Peace has not stopped Afghanistan’s depopulation

Hujjatullah Zia

This summer, I visited my village in Jaghori district in Ghazni province for the first time since 2017. I had never been so at ease while travelling from Kabul to my birthplace.

Just a few years ago, undertaking this 260km trip meant risking one’s life. In 2009, for example, on my way to the village with some relatives, our car got caught in the crossfire of a battle between Afghan forces and the Taliban. We narrowly survived.

This time around, I travelled without witnessing any explosions or fighting or being stopped and searched at a checkpoint.

When I arrived, I was struck by how much my village had changed. I hardly recognised the place. It looked almost deserted. My relatives and friends had all left. The house I grew up in was occupied by strangers – internally displaced people from another province. The streets were empty; I saw just a few lonely children roaming around.

The village of my childhood looked completely different. It was full of people and full of life, with crowds of children running in the streets and playing. Our favourite place was the local stream, which was surrounded by greenery and attracted all kinds of birds and small animals.

There was a small dam, deep enough for us children to swim and play in. Women would come to the stream to chat and catch up on gossip while filling up their jugs with water to carry home. During prayer times, the men would also show up to do their ablutions.

Water from the stream irrigated the nearby fields. Villagers grew wheat, potatoes, beans and other vegetables; they also kept orchards of apricot, apple and plum trees.

Eager to remember those good times, I rushed to the stream, but what I found was devastating. Prolonged droughts had reduced it to a trickle. The green, lively valley of my childhood was no more; in its place lay a dry, silent strip of parched land. The fields lay mostly barren, as there was not enough water to irrigate them; I could see just a few orchards here and there still being kept.

The once bustling community of 170 people now has no more than 40 left, most of them internally displaced people – too poor to make it to urban centres or abroad.

I found a few of the original residents – old people, whose children and grandchildren had left for the country in search of a better life or had moved to bigger cities like Kabul and Herat.

I felt nostalgia for the good old days, but also an uneasy premonition for what the future holds for my country. I realised that the depopulation and desolation I saw in my village are the reality in many places across rural Afghanistan.

Decades of conflict have pushed almost a quarter of the Afghan population of 40 million to flee abroad. The return of security to the country after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 2021 has certainly made a difference in the lives of many Afghans and given us hope for better times. It has enabled humanitarian access to all provinces, including the areas which had been out of reach for decades.

But this has not resulted in refugees rushing to come back to the country. According to the UNHCR, some 1.3 million out of 4.5 million IDPs have returned to their home areas since August 2021 and some 6,000 registered refugees came back voluntarily to the country last year.

The growing hostility against Afghans in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, which host the majority of refugees from my country, has not resulted in a large movement of people returning home, either.

The recent announcement of a crackdown on “illegal immigrants” by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti is likely to put more pressure on Afghan refugees. But many of them, especially those who lived in Pakistan for years, have no homes in Afghanistan to return to and would find it hard to survive in a country, where unemployment is rife.

If the Pakistani authorities act on their threats and deport Afghans, it is unlikely many of them would stay in Afghanistan. They would most likely attempt to leave again.

In response to the announced crackdown, the Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on X: “The behavior of Pakistan against Afghan refugees is unacceptable. The Pakistani side should reconsider its plan. Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems.”

This indicates that the Taliban government also realises that the country cannot provide for a large number of returnees. Two years have passed since the war ended, but Afghanistan is still struggling to recover.

Worse still, another menace is on the horizon, which is as dangerous as a conflict but cannot be resolved with arms. Climate change has stricken Afghanistan, prolonging droughts and shrinking the already limited water reserves of the country.

Between 1950 and 2010, temperatures in Afghanistan rose 1.8 degrees Celsius on average – about twice as much as the rest of the world. Rainfall across the country has fallen by as much as 40 percent.

In 2018, as the war between the international coalition and the Taliban was still going on, droughts displaced some 370,000 Afghans – as many as the conflict did.

Dry spells have decimated the rural areas, destroying harvests and depopulating villages like my birthplace in Jaghori district. There is little hope for these areas.

As the effects of climate change worsen in the coming years, the depopulation of Afghanistan will likely continue. People from rural areas will flock to the big cities, fleeing hunger and increasing exponentially the population of the urban poor. Those Afghans who have the means will continue to try to leave the country in search of better economic opportunities. Sadly, more unique places that used to be filled with life – like my village – will be lost.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Peace has not stopped Afghanistan’s depopulation