After last year’s Afghan winter - the harshest in 15 years - killed dozens of displaced children in urban settlements, government and aid agencies in Afghanistan are preparing themselves for the coming winter.
As of 30 September 2012, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported 445,856 persons internally displaced due to conflict. Many of these live in informal settlements in and around Kabul, but their numbers can be hard to track.
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is compiling data on the size of the settlements, where the deaths occurred, to scale up its winter assistance stocks accordingly, the deputy head of the Afghanistan office, Arnhild Spence, told IRIN.
The Afghan National Disaster Management Authority is in the process of collecting and consolidating data on preparedness measures which the various line ministries are undertaking in the provinces.
Natural hazards (from floods, to droughts to avalanches) are recurrent in Afghanistan, making the poorest Afghans - not only residents of informal urban settlements, but also those in mountainous, avalanche-prone areas of the northeast, central highlands and east - even more vulnerable.
The government has transferred 90 million Afghanis (US$1.6 million) to each of the country’s 34 provinces to deal with the possible emergency situation during the winter, according to Afghanistan Humanitarian Country Team winterization preparedness status update on 22 October 2012.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in coordination with the Afghan authorities and other aid agencies, is planning to distribute blankets, plastic sheets, charcoal, and warm clothes to 240,000 people in less-accessible rural areas where internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran are living in difficult conditions in isolated remote communities, according to spokesperson Mohammad Nader Farhad.
The Afghan Red Crescent Society is establishing four disaster response units, with about 3,300 volunteers assigned, to provide assistance during winter emergencies.
As the 2012-13 cold season begins, OCHA says 13 provinces are at a high or very high risk of an extreme winter.
Still, Spence said, “we are expecting a slightly less harsh winter than last year in Afghanistan, which was exceptionally cold.”
In an open letter on 18 October, a coalition of 30 NGOs, including Amnesty International, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief called for urgent assistance for vulnerable displaced people, pointing to the death last year of at least 100 people - mostly children - in Kabul’s settlements alone.
“What happened last year was a preventable tragedy, and should act as a sharp reminder that emergency assistance must be provided immediately, before the winter arrives,” said Polly Truscott, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme.
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On 22 October, the national IDP task force, which brings together government and aid partners, met in Kabul to discuss among other things preparations for winter assistance for the displaced. Another coordination forum, the Kabul Informal Settlement Task Force, has agreed to meet every month from now throughout the winter to better respond to the needs of the displaced.
Thanks to increasing acceptance by donors that a response is needed to the plight of urban IDPs, and thanks also to the work of aid agencies, the condition of IDPs has slightly improved compared to two years ago, Nassim Majidi, co-director of Samuel Hall Consulting, a research and consulting organization based in Kabul, told IRIN. But she said their housing - mud homes and tents - was still not adapted to Kabul’s harsh winter conditions. Accusations that community leaders are not distributing relief items properly have not helped, she added. “Families are naturally very worried about the upcoming winter.”
The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations is drafting a national IDP policy, planned to be released in March 2013. Aid agencies say it is an important step in acknowledging the scope of the IDP problem and expanding attention beyond Kabul and its informal urban settlements to the needs of IDPs nationwide. Amnesty says what is needed now is urgent action.
“We urge the Government of Afghanistan, international donors and relevant humanitarian organisations to immediately launch a winter assistance campaign to help ensure adequate planning and preparedness to safeguard the lives of hundreds of thousands of IDPs across Afghanistan over the next few critical months,” the open letter said.