Afghans braving a severe cold face a difficult choice – food or warmth | Climate crisis news

Shah Ibrahim Shahin’s youngest children sit huddled together on thin ‘toushaks’ – traditional Afghan floor mattresses – trying to keep warm in the freezing weather. The adults, wrapped in threadbare woolen clothing, surround them in a small, cool room that makes up their entire home in northern Afghanistan’s Baghlan province.

Many provinces in Afghanistan have experienced an exceptionally cold winter in the past two weeks, with temperatures falling as low as -21 degrees Celsius (-5.8 Fahrenheit) in Kabul. According to media reports, more than 20 people have died from the cold spell.

The warmest temperature was in Baghlan on Friday at 11 degrees below zero. And without access to affordable heating, Shahin and 14 members of his family, including his 10 children, have only one another to comfort them in the freezing cold.

“We have a bukhari [a traditional coal heater]; We bought some charcoal early in the winter, but in this one [cold] If the weather is bad, our stock is almost gone and we can’t afford any more,” Shahin, 54, told Al Jazeera while sitting in the lively room.

Afghan IDPs shovel snow near their tents on a cold winter day in Nahr-e Shah-e- district of Balkh province near Mazar-i-Sharif on January 17, 2023 [Atif Aryan/AFP]

Shahin, a taxi driver by trade, has been unemployed for almost a year. The country’s new Taliban rulers have struggled to revive the economy for more than 18 months since returning to power. Her government, still in international isolation, has been unable to cope with rampant poverty and a humanitarian crisis.

While the 54-year-old struggled to make ends meet, a medical crisis in his family left him in deep debt and dwindling business meant he could no longer afford the fuel to drive his car.

“Two of my sons work as day laborers, but they earn no more than 150 afghanis ($1.68) a day; not even enough to buy food for the day. It’s been months since we’ve tasted fruit or meat,” he said.

Nestled at the foot of the impressive Hindu Kush mountain range, your city is no stranger to harsh winters. In fact, the heavy snow replenishes groundwater and can benefit agriculture.

“We’re glad it’s snowing, it’s a gift from God and it will be useful for wells and farmers, but we’re very concerned about how we’re going to stay warm when temperatures drop,” Shahin says. “We can hardly afford to buy groceries,” he added solemnly.

weather anomalies

In neighboring Samangan province, a 25-year-old Afghan mother of two was faced with a difficult decision – buy coal or food.

“If we buy coal and wood, we cannot buy food. The money my husband is sending us is not even enough to cover basic needs,” Maryam told Al Jazeera. Her husband works in a neighboring country.

As the wife of a former soldier in the US-backed Afghan government, she requested anonymity to avoid Taliban reprisals.

“After the fall of Kabul, my husband was hunted by the Taliban and had to flee to a neighboring country. For a time we lived on his savings and then on handouts. He sends us money when he has work, but we can’t afford bukhari this winter,” she said.

An Afghan man walks in a snow-covered cemetery in Kabul
An Afghan man walks in a snow-covered cemetery in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 11, 2023 [Ali Khara/Reuters]

Instead, they relied on a “sandali” – a wooden table-like structure that can hold a small heater and is covered with a large quilt to trap the heat.

“It’s the only thing we have, but it never gets hot enough because we can’t even afford a bit of wood [for the small heater in the sandali]. I usually use discarded plastic and paper, which doesn’t last very long,” Maryam said. “This is the coldest winter of my life and I don’t know how we’re going to get through it without food or warmth,” she added.

According to media reports, the Taliban rescued civilians trapped in remote locations after heavy snowfalls.

The extreme winter has already exacerbated the misery of Afghans, who are already suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis affecting 28 million people, according to the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Climate scientists have attributed the recent weather anomalies to polar vortex disturbances, “as a result of which strong Arctic winds blow much farther from the North Pole and bring masses of cold air to our region,” said Najibullah Sadid, an Afghan climate expert and research fellow at the University of Stuttgart.

He shared that forecast models estimated the cold spell would last until late January or into the first week of February before weather returned to average conditions.

“Afghanistan, like other countries, is experiencing an increase in the number of extreme events. This has a lot to do with climate change as more solar energy is observed by the Earth’s atmosphere, which in turn increases the dynamics of atmospheric activity such as heat waves, rapid rainfall, etc.,” he said, adding that a lack of preparation for such events is possible have devastating consequences for the Afghans.

Suspension of NGO services

International sanctions and banking restrictions imposed on the Taliban when they took over the country in August 2021 have triggered an economic crisis and plunged an already struggling country into disaster.

An Afghan boy stands on snow-covered ground in Kabul
An Afghan boy stands on snow-covered ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 11, 2023 [Ali Khara/Reuters]

Meanwhile, increasing Taliban restrictions, particularly on women aid workers, have prompted many international NGOs operating in the country to shut down their services.

“Since we were forced to stop all our activities due to the ban on female NGO workers, we are currently unable to help people in need. The situation is very serious,” said Christian Jepsen, regional communications consultant at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

For many Afghans, the services provided by international aid organizations were a lifeline that was torn off at the worst possible moment.

“We get a monthly package of flour, oil and beans from an NGO. It’s not enough for our big family, but if it stops, we’ll die of cold and hunger,” Shahin said, appealing to NGOs to stay open during the winter.

NGOs such as NRC called on the Taliban to “find a way to allow humanitarian operations to resume with the support of men and women.”

“Our colleagues play a very important role both in our offices and in the field with direct contact with the people we serve. Humanitarian operations across Afghanistan have been impacted by this irresponsible decree,” Jepsen said.

Some NGOs have resumed their work after giving assurances that women are allowed to work.

Sadid, the Afghan climate expert, also urged the Taliban authorities to produce forecasts and raise awareness among Afghans to help them deal with severe weather.

“Most Afghans live in remote valleys, where connecting roads are often blocked by heavy snowfalls. Model predictions can help people avoid and plan for commuting during extreme cold events,” he said, adding that such information and awareness could also help livestock survival in open areas.

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