Floods in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a country not only crippled by decades of conflict, but also prone to natural disasters. Earthquakes, droughts, floods and extreme snowfall affect the lives of thousands of Afghans. Severe flooding in 2005 and 2006 made thousands homeless, and destroyed agricultural land, livestock and infrastructure. In the post-Taliban era alone 50 floods have already been reported. However, except for short situational reports many of these floods are not well documented, thus little is known about the Afghan flood issue.

Floods are mostly created by heavy, intense rainfall, and by snow meltwater, or the combination of both. Technical failures due to increased precipitation or meltwater add to flooding as well. Dam and levée breaks are not uncommon, and their destructive power lies not solely in the inundation, but also in the sheer strength and mass of the floods. Afghan flash floods are powerful enough to sweep entire houses and bridges away, making their impact severe and costly. An assessment of past flood events highlights that flash floods are the primary cause of loss of life due to inundation in Afghanistan.

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Currently no accurate flood hazard maps are available, yet the local population is generally aware that they live in flood-endangered areas. They know this either through personal experience or from the oral history of their lands. In some regions Afghan farmers will even irrigate their fields with flood water, which requires detailed knowledge of flood behaviour. Yet the population is at times caught off-guard as floods can come quickly and without much warning. Heavy rainfall could be a flood indicator, yet if it rains many kilometres upstream the inhabitants of the flood region might not notice and will not be warned. Flash floods leave very little time between the swelling of the river and floodplain overflow, whereas sluggish or gradually rising floods leave more time for the people living in the danger areas to get to safe zones.

One of the major constraints for flood assistance is that many floods are at times reported only days after the onset of the flood. This is due to limited communication and road infrastructures, which are very often damaged by the floods themselves. This delay makes helping the flood victims efficiently all the more difficult. Organizations such as the International Red Cross (IRC) and the UN will assist the local population in case of flooding. The IRC will provide medical attention and assist in search and rescue operations, whereas the UN will provide funding for reconstruction and flood mitigation measures.

Not all floods are notified after a delay; floods that affect major towns are reported immediately and extreme floods are anticipated by aid agencies. The NOAA National Weather Service has set up the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET), which also encompasses flood warning. For major flood events, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will often be the first organization to provide assistance. With aerial reconnaissance capabilities, it is easier for the military to perform search and rescue operations and assess the situation on the ground. ISAF's heavy and amphibious vehicles can bring people into safety and deliver emergency aid where normal trucks and jeeps could not venture. It is not only a matter of having appropriate equipment, but the availability of efficient communications and coordination designed for work in difficult circumstances makes the military favoured to assist in extreme floods. In April 2007, ISAF helped rescue 350 people from rising flood waters and evacuated 1,300 families (OCHA, 2007). Helicopters quickly delivered 30 days worth of food and other humanitarian aid to 2,500 people. But for reconstruction, long-term aid and relief, organizations such as the IRC are better-equipped than ISAF.

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