Afghanistan's Melting Snows Kill 14, Displace Thousands

By Amanullah Nasrat and Mohammad Jawad Sharifzad

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 4, 2005 (ENS) - Spring’s floods caused by the heaviest snowmelt in six years are being blamed for causing at least 14 deaths, leaving thousands homeless and swamping Afghanistan’s modest flood prevention program.

At least 19 of the country's 34 provinces sustained serious flooding, according to an emergency commission created by President Hamed Karzai before the current crisis.

The commission is funded with US$11.4 million from the national budget and foreign aid organizations. Afghanistan's contribution - US$6.2 million - was earmarked for emergency engineering works along the Amu Darya River, which runs along part of the country's northern border with Central Asia.

However, aid groups soon found themselves scrambling to provide blankets, food, medicine and shelter all over Afghanistan as people were driven from their homes by unrelenting floodwaters.

The Amu Darya, which flows from the Pamir mountains, this year swamped at least 168,000 hectares of land, washing away crops and orchards.

Agriculture Minister Obaidullah Ramin recently told Balkh provincial government officials that stabilizing the river would take 12 years and cost about US$240 million. Each year, it threatens about 300,000 people living in low-lying areas.


A casualty of Afghan floodwaters (Photo by Jean Philippe Bourgeois courtesy World Food Programme)
Elsewhere, on March 18, the Helmand river flooded large areas of Uruzgan province. Then, on March 29, the Band-e-Sultan dam, north of Ghazni city, ruptured, killing at least six and sending floodwaters into the provincial capital, 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the south.

Meanwhile, several hundred residents of Chak, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Band-e-Sultan in Wardak province, remain threatened by floodwaters building up behind a dam that is much larger than the one at Band-e-Sultan.

Engineers at Chak, 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Kabul, are working to create a controlled release from the overflowing reservoir, trying to open floodgates that have remained locked during six years of dry weather.

The antiquated, badly maintained Chak-e Wardak Dam lies at the top of a deep valley extending from Wardak to Loghar. Villages on the valley floor are vulnerable to the impending floodwaters. Constructed prior to WWI and the oldest dam in Afghanistan, Chak-e Wardak Dam has been poorly maintained. The rusted main gates, and even the safety gate, are jammed shut and impossible to lift, preventing the water from flowing through.

The UN Development Programme, the Afghanistan Emergency Trust Fund, and the Ministry of Energy and Water, took emergency action to address the threat. The co-operative effort saw a rapid response through immediate financing, planning and implementation of a 16-metre ancillary gate that could hold the water while the rusted gates were lifted and repaired.

As the waterflow came under control, the pressure was eased off the dam structure and the risk of flooding ceased. Some fo the villagers who had evacuated for fear of the floods, have returned to their homes and farms.

But at least 80 families are uncertain whether to return home, said Gulam Sakhi, 61, whose house sits just 200 metres (656 feet) from the dam and says that thousands of hectares of nearby farmland have been rendered useless for crops this year.

Meanwhile, the start of classes has been delayed at Chak’s primary school, built by the United Nations last year at a cost of US$200,000 dollars, but now tilting dangerously due to the rising water table.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}