan draped over his shoulders despite the 85-degree heat. Every day of Dawlat Mohammad’s 65 years under the Afghan sun is etched into his face. His bright blue eyes twinkle as he greets us in the traditional way: “Assalomu allaikum.”
We are standing in what looks and feels like a moonscape—gravel and boulders strewn in all directions, huge rocky hills in the distance. The immediate terrain has the appearance of a vast, dried-up riverbed and, in a way, that’s what it is. All across this part of northeastern Afghanistan, huge flood beds dissect the landscape, a product of the mountain rains and melting snows of springtime.
The extreme seasons have always been a challenge to the people who live here, but over the past decade that challenge has increased dramatically.
“Over there,” says Dawlat, gesturing to the base of a low hill about 200 yards away. “That is where the river used to run—a small stream most of the time. Now the floods are wiping us out.”
It’s hard not to be awed at the extent of this huge scar on the landscape. Viewed from the air, the flood bed is impressive—down here it is frightening in scale.
Off to one side, the village of Khalyan clings perilously to the edge, illustrating just how precarious is the existence of its inhabitants. Ruined houses dot the countryside, their mud construction melted and distorted by millions of tons of water and debris. Many houses, according to Dawlat, have simply disappeared.
One villager who lost a home is 30-year-old Abdullah. In March 2012, a flashflood washed away the structure that sheltered his wife and children. Like many of the men here, he spends up to six months of the year working on construction projects in Iran in order to make ends meet. He was away when the flood hit. His then-pregnant wife and three children just managed to escape to safety. They now live in a roughly repaired single room, and one-year-old Ajmal brings the family total to six.
Abdullah is taking his wife and children to safer ground. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)
“We will not rebuild here,” Abdullah says. “It is too dangerous.”
Like many others, Abdullah and his family are following the direction of the government and rebuilding on a flat area of land about a mile away, which is, for now, out of reach of the floods. This relocation is a huge imposition for people who already live in extreme poverty.
Abdullah and his wife and children are among the 63 families whose homes are being rebuilt with the help of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Concern Worldwide. The organization is also sponsoring projects to control and divert the flow of the floodwaters. Huge gabion walls, made from rocks encased in wire mesh, jut out into the flood bed, helping to protect the most vulnerable parts of the bank.
“We are doing what we can to protect what is left,” says Enamullah Qazizadah, Concern’s Program Coordinator for the district. “But it is an ongoing struggle and each year brings new challenges and new emergencies.”
Leaning on his walking stick, or aso, Dawlat Mohammad turns his gaze to the distant hills, which for a brief time are a green and gold patchwork of crops that will sustain these remote communities through the difficult winter months.
“Yes, I know the reasons why this is happening to us,” Dalwat says. “Further upriver the hills are being cultivated for food, and the trees are being stripped away. There is nothing to stop the water tearing away the land and sending it flooding down here to us.”
Qazizadah agrees with Dalwat and says that long-term solutions are needed. “In places where we have started to fight back against erosion by using reforestation, terracing, check dams, and other natural resource management techniques, the results have been very good,” he says. “This is our best chance.”
But there is one other factor that is difficult to ignore. Everybody you meet here will tell you that over the past decade, the seasons have become more extreme. Dawlat says that springtime rainfall is the heaviest that he can remember.
He shakes our hands, thanks us for coming, and walks off across the flood bed, ironically in search of water for his animals.
In a few short months, winter will be here. Khalyan will be under a thick blanket of snow, its inhabitants cut off from the outside world for months. And in the springtime, the floodwaters will return to once again challenge the very existence of the people for whom life in this beautiful, terrible land is an almost constant struggle for survival.
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