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The blessing of rain that brings devastation to wretched people

This spring, it has rained a lot over all of Afghanistan. People hoped that this rain would bring blessings and happiness. Images of water and greenery radiated hope in the photos and videos shared on social media in recent weeks. Some went to dams, springs, and ravines and shared their excitement at seeing the green hills and lush fields. 

There were also disturbing images of devastation and tragedy wrought by those same rains. The recent rains in Baghlan province have turned into floods and become a terrible disaster with its toll increasing each day. Whole villages have been destroyed as mud houses were washed away. Images of crying women and children and injured survivors wandering in search of loved ones tell the story of a great disaster. Painful scenes can also be seen in the videos of Ghor, Badghis, Takhar, and Samangan provinces. 

The main cause of these disasters and resultant pain of communities is a lack of preparation. We don’t have enough planning to face even minor disasters, and have so little infrastructure that we are repeatedly vulnerable to such calamities. 

The people of Afghanistan are among the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change. According to experts, Afghanistan is the sixth most vulnerable country to climate change, and is prone to drought, floods, and other climatic disturbances. The predictions of researchers indicate a future filled with droughts, extreme heat, sudden and relentless rains, and devastating floods. 

What can Afghanistan do to prepare? If we were a normal society with a government accountable to the people, and educational, scientific, and research infrastructures, this challenge would make us mobilize and strive, mitigate risk and reduce its impact on society. We could prepare the country for difficult days ahead. 

But none of these steps are occurring in Afghanistan. At such a critical juncture, we lack an accountable government and effective civil society organizations, which are needed to mobilize the population for the collective good.

The rains that are falling would not be enough to hinder daily routines in many other parts of the world, yet, in our towns and villages, become devastating storms that turn people’s lives upside down and leave irreparable wounds, death and destruction. Decades of war and the lack of an effective government structure have disrupted society’s traditional ways of coping with disasters. As well, no new systems or infrastructure have been developed, even as storms intensify. The majority of the population of Afghanistan have been displaced in the last 40 years; they have fled from one village to another, from one city to another, and from villages to cities due to hunger, unemployment, and war. Therefore, they are less familiar with their new locales, and how to prepare for the natural disasters of those areas. For example, families have built mud huts without any understanding of the floods that regularly come to specific regions. In addition, there has been no government to monitor and manage the expansion of cities and villages, to address building on floodplains and high-risk areas, and to take measures to protect the residents, or at least to inform people of possible dangers from natural disasters. 

The result of so many years without planning or preparation is that huge numbers of families are living in floodplains, even though the scars of past floods are still visible. Existing waterways have not been marked, cleaned, or strengthened, and many flood channels have been blocked. In recent years, mere regular rains have caused devastation.

The situation will only get worse now that the Taliban are in control. The clique is suspicious of human efforts to control nature and is unwilling to take scientific measures to plan for natural calamities. They are replacing science with mysticism, have closed schools and universities to girls and women, and are changing the curriculum to eliminate modern sciences. They have driven the educated and experienced professionals from government administrations. The country has been emptied of civil society institutions needed to mobilize collective efforts, and wherever the Taliban find such collective efforts, they repress and close all the doors to initiative and capacity building.

They look for mystical reasons for every disaster. When a calamity occurs, Taliban officials pray to God and ask for help and charity in addition to tallying the death toll and property damage. They hold Quran recitation ceremonies and public prayers. From mosque pulpits, they heap blame onto the actions of the victims, the behavior of women, and clothes worn by the population. They give unscientific interpretations of earthquakes and storms, while talking about the instability of life and the importance of looking for salvation in death. They enjoy lording over government finances and facilities but do not take any responsibility in saving people from flood, famine, and poverty. As the Taliban prime minister famously said: Don’t ask us for sustenance, ask God.

People in Afghanistan share in the grief of the victims and give what little help they came from their own limited resources. In contrast, wealthy individuals launch charity photo ops usually for political, religious, or commercial propaganda campaigns. Many important officials label such disasters as divine and inevitable. They are trying to cloud the public’s mind with mysticism and prayers instead of finding the cause and finding solutions, so that no one will talk about who is responsible for the lack of preparation and post-disaster response. 

It is our urgent duty to do what we can to support the victims. But our collective and long-term responsibility is to find a solution to prevent the recurrence of these tragedies. Where do we start to get the ability to cope with the frequent human and natural disasters? Unfortunately, there is no salvation until the anti-education, anti-science, and anti-planning clique is removed from power.

In nearly three years of Taliban rule, several disasters have occurred without any support system for victims. On June 22, 2022, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook parts of Paktia and Khost provinces, leaving thousands dead and injured. In countries that focus on preparation, such an earthquake does not leave much damage and what little damage does occur is immediately addressed. Yet even today, most of the victims of the earthquake in Khost and Paktia are still struggling alone to cope with its consequences.

In October 2023, another earthquake in Herat leveled many mud houses. The intensity of this earthquake (6.3 on the Richter scale) was nowhere near as strong as the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit eastern Turkey in February 2023, which destroyed much of the city of Gaziantep and several other cities, killing more than 50,000. 

However, the devastation in Turkey was still not as extensive as it was in Herat, where all mudhouses were destroyed in one village after another. More importantly, the Turkish government and civil society organizations were able to reach the victims, offer aid, and begin the long process of rebuilding cities and villages. Now, after 15 months, the earthquake-hit cities in Turkey are coming back to life. 

In contrast, many people will be homeless for decades in our disaster-affected areas in Khost, Paktia, Herat, and Baghlan. Every year, several more natural disasters may occur, and thus destruction piles on top of destruction, and homelessness piles on top of homelessness. 

Beside helping the victims of the recent floods in the country, we must also think about the dangers of prolonged Taliban rule. We have to build an alternative system that supports education, work and freedom, and is accountable to the people. Mere offerings of sympathy, charity, and aid are not an adequate solution for the rain that brings blessings, here it brings devastation every year. 

Younus Negah is a researcher and writer from Afghanistan who is currently in exile in Turkey.