After the Deluge: Personal accounts of rain and floods in Zurmat district

Sayed Asadullah Sadat

Afghanistan Analysts Network


The rain and snow that has fallen in recent weeks has eased the hearts of Afghan farmers and given them hope that the multi-year drought has finally ended. At the same time, heavy rain falling on dry, parched land has caused flooding in many areas of Afghanistan. Hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, homes and businesses have been destroyed and farmland inundated with floodwater and mud. In March, we spoke to farmers in different districts about their hopes for better weather this year. For this report, Sayed Asadullah Sadat has returned to one district, Zurmat in Paktia province, to hear how the longed-for rain has brought devastating flooding.

Our next publication will be a major report by guest author Mohammad Assem Mayar: ‘Before the Deluge: How to mitigate the risk of flooding in Afghanistan’. Floods cause almost a quarter of all casualties stemming from natural disasters in the country, and worse is set to come, with climate change predicted to bring heavier spring rains and more severe monsoons. Mayar will look at the causes of floods, how they vary across Afghanistan and what can be done to protect people, buildings and farmland both now and in the longer term. Here though, we hear some personal stories.

When we interviewed farmers across the country just before Nawruz, we encountered great relief that the three-year drought had finally ended and hopes for the year ahead. Winter had begun with two desperately dry months. Then, it had rained. Our interviewee from Zurmat said that, finally, the karez[1] in his village was flowing with water again. “Agriculture,” he said, “is renewed. People are busy sowing crops, wheat, some are even planting trees. Everyone’s busy and happy. A few days ago, I was able to sow barley. The earth is soft and moist and the barley should grow very welI.” How different is the situation just a few weeks later when we returned to the district.

When the skies open

“I haven’t seen such rain in the past 20 years,” said Jamaluddin, a farmer in Kulalgo village in Zurmat. “Since just after Eid, it’s rained continuously.” Another slightly older farmer, Sultan Shah from Sar-e Char village, said he last saw “rain like this” 30 years ago. It rained continuously after Eid (which fell on 12 April), but then it stopped raining. If a cloud passed over the mountains, people became anxious, fearing the consequences could be disastrous if more rain fell. More rain did fall and flooding finally hit Zurmat overnight on 14/15 April.

People who live in Zurmat know that water levels rise quickly and can lead to erratic flash floods that sweep through the landscape, destroying homes, devastating agricultural fields, killing livestock and often taking lives. So when it starts raining heavily, as it did in April, they spring into action to avert the worst of the damage. They grab their shovels, pick axes and whatever tools they have and start digging trenches around their properties to try to ensure their families and homes stay safe and dry. They place sandbags around their houses and rocks to act as barriers and stem the force of the water. Then they wait, hoping the capricious waters spare their villages – not only their houses but also the fields that sustain them. They stay up all night and keep vigil so that they are not caught by surprise if the floods do come.

The district, located 35 kilometres southwest of Gardez city and bordering Paktika, Logar and Ghazni provinces, is largely flat and most residents are engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. The waters of several rivers pass through Zurmat – from Kotal-e Tirah and the mountains around Gardez city on to Band-e Sardeh, a lake in the eastern part of Andar district in Ghazni province. But after three years of drought, dry riverbeds have been compromised through neglect or human activity, meaning there were insufficient clear channels for the water to flow through easily when the seasonal rivers came back to life.

Farmers in Zurmat are now dealing with the after-effects of flooding. The recent floods have destroyed dozens of homes in multiple villages, along with shops, roads and bridges. Most of the agricultural land, gardens and karezes were damaged. Hundreds of jeribs of land where wheat had been sown were left inundated: standing water weakens the wheat, ruining yields. Even worse, the floods deposited a thick layer of mud and stones onto some fields. Villagers who had planted rain-fed wheat in March lost this year’s crop and will have to cut their losses and look to other crops, tomato, onion and potato, which they can plant later in the season after the floods have receded and their fields are no longer waterlogged.

For farmers, who rely on the land for their livelihoods, recovering from floods is costly, time-consuming and labour-intensive. After the water recedes, they will have to manually clear the debris from their fields and hire tractors, which cost 3,000 afghanis (USD 42) per hour, to help clear the worst of the debris. They will have to dip into their savings, if they have any, borrow money from neighbours or ask family members living abroad to send funds to help get the fields ready for planting. In Afghanistan’s tight-knit rural communities, neighbour helps neighbour, and a farmer can always count on help to clear his land, but those who lack the financial wherewithal to rent heavy equipment are unlikely to clear their fields in time to have any sort of harvest this year. They will have to wait until next year.

One farmer, Sultan Shah from Sar-e Char village, described the destruction of his crops, especially wheat, when the river flooded the fields – although he was facing more immediate problems when the author spoke to him just after the flooding:

In the last two or three days, it’s become difficult to leave the house at all. The water has surrounded us and everyone is stuck at home, afraid to leave. We’re so scared. We stay awake and guard the house at night because we think if the water gets into our home, it’ll be damaged. We walk around the house with shovels and pickaxes so that if water threatens the house, we can make a barrier against it. All the small roads which connect our village to neighbouring villages were destroyed. Someone from our tribe living in another village died, but we couldn’t get to his funeral because the roads were all destroyed and it was raining heavily. Water was everywhere.

The recent flood destroyed the main road that goes from Zurmat to the provincial capital Gardez and in the Zaw area, it had damaged a large bridge. People waited for hours for the floodwaters to subside so that they could get to Gardez – or get home from Gardez. People trying to get sick relatives urgently to the hospital there were especially distressed by the sheer impossibility of travel.

A mixed blessing

Despite the flooding, most people were left in two minds about the rain. It is true that it caused flash floods that destroyed their crops and damaged homes and infrastructure, but it has also ended the devastating three-year drought. Jamaluddin, with around 30 jeribs (6 hectares) of land, mostly rain-fed and left uncultivated for several years, conveyed this attitude.

When it snowed and rained in the final part of winter, I sowed [wheat] on eight jeribs [1.6 hectares] of my rain-fed land. I said to myself: Inshallah, rain will water my land this year. But the flood came and my land was damaged. The floodwaters brought mud and stones onto my land. I can’t use it now. I was so upset. I’d expended a great deal of effort on the land. But … now, I’m generally happy because the drought is over.

The drought had hit him hard. Last year, he grew onions, which need a lot of water. However, the harvest failed for lack of rain, leaving him with a huge loss. He said the karezes in their area had been dry for several years and of his two solar-powered tube wells, one dried up last year and the water level in the second dropped so much there was not enough to water the fields. Even the well inside the house had dried up. “You know,” he said, “for a farmer, his land is everything and when there’s no water, the land is useless.” However, following the rain, all his wells had enough water. People reckoned the level has risen by three metres.

He worried that, although water from the recent rain had seeped into the ground and fed the underground aquifers, repeated droughts mean the water may not have penetrated the ground as well as it should have done and the rain that has fallen may not yet be sufficient to replenish the aquifers.

Meanwhile, another farmer in Kulago village, Mir Afghan, surveying the damage from the floods and worried that worse might be to come:

Roads, canals and karezes that irrigated agricultural lands have been destroyed. Farmers will face many problems this year because repairing these roads and canals costs a lot. Even in some areas, the floods have damaged the retaining walls, which were built during the Republic by NGOs at huge expense. This really worried people: they were built to protect our homes and villages, but now they’ve been damaged. The village is in danger.

Mir Afghan said the floods had destroyed some farms and caused a lot of financial loss, but overall, the damage was less than in some other provinces and it was also far less than when heavy rain comes in the summer: “In the months of Jawza and Asad [third week of June to third week of August], rain is very dangerous because the soil doesn’t absorb it during those months. If it rains a little, it turns into a flood that flows everywhere and can be very dangerous.”

Hoping for rain, planning for floods

Meanwhile, as local communities survey the damage done by the most recent floods, they balance relief that the drought has ended against the fears that more rain later in the summer could devastate their lives. They gather in mosques to discuss how to mitigate the worst of it. They pool their resources to rebuild fallen retaining walls and rehabilitate canals.

With one eye on the sky and another on their fields, they get on with the business of clearing their land and sowing seeds, hoping, always, that the harvests will be plentiful, and that their homes, fields and families will be spared more flooding.

Edited by Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour

[1] Karezes are used in much of Afghanistan to bring irrigation water to cropland. A series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by sloping tunnels, tap into subterranean water to efficiently deliver large quantities of water to the surface by gravity, without need for pumping. More on this UNESCO website on how karezes “allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates without loss of much of the water to evaporation.”

[2] For up-to-date reports on the floods nationwide, see reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), for example here from 17 April.


After the Deluge: Personal accounts of rain and floods in Zurmat district