U.S. Forces Aid Afghan Flood Victims
By Spc. Claudia K. Bullard, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Mar. 25, 2005 After days of heavy flooding, the Helmand River in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province is receding, making way for local government leaders to decide how to aid more than 600 displaced people. Flooding has washed away livestock, homes and farms, and has left spring crops below water level for a 10-mile stretch of the river.
Capt. Chris Owen, without helmet, and Col. Terry Sellers, left, both of 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, meet with U.N. field representatives on the east bank of the Helmand river to discuss the needs of residents misplaced by four days of flooding. By Spc. Claudia K. Bullard, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Representatives from the United Nations, Afghan government and U.S. Army met on the Helmand's east bank March 22 to view flood damage and make a formal assessment of local needs based on the intensity of the flooding and what residents will be able to recover from the area.
Assessing needs for the stricken area, said Marin Din Kajdomcaj, field officer for the United Nations, includes "seeing what the people can do for themselves - seeing what coping mechanisms are in place - and what needs to be done."
"We will make an emergency assessment and make a delivery of necessary assistance if we deem it appropriate," said Din Kajdomcaj, adding that residents' needs will be met only until they can repair damage to their homes and crops. "What we don't want to do create is a situation that will bring more people to the area," said Din Kajdomcaj, adding that the situation though "unfortunate, is not major."
Afghanistan has experienced the heaviest snow and rainfall in seven years of recorded drought. The U.N. World Food Program's Hugo Botha said as the drought progressed through the years, local residents gradually moved closer to the water. "It is only natural, since no one wants to have to walk any farther to get their water than they have to," said Botha, adding when the snows melted, the villagers were unprepared for the increased water level.
A village leader, Amir Jan, agreed that dry years have contributed to creating conditions for the disaster. "No one worked on river barriers this winter to prepare for spring water levels, because former years had been so dry," Jan said.
Army Capt. Chris Owen, commander of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, said his unit is providing short-term care until the residents are stabilized and able to resume farming. He said the water level was dropping dramatically, and no further rain is expected.
His unit has delivered World Food Program donations of more than 700 tons of wheat and peas, 1,000 cans of oil, hygiene kits, water, blankets, stoves and clothing. The soldiers also delivered more than 50 large tents to house the residents until they can rebuild their homes. Maj. (Dr.) Barnett Gibbs and his team from the battalion are providing medical care for displaced residents. Gibbs said the team is providing mostly basic care, but also can perform some minor surgeries. "We may possibly see some broken bones or severe cuts. If necessary we can send them back to our forward operating base for surgery," said Gibbs.
Col. Terry Sellers, battalion commander, stressed that the Afghan government is leading the effort by pinpointing needs and distributing the aid among the people. The U.S. Army is providing Chinook helicopters and manpower to move the humanitarian aid packages. Coalition soldiers, local police and the Afghan National Army provide security for the temporary landing zones, he said.
Sellers, whose soldiers have been operating in the area for almost a year, said he heard of rising flood waters during a March 18 meeting with provincial Gov. Jan Mohammed. Sellers immediately made a request for Chinooks from Kandahar Airfield to carry an emergency response team out to the site. During the reconnaissance flight, he realized the situation called for an immediate response.
"The water was raging around an island in the center of the river, and we airlifted as many people as we could at a time," said Sellers, adding the rescue effort was prioritized. "We removed the women and children first, then the adult males." More air support was dispatched from Kandahar to assist in the recovery operation.
Throughout the next four days, more than 400 refugees were airlifted to safety. According to local authorities, most of those affected by the floods have family members they can stay with in the area. Some, however, will move into tents until they can rebuild their homes. Mohammed said he intends to return to the area in about 10 days and give those with fields and land under water new land on high ground.
According to Botha, the solution for environmental emergencies needs to come from the local governments. "The more involved Afghan leaders become, the better off they are," said Botha. Aid the international community can provide will be basic, he said, but adequate for the needs of the people.
(Army Spc. Claudia K. Bullard is assigned to the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)