Natural disasters and decades of conflict have left internally displaced in Afghanistan impoverished and vulnerable

As one of the largest informal settlements in Afghanistan’s Herat province, Shahrak Sabz is home to thousands of families from neighbouring provinces who were displaced during a drought in 2018. Three years on, they struggle to meet their most basic needs and cope with freezing temperatures.

In Shahrak Sabz, freezing temperatures are known to be particularly life-threatening. Last winter was no different. But needs persist throughout the year, and many of the people living in the settlement have been forced to survive on humanitarian assistance and basic livelihoods support since 2018.

With reduced levels of humanitarian aid and the economic impact of COVID-19, it is as important as ever to continue supporting families to meet critical needs.     

The last straw

For more than four decades, Afghanistan has been the scene of recurrent violent conflict. As always, it is civilians that bear the brunt of the consequences of conflict, and years of protracted violence have left the Afghan population vulnerable and deeply impoverished. According to the Asian Development Bank, almost half the country's population of 40 million live below the national poverty line, and many are at risk of being displaced yet again due to conflict and natural disasters.

The story of the Shahrak Sabz settlement goes back to a severe drought that swept through large parts of Afghanistan in 2018. It became the tipping point for many people already struggling after decades of conflict and recurring natural disasters.

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In 2018, a devastating drought swept through Afghanistan leaving many displaced. Some 12,000 families still reside in the Shahrak Sabz settlement with little hope of one day returning to their homes.

Subsistence farming is a key source of income in this part of the country, but many were unable to withstand the crop failure and livestock mortality resulting from the drought. This led to critical levels of food insecurity which in turn led to high levels of displacement. As a result, people had to abandon their homes and become part of the more than 170,000 people who were already displaced due to the 2018 drought in western Afghanistan alone.  

Families from Badghis and Ghor provinces located east of Herat arrived in large numbers and informal settlements grew in the outskirts of Herat city. Today, Shahrak Sabz is one of the largest such settlements located just outside the city, but for the 12,000 families sheltered here, the outlook is bleak. Many of them are still unable to return home due to the long-term effects of drought and ongoing conflict.

Negative coping mechanisms

Families in Shahrak Sabz struggle with day-to-day survival not least during the winter due to lack of access to necessities such as food, water, and blankets. Residents rely primarily on daily wage-earning whenever they can and otherwise humanitarian assistance.

But their livelihoods have been greatly affected by the impact of COVID-19.

There are few if any income opportunities within the settlement, and while DRC continues to provide life-saving support to families, overall funding of humanitarian aid to the settlement have been reduced and many residents have not received assistance for months or even years.

This leads to the community resorting to negative coping mechanisms, including selling personal possessions such as clothes. Families even resort to selling their young children – primarily girls.

Facilities and services are also limited: not all areas of the settlement are covered by water supply, and several latrines and bath spaces are non-functioning. Some families are still living in makeshift tents, and thousands of school-aged children are not covered by educational programmes.

Some inhabitants have wished to leave the settlement and return to their place of origin, but they cannot afford the cost of transportation. Others are unsure as ongoing conflict in their home provinces persists.

DRC emergency life-saving assistance  

DRC has been providing multi-sector support to the displaced communities in Shahrak Sabz over the past three years. Through funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO), DRC was able to provide urgent winterization and protection assistance to families in Shahrak Sabz and other informal settlements across Herat in 2018 and 2019.

In response to high levels of protection needs – including child marriage, children being sold, child labour, begging, domestic and gender-based violence, and lack of access to health and education facilities – DRC has provided access to critical protection-related services, including psychosocial support, legal counselling, awareness-raising, child-friendly spaces, coaching sessions, and establishing referral systems.

Follow-on assistance has been provided with funding from UN OCHA Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund (AHF) every winter since 2018, including in 2021, through cash assistance to further support families to survive through the harsh Herat winters.

Looking to the future

Helping displaced people in Shahrak Sabz find durable solutions to their situation is critical. Three years on, there is no clear plan in sight. While many still hope to go back home, a precondition for their sustainable return is access to basic services and opportunities for income generation.

To complement emergency assistance and strengthen their resilience also in the longer term, DRC builds capacity among displaced Afghan communities. Agriculture and livestock trainings in four displacement settlements including Shahrak Sabz took place in 2019 with financing from the Danish International Development Agency (Danida), to increase the knowledge and skills of participants and teach them new agricultural and livestock techniques.

These will be essential for the people in Shahrak Sabz upon their return and to anchor their future food security in sustainable livelihoods.

For the 12,000 families, the struggle continues. As long as they are hosted in Sharak Sabz, continued emergency aid and assistance from DRC remains critical for their day-to-day survival and coping with a third year in displacement.

With support from: