Prague, 25 February 2005 (RFE/RL) - Afghanistan is experiencing one of its harshest winters in many years.
Farid Mohammad, a resident of the mountainous region of Salang in northern Afghanistan, told RFE/RL’s Afghan Service that he hasn’t seen such an incredible amount of snow in the last three decades.
“The snow that has been falling is unprecedented in the last 30 years," Mohammad said. "There are about three to three and a half meters of snow. We have many problems regarding access to the hospital, doctors, and medicine, also regarding firewood. Even our animals are facing problems as there is nothing for them to graze on. Our roads [are blocked] and there is no food.”
Afghan officials say the central Ghor Province was the worst hit by the freezing conditions while the northeastern Badakhshan and Daikundi provinces were also badly affected. There have also been snowstorms in Zabul Province.
“In the last month and a half, 180 children under the age of five have died and 29 of our [citizens] have lost their lives because of avalanches and other natural accidents.”
The freezing temperatures, snowfall, avalanches, and cold-related illnesses have taken a heavy toll, particularly on children.
Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates and many Afghan children suffer from malnourishment.
On 22 February, Afghan Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi confirmed the death of 180 young children because of respiratory infections, whooping cough, and pneumonia: “In the last month and a half, 180 children under the age of five have died and 29 of our [citizens] have lost their lives because of avalanches and other natural accidents.”
Since Fatemi's remarks, some reports say the number of deaths has doubled.
An aid organization, Catholic Relief Services, has expressed concern that the casualty figures could be particularly high in the impoverished mountainous regions that have been cut off by heavy snow.
Paul Hicks, director of Catholic Relief Services, said on 24 February that several hundred children may have died in remote villages that relief workers have been unable to reach because of heavy snow.
Ebadullah Ebadi, a World Food Program, or WFP, spokesman in Afghanistan, said in an interview with RFE/RL that so far the death of 211 Afghans, mostly children, have been confirmed. “As we don’t have access to remote regions, we can’t exactly say if the casualty figures are higher than this or not,” Ebadi said.
Ebadi added that providing aid to the worst-hit areas has been a real challenge as the heavy snow and avalanches blocked the roads. He said that emergency supplies were dropped by U.S. helicopters to some remote, rural areas that remain inaccessible.
The WFP is already concerned about the threat of floods once the snow melts. The WFP’s Ebadi says the organization is making some preparations in order to prevent, in his words, ‘a disaster’: “Those regions where there has been more snow are more vulnerable and we want -- with the help of the government -- [to stockpile] some food there before a disaster occurs.”
The winter has been so harsh in Afghanistan that on 20 February, a Taliban spokesman, Abdul Latifullah Hakimi, told Reuters that the weather has hampered Taliban operations. He said the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has ordered that attacks be stepped up as soon as the snow has thawed in the mountains.
It’s been very a cold winter in other parts of South Asia as well. More than 230 people have been killed in the mountains of Indian Kashmir in avalanches. And, in northern Pakistan about 150 have died as a result of heavy snowfalls and avalanches.