Winter in Afghanistan brings its own challenges

Afghanistan, January 31, 2012

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  • Afghanistan's winter can be unforgiving to people with little shelter and access to services. Mercy Corps offers aid and vocational training to improve livelihoods and works to manage natural resources to alleviate later flooding. Andrea Koppel/Mercy Corp

I awoke this morning to heavy snowfall in Kabul. The airport was closed, the water pipes were frozen and there was no city power.

It is challenging in Afghanistan even for Mercy Corps to continue business as usual in this stark winter weather, with huge increases in traffic accidents, team members struggling to get to work and delays for essential supply deliveries that others are relying on. I am thinking more, however, about those who are most vulnerable. The widows, the orphans and the poor who live in both rural and urban Afghanistan often have no one to care for them or to make sure they are warm and fed.

Those who live in tents provided by the UN are suffering terribly in temperatures well below freezing and with limited or no access to basic services. People are already walking miles to access water only to find it frozen, and many are struggling to feed their families as prices shoot up because of the breakdown in deliveries across the border.

This is why I believe in what Mercy Corps is doing in Afghanistan; concentrating not on handouts but on building a strong private sector economy is the only way to eliminate these tragic circumstances over time.

Mercy Corps targets the most vulnerable members of the population and helps people to access skills to get jobs, training to start businesses, and new markets to expand existing trade. Many of those we help have already been written off by society but we believe that there is a place for everyone.

One young woman that I met a few days ago had been evicted from her home after her husband was killed by militants. She had a baby, was living in a tent in freezing temperatures and was unable to return home as she feared for her life. We were able to find her accommodation, food and provide some security for her, but more importantly, we enrolled her in our vocational training center where she will learn the art of tailoring. This means that she will never have to rely on handouts again, and will be able to raise her baby in a decent environment.

Of course, after the snow comes the flooding, which is an annual crisis in Afghanistan. Understanding the impact of basic infrastructure in a developing country is crucial to mitigating and these environmental issues. Mercy Corps is working in four provinces in Northern Afghanistan that are most affected by flooding to not only create protective barriers, but also to address the issue at its source, often high in the upper catchments of the rivers. Working with farmers to manage land sensitively, preserve forest and rangeland, and protect water quality and flow is critical to avoiding problems downstream. This work takes a long time and may take years to yield results, however it is crucial to the long-term stability of both the country and the economy.