Unnatural disasters

Hundreds died and thousands were displaced when a double landslide devastated the village of Abi Barak in May this year. Unless investment is forthcoming and innovation embraced, it could be only a matter of time before further tragedies befall some of the poorest rural communities in Afghanistan

Begum broke into a run, abandoning the donkey that trudged behind her through the village streets, her legs moving as fast as ill health and age would allow. The deafening noise reverberated, mingling now with shrill human screams.

“What on earth happened?” she cried as men in shalwar kamees raced by. As she stumbled out onto the plateau above her sprawling hillside village, Begum reeled back in horror. For centuries the hamlet of Abi Barak nestled between the foothills of two rugged peaks; now it lay under a sea of grey-brown mud.

Stunned, Begum found herself, like other survivors, clambering down through the debris, digging fruitlessly with her bare hands. Amid the frenzy, many failed to escape a second landslide that came moments later. Soon Begum, like her husband for whom she had been searching, was swamped in the thick bog.

“My husband was killed, but people pulled me from the mud,” the 50 year-old recounts from her refugee tent. “I was terrified, it was up to my chest and I couldn’t move. I just screamed and prayed to God for help.”

Begum was a survivor of the extraordinary double landslide that hit the Argo district of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province on May 2 of this year. It was an unprecedented natural disaster for the region, and one that claimed hundreds of lives. Thousands more have been left displaced. And worryingly for those left behind, geologists predict that further disasters are imminent for this impoverished community.

“The people of Badakhshan live in poverty,” explains Suliman Khalisyar, provincial programme manager at Afghan Aid, an international non-profit charity that works in the most remote and marginalised areas of the country.

“The province suffers from a six-month hunger period because approximately 90 per cent of the districts are located in mountains,” he continues. “This means there is a shortage of arable land, a shortage of well managed water, no irrigation systems and poor access to roads. Only two or three out of 28 districts have access to basic facilities, and over 50 per cent of the population face the real risk of a natural disaster.”

Due to its geographical position and years of environmental degradation Afghanistan, particularly in the north, is extremely susceptible to recurring natural disasters. Predominantly northern provinces have been dealing with persistent rainfall, leading to flash floods and landslides that have killed hundreds of people and affected more than 175,000 so far in 2014. The figures are almost double that of 2013, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Rural communities have been left desperately in need of shelter, food, water and medicine. The rising figures reflect the deteriorating situation and emphasise the need for sustainable solutions to prevent another disaster like Argo.

However, these mountain communities frequently find themselves in a no-win situation. As residents of one of the poorest and most inaccessible regions in the country – more than 900,000 people live on less than $20 a month – the people of Badakhshan are tied by poverty and their rudimentary livelihood often exacerbates the risk of natural disasters. Here residents of remote, rural villages like Abi Barak – where ill-staffed schools are few and opportunities slim – depend heavily on subsistence farming. Rudimentary pastoral techniques are combined with fragile ecosystems, weak geological structures and poor quality soil, thereby unwittingly weakening the very land on which those who cultivate it, so depend.

“Landslides will happen in any environment in which there are steep slopes, weak materials and there is heavy, seasonal rainfall,” explains Dave Petley, the Wilson Professor of hazard and risk in the department of geology at the University of Durham. “Afghanistan has all three ingredients and you can season that recipe by adding a population who are changing the way in which the ground is being used.”

Increased farming to provide for a growing population, alongside a tendency to cultivate land for rain-fed crops that was once used for grazing, has led to extensive erosion, massively reducing the already limited area of arable acreage in what is now one of Afghanistan’s most disaster-prone areas.

“If you talk with the older generations they say they have never seen floods and landslides of this scale in their districts,” says Khalisyar at Afghan Aid. “It is mainly because of farming methods and lack of fuel. If you look around there are no more trees or forests, they have all been cut down.”

Subsistence farmers in relatively cool mountainous areas such as Argo have no electricity and scant options for cooking or heating. Rutted rural pathways between villages are filled with donkeys laden with illegal timber. The local dependence on firewood, and a failure to replant, has resulted in near absolute deforestation, another major contributing factor to landslides. Torrential rainstorms in the lead up to the Argo landslide have been blamed for the catastrophe, but the scale of the mudslide can be attributed to a range of long-term causes and changes. Geologists believe Argo’s soil is soft loess, silt-sized sediment formed by deposits of dust blown in by northern winds from Asia. Unable to absorb water, it turns rapidly to mud.

“Loess is very landslide prone,” explains Professor Petley. “[Argo] looks like a classic case where the material became disrupted, water got in and the sliding began.”

With ever-increasing rainfall due to human-induced climate change, Afghanistan is seeing unprecedented flooding and lacks the technology and infrastructure to cope. The problem is particularly acute in provinces such as Badakhshan, which lack any major irrigation systems, have few remaining trees, and a weakened soil unable to absorb large amounts of water.

“The key is water management,” says Professor Petley. “We know that rainfall intensities are increasing so it may well be that there needs to be a modification to the drainage system on the slopes; in other words more ditches, and more trenches to move water around to prevent it from getting deep into the soil.

“It would need a sustained research programme and no one should underestimate the magnitude of the task,” he continues. “These are profound changes that are required and generally speaking, in poor areas with poor populations, they need assistance to enable those sorts of techniques.”

In the meantime, Afghan Aid has been implementing Natural Resource Management projects to improve water management through the introduction of less water-intensive crops, soil and moisture conservation via terracing, crop rotation, hedgerow planting and rain-fed tree crops. The projects have been rolled out across eight districts and according to the NGO they have witnessed a decrease in natural disasters in these areas over the last ten years.

The problem, however, is convincing impoverished inhabitants to sacrifice prized land for trees that will only reap rewards in decades to come. Of course, Badakhshan requires more than trees to lift the province out of poverty. Yet the required investment remains out of reach, a woeful state of affairs bearing in mind the province is abundant with natural resources.

“There’s plenty of water in Badakhshan that could be well managed,” explains Charles Davy, director of Afghan Aid. “In neighbouring Tajikistan, for example, the same water that runs through the province is used to generate hydroelectric power, which is then sold back to Afghanistan.”

Power generated from the region’s abundant fast-flowing rivers could produce enough electricity using the natural flow of water, to eliminate the dependence on wood and provide electricity to households and businesses for light, refrigeration and machinery. “The problem, however, is that a massive investment is required to harness that kind of resource, which simply isn’t there,” notes Davy.

So, while the Badakhshan people wait for modern technologies to change their lot, NGOs and government community schemes are rolling out disaster response training, first-aid instruction and emergency relief packages. They are also educating local communities about nature’s own ‘early warning’ system.

“Landslides are not spontaneous,” says Professor Petley. “There are almost always signs that they are starting to develop. The slope will generally start moving significantly in advance, it begins to destabilise and slip a little and that opens up cracks. Typically signs of disruption show on the body itself and down the side.

“The key is to identify those signs as they start to develop,” he adds, “and work out exactly what is moving and where it is likely to go. If those signs can be recognised in advance, then the people at risk can be moved out of the way.”

Moving communities to safer areas prior to a natural disaster may save thousands of lives. Yet the logistics of such an operation are daunting and even impractical: in a part of Afghanistan dominated by rugged mountains, sites for safe residences are rare. Towns lie at the feet of huge mountains, positioned in the mouths of canyons. Those affected by the landslide in Argo have been promised new land. Discussions are ongoing at both the governmental and provincial levels, as to where and when the displaced will be moved, but there remains much to be resolved.

“It is critical that the people have a voice in this,” says Davy at Afghan Aid. “[However] before they can make a decision of that magnitude, they need to feel that their life has returned to some kind of normality. It’s easy to say as an outsider, ‘its for their own good’, but it’s not simply about relocation, it’s about their homes, their livelihoods, their schools and their relationships, and there is resistance amongst some villagers.

“This is still their land, these are their ancestral homes,” he adds, “and there are concerns that if they are relocated, will they get good land, and how will it change the various social power structures that exist in the communities?”

For now, while short-term options are discussed and long-term solutions hypothesised, Begum sits in her tent, overlooking the disgorged mountainside whose contents levelled her life. Her husband lies under metres of mud now designated a mass grave. Without investment and innovation, his loss will not be the last on these precipitous slopes.