Harsh Winter in Afghanistan Intensifies Needs for the Most Vulnerable


Children across Afghanistan are increasingly vulnerable to disease and illness due to a deadly combination of rising malnutrition, an unprecedented food crisis, drought, disruptions to vital health and nutrition services, lack of access to and poor quality of water and sanitation services — and crippling winter weather.

Rising unemployment leaves families with no income to buy food or fuel. More than half the population — 23 million — face acute hunger, with nearly 9 million one step away from famine, according to the World Food Program, a UNICEF partner agency. The UN Development Program, another agency partner, has warned that 97 percent of the population could plunge into poverty by midyear.

Up to 1 million children in Afghanistan are at risk of death from malnutrition, UNICEF warns

UNICEF estimates that 1 in 2 children under age 5 in Afghanistan will end up acutely malnourished by the end of the year due to the country’s food crisis and poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene services — and that up to 1 million children under age 5 could die. 

A girl in the waiting room of the UNICEF-supported Mirza Mohammad Khan clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF/UN0562566/Romenzi

As the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, outbreaks of life-threatening diseases are also putting children’s lives at risk. As many as 66,000 cases of measles were reported in 2021, amid outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea, malaria and dengue fever.  Four cases of wild poliovirus were confirmed (Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last two polio-endemic countries). 

Severe winter conditions — including temperatures well below freezing — increase the risk of pneumonia and respiratory illness as families struggle to heat homes and keep children warm 

Severe winter weather conditions, with temperatures already well below freezing in many areas, increase the risk of pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Illness (ARI) as families struggle to heat their homes and keep their children warm. Children living in high altitude regions are especially vulnerable and require urgent lifesaving assistance, including winter clothing, blankets and fuel for heating. 

Over one-quarter of all deaths of children under age 5 are due to respiratory tract infections, with 90 percent of these deaths due to pneumonia. Malnourished children are more likely to get sick and take longer to recover. 

Shukuriya, 8 months old, of Kandahar, Afghanistan, suffers from severe acute malnutrition. A UNICEF-supported mobile health and nutrition team provided her parents with 24 sachets of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food, a nutrient-rich peanut paste, to begin treatment. © UNICEF/UN0562535/Romenzi

“We are approaching a critical juncture for Afghanistan’s children, as winter brings with it a multitude of threats to their health,” said Abdul Kadir Musse, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative. “There is no time to lose. Without urgent, concerted action — including ensuring we have the resources to deploy additional cash transfers and winter supplies — many of the country’s children will not live to see spring.”

Without urgent, concerted action … many of the country’s children will not live to see spring.

In December, UNICEF launched its largest-ever single-country appeal to meet the needs of over 24 million people in Afghanistan, half of whom are children, in 2022. That appeal seeks $2 billion and aims to help avert the collapse of health, nutrition, WASH, education and other vital social services for children and families.

At the Shaydayee camp for displaced families in Herat Province, Suraya, 8, and her sisters huddle around an open fire to try to stay warm. UNICEF is distributing blankets, winter clothing and other supplies as part of its emergency response in the country. © UNICEF/UN0574509/Bidel

UNICEF teams on the ground are already hard at work shoring up critical services. During the month of November, for example, UNICEF covered the salaries of 10,000 front-line health workers in more than 1,000 health facilities and supported over 1,000 health facilities with medical supplies and winter heating materials.  UNICEF also provided critical primary health care services, including immunization, through health facilities and mobile health and nutrition teams; vaccinated nearly 105,000 children under 5 against measles; and supported a polio immunization campaign that reached 8.5 million children, including over 2 million children living in previously inaccessible areas. 

During that same month, UNICEF was able to treat more than 37,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition; provided over 22,000 people with access to safe water, including through water trucking; and distributed cash and winter clothes to families living in the provinces with the highest poverty rate and most severe winter conditions.

Support from partners like Zakat Foundation of America help expand UNICEF’s emergency response in Afghanistan

These and other emergency efforts are being expanded with help from partners. Zakat Foundation of America, for example, a faith-based organization and UNICEF USA partner headquartered in Chicago, is contributing to UNICEF’s response in Afghanistan with a $200,000 donation to help cover the costs of providing blankets, heavy-duty tarps, safe water and sanitation supplies and warm winter clothing to 10,000 families, including 37,000 children.

Juma Gul, 32, center, and his family carry blankets and other supplies distributed by UNICEF to protect the most vulnerable from the harsh Afghan winter. © UNICEF/UN0574507/Bidel

Priorities for UNICEF continue to be the delivery of lifesaving interventions to treat children and provide other vital services and efforts to ensure continuity and prevent the collapse of critical systems while also safeguarding hard-won gains in protecting the rights of women and girls. UNICEF is counting on the support of the international community by facilitating exemptions to sanctions to ensure the timely provision of goods and services to the children of Afghanistan.

Support UNICEF’s efforts to save and protect vulnerable children and families in Afghanistan. Individual contributions of any amount can help make a difference. Please donate.

Interested in partnering? Contact UNICEF USA to explore how your organization can support UNICEF’s work

Top photo: In Coka village, located in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, women and children wait to be seen by members of a UNICEF-supported mobile health and nutrition team on December 13, 2021. © UNICEF/UN0567829/Al-Janabi

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