“This is the first time I’ve been home in six years,” says Sayed Muhammad, 70.
But the sight that greeted his family on their return a few weeks ago was one of devastation. The entire back section of the house, which is located near a now-abandoned military base, had been reduced to rubble.
Much of the population of Marja in Afghanistan’s Helmand province has been displaced over the past decade, as it became the scene of intense fighting between the Taliban and coalition and former government forces. There is hardly a building in the town that does not bear the scars of the conflict.
Like tens of thousands of other internally displaced people (IDPs) now back home in former battleground districts in Helmand and elsewhere in Afghanistan, he is faced with a challenge bigger even than rebuilding: keeping his family fed.
“Sometimes we get vegetables, but mostly we are living on bread and tea,” he says. “All the children are hungry.”
Other people in this shattered town give similar accounts. Families cannot afford to buy enough food and those, like Muhammad, who returned in recent months will have to wait until the spring before they can start farming, and only then if the current drought eases. It is a microcosm of a nationwide crisis, with the UN World Food Programme warning that across the country only 2% of the population have enough food to eat, and more than half of children under five are at risk from acute malnutrition this year.
Every week, Dr Mohammad Anwar – himself a recently returned IDP – sees increasing numbers of malnourished children in the small private clinic he runs in Marja. “Babies are being brought in half the weight they should be,” he says. He estimates that at least 2,000 children across the Marja area are now severely malnourished and at risk of dying.
Food shortages are a perennial problem in impoverished rural areas of Afghanistan. Even with outside donor support, the previous government struggled to tackle the issue, but without much of the foreign aid that paid most state salaries, the banking system paralysed by financial sanctions, and a prolonged drought that has withered crops and pastures, the situation is now far worse.
Many IDPs who have returned to Marja and other districts are now deeply in debt, after borrowing money to buy food or repair their homes. Muhammad says he owes shopkeepers and other creditors at least 50,000 Afghanis (£350). “I need food. I need cash, but no one has given us any help so far.”
Mohammad Sadiqi, an assistant liaison officer for the United Nation’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Helmand, says the signs are pointing to “more malnutrition cases in all districts affected by heavy fighting”.
“If the situation carries on like this over the winter, most families in Helmand will become poorer than they have ever been, and many will die,” he says.
Working with local partner organisations, the UNHCR is responding to the needs of about 22,000 IDP families that have returned to Helmand. The focus has been on helping them to stay warm this winter as well as supporting them to repair their homes and reintegrate into communities.
A UN-wide $4.4bn (£3.2bn) plan for responding to humanitarian needs in Afghanistan in 2022 was launched on 11 January. If funded, it will scale up delivery of food and agricultural support, health services, emergency shelter and water and sanitation.
Right: Rehman Gul*, 40, with his two-year-old daughter Nazia*, near their home on the outskirts of Kabul. The family fled their home in Jalalabad 10 years ago because of fighting.
The key factor in rising child malnutrition is insufficient food for mothers, says Anwar. “They are not getting enough protein, so they can’t feed their children properly.” He adds that a lack of clean water – exacerbated by the drought – is also playing a role, leading to diarrhoea and further weight loss.
In their weakened state, malnourished children are more vulnerable to illnesses that can quickly lead to irreversible decline and death. Most children also lack the warm clothes that would provide a defence against subzero winter temperatures. “Some malnourished kids have been getting pneumonia,” Anwar says.
He does what he can in his small clinic, but much more assistance is needed, and the root causes of the widespread hunger remain.
The effects of drought are apparent everywhere. Irrigation canals have dried up and crusts of salt cover many fields. The use of solar-powered pumps to tap ground water in order to grow opium – has pushed the water table lower, drying up the soil and leaving salt deposits behind that make it even harder to grow legal crops.
The start of the year finally brought rain, but in such large quantities that it caused flash flooding in both Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar, washing away homes and fields. Much of the water was lost rather than being stored and so any mitigating effect on the drought situation is likely to be temporary.
“All of our youth are leaving,” says UNHCR’s Mohammad Sadiqi. “What else can they do?”
“If the water stops for good, we’ll have to go to Iran or Pakistan,” says Fazl Mohammad, another former IDP, who returned to Marja in November. “Or we will just dig graves for ourselves.”
Many are already on the move – no longer fleeing war, but the combined effects of climate change and economic collapse. “All of our youth are leaving,” says Sadiqi. “What else can they do?”
* Names changed for protection reasons