Spotlight on the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

Aga Khan Agency

Through its various branches and agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is responsible for a wide range of development projects and initiatives in Afghanistan, from the restoration of culturally significant public spaces to the creation of improved health care facilities and resources. Today, we take a look at one of the AKDN’s agencies, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which is responsible for helping Afghanistan and its people to cope with one of the most devastating challenges that they face: natural disasters.

How Afghanistan Is Affected by Natural Disasters

Due to its geographic location, years of environmental degradation, and a number of other factors, Afghanistan is highly susceptible to severe and recurring natural hazards and disasters. Given that Afghanistan is located in a high seismic activity zone, earthquakes are frequent, particularly in the northern and northwestern parts of the country. Since 2000, about nine major earthquakes have occurred. Earthquakes of all sizes often trigger landslides, which can have a destructive impact. In the spring, melting snow and heavy rains commonly cause flooding all over the country, and the effect of these floods can be particularly severe when they are preceded by periods of drought.

The devastation caused by these high rates of natural disasters place a huge burden on Afghan citizens, who struggle to stay resilient in the face of such emergencies due to factors such as severe poverty and poor infrastructure. According to data from the World Bank, natural hazards and disasters in Afghanistan have affected 9 million people and caused more than 20,000 fatalities since 1980, and those figures are only expected to rise given the increasing threat of climate change and its anticipated impact on natural disasters.

An Overview of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

AKAH, which was previously known as Focus Humanitarian Assistance, is one of the most important entities dedicated to resilience in the face of natural disasters in Afghanistan. AKAH engages with Afghan communities, primarily those in remote mountainous areas and rural regions, to build and support their capacity to cope with natural disasters and other complex emergencies.

AKAH’s broad approach focuses on predicting where and how natural disasters and emergencies could impact homes, communities, and livelihoods; identifying the structural and non-structural interventions that could help prevent or mitigate these disasters; and supporting communities and local and national governments to reduce their vulnerability to risk.

Focus Areas of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

In order to help Afghans better prepare for and cope with the effects of natural disasters and emergencies, AKAH operates a range of programs and initiatives across several different focus areas. They include the following:

Disaster Risk Reduction – For over a decade, AKAH has operated a disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency preparedness program in Afghanistan’s mountainous communities. The program’s model consists of community-based DRR activities; safety initiatives for public facilities such as schools and hospitals; capacity building efforts for local governments; and national advocacy for wide-ranging DRR policies and programs. One of the most important elements of the program is the communities that play a hands-on role in their own protection and preparedness. For example, community members conduct a Hazard Vulnerability Risk Assessment to identify evacuation routes and safe refuges, as well as to establish their own community-based emergency response teams.

Capacity Building – Providing support to communities in creating and maintaining community-based emergency response teams (CERTs) is one of AKAH’s most important capacity-building initiatives. Through this program, AKAH helps to ensure that CERTs are established in the communities that need them most and that these teams are properly equipped and trained. For example, CERTs receive AKAH-supported training in areas such as first aid, search and rescue, health and hygiene, communication and coordination, and early warning systems.

Community-Based Interventions – AKAH works directly in areas that are most likely to be affected by natural disasters in order to help these high-risk communities mitigate hazards and respond effectively when necessary. Some of the particular interventions that AKAH has carried out over the years include: the creation of village disaster management plans for over 400 villages; more than 100 small-scale structural risk mitigation projects, which includes clearing flow channels of debris and terracing against avalanches; the development of school disaster management committees in schools, as well as school seismic retrofitting projects in five schools; and the development of three community-based flood early warning systems in riverside areas.

External Partnerships – In order for a response to natural disasters to be most effective, it’s important to have strong communication and coordination among the various entities involved in relief efforts. AKAH helps to achieve this by building strong external partnerships with other programs, agencies, and government ministries, as well as by taking a central role in disaster management coordination. AKAH is one of the primary response institutions in Afghanistan’s Provincial Disaster Management Committee; an active member of Afghanistan’s Disaster Risk Reduction platform; a co-chair of the Disaster Risk Reduction Clusters for Food Security and Agriculture; and a partner of many other institutions, including Afghanaid, Save the Children, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, and a variety of United Nations agencies.

How Afghanaid Makes Life Better in Afghanistan

Afghanaid

For over 35 years, the British humanitarian and development organization Afghanaid has been working to improve the lives of millions of Afghans who are vulnerable and underserved. The organization it maintains a presence in some of Afghanistan’s poorest and most remote communities.

Afghanaid develops and runs programs across a broad range of focus areas, including basic service delivery, livelihood enhancement, emergency assistance, and disaster risk reduction. Through the organization’s community-led approach, ordinary Afghans play an important role in their own development. They have the opportunity to become active participants in shaping not only their own futures, but the future of their country as well.

Afghanaid’s recent and current projects include:

1. Restoring Mine-Contaminated Land

For the past two years, Afghanaid has worked in partnership with the HALO Trust, a charity focused on land mine clearance and mine risk education. Due to the decades of conflict it has experienced, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Many regions are still littered with unexploded ordnance.

This makes life extremely difficult for the 80 percent of Afghans who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. When land cannot be used for crops or grazing because of land mine contamination, whole communities are trapped in poverty and lives are put at risk on a daily basis.

Afghanaid is working to address this issue by coming to areas that the HALO Trust has cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance. It then helps local families rebuild their livelihoods by making good use of their cleared land.

In Samagan and Logar provinces, for example, Afghanaid has provided training in improved agricultural techniques, orchard and greenhouse management, and poultry rearing to nearly 3,000 people. The organization has also supplied the technical assistance and tools needed to transform this previously dangerous land into a valuable, productive resource.

landmine

2. Improving Livestock and Animal Welfare

Most families and households in rural Afghanistan rely on animals, whether for food, transportation, or economic livelihood. Despite this dependence, however, few Afghans have the skills, knowledge, or resources to provide proper care for their animals. In addition, access to experienced veterinarians is rare in remote regions.

As a result, the well-being of many animals is seriously compromised. This negatively impacts both the animals themselves and the people who rely on them.

To help improve animal welfare in rural Afghanistan, Afghanaid recently launched a new partnership with the international equine welfare charity Brooke. This collaborative project will see Afghanaid working in Daykundi province to provide mentorship and specialized training to vets as well as education for farmers regarding the benefits of good animal welfare and the importance of veterinary services.

The organization will also teach farmers critical animal husbandry skills, such as appropriate animal handling, proper housing and feeding, and the identification of diseases. The aim of this initiative is to create a “virtuous cycle” in which improvements to animal welfare lead to greater productivity, which in turn leads to greater prosperity.

3. Responding to Severe Drought

Recent years have seen Afghanistan struggling with severe drought. Because of the resulting water shortage, crop yield has been much lower than usual for the past several seasons. As a result, many rural households have insufficient food for either themselves or their livestock. This has led to significant income reduction and has greatly increased vulnerability to environmental and economic crises.

This devastating situation has left thousands of Afghan families in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. In coordination with the World Food Programme and local partners in Afghanistan, Afghanaid has worked to provide essential food and supplies to nearly 11,000 struggling families in Ghor province, which has been one of the regions hit hardest by drought.

With this assistance, these households can stave off hunger and malnutrition. In addition, they can avoid the negative coping strategies (such as selling off livestock at a very low price) that are unfortunately common in these extreme situations.

drought

4. Promoting Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

When Afghan families in rural areas need food, water, fuel, medicine, and construction materials, they often turn to the forests, rangelands, and rivers that surround them. However, over the years, a lack of proper regulation and oversight of these resources has led to severe depletion and deterioration of many of these natural systems.

Today, the strain on Afghanistan’s natural ecosystems is even further exacerbated by increasing pressure from rapid population growth, rising land prices, climate change, and recurring natural disasters. This is not only problematic from an environmental point of view, but a social one as well. Resource scarcity is often a significant factor in ethnic, political, and regional conflicts.

To help transform scarce natural resources into sustainable assets, Afghanaid is embarking on a major four-year project in collaboration with the Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO, with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Taking place in Daykundi province, the project will support 4,500 rural families as they learn to more effectively manage the natural resources they depend on.

A key element of the initiative will be the creation and training of local rangeland management associations. This will help communities work together to manage rangelands in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.

8 Things to Know About One of Afghanistan’s Biggest Holidays

Earlier this summer, during the first week of June, Muslims all around the world gathered together to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In Afghanistan, as in most other countries with significant Muslim populations, Eid al-Fitr is one of the most important traditional holidays, and it is welcomed with great enthusiasm by Afghans all across the country. Read on for a look at eight interesting facts that you might not know about Eid al-Fitr in Afghanistan.

1. It celebrates the end of a long fast.

One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a period of ritual fasting that honors the month when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. During Ramadan, most Muslims do not eat (or drink) from dawn until dusk, and they may also abstain from activities like smoking or taking medications. Eid al-Fitr is the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, and consequently, the end of fasting. Appropriately enough, therefore, the literal translation of Eid al-Fitr is “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast” or “Feast of Fast-Breaking.”

breaking fast

2. It begins with the sighting of the new moon.

Like Ramadan, the start of Eid al-Fitr is determined by the date and time that the new moon is first sighted. This means that most of the time Muslims must wait until the night before Eid to verify the exact timing of the festival. Many Muslim countries depend on local moon sighters to catch the first glimpse of the new moon; when the sighting has been confirmed, the beginning of Eid is declared at mosques and on television and radio stations. For uniformity, some Muslim regions choose to celebrate Eid when the new moon appears over the holy site of Mecca, rather than over their own location.

3. It is held on different (Gregorian) dates every year.

The Gregorian calendar, in use in many parts of the world, is based on the solar cycle, whereas the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that months start and end with each new moon. Therefore, because lunar months are slightly shorter than solar months, Eid al-Fitr always arrives about 10 days earlier than it did the previous (Gregorian) year.

4. It usually lasts for at least three days.

The festival of Eid al-Fitr and its associated celebrations traditionally last for a three-day period. In many countries, including Afghanistan, all three days are observed as national holidays. However, depending on where Eid al-Fitr falls during the week, the festivities can sometimes last longer. For example, if the three days of Eid occur mid-week, it’s not uncommon for the celebrations to last all the way through the weekend.

5. Cleanliness and grooming are an important part of Eid al-Fitr.

On the first morning of Eid al-Fitr, Muslims begin the day with a ritual called “ghusl,” a ceremonial cleansing of the body. Then, they will often dress in new clothes—some people wear traditional dress from their country or region, while others choose contemporary clothing. In some areas, women will decorate their hands with intricate henna designs.

6. The festival begins with prayers.

After getting dressed, Muslims gather together with their families and communities for morning prayers. These prayers are usually followed by a special sermon and a prayer known as the Salat al-Eid. The prayers are often held at local mosques or in large halls, but in many countries, people also gather for prayers outdoors. After prayers, the rest of the day is spent visiting and celebrating with family, friends, and neighbors. In some countries, people also visit cemeteries to offer their respects to late family members.

Prayer
Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

7. Special dishes and meals are prepared.

Since Eid al-Fitr is a festival that marks the end of a month of fasting, it’s not surprising that food plays a major role in the celebrations. (In fact, voluntary fasting is actually not allowed on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, as Muslims are instead encouraged to feast and celebrate the conclusion of a month of fasting and worship.) Each country has different traditional foods that are prepared before Eid begins or on the morning of the first day; many of these foods are sweets or desserts, but savory dishes are also important. In Afghanistan, a dish traditionally prepared and eaten at Eid is bolani, a type of flatbread stuffed with different fillings like spinach, lentils, potatoes, or pumpkin.

8. Gifts are given.

To celebrate the end of a month of sacrifice and abstinence, Muslims embrace abundance during Eid al-Fitr. This means not only abundant food, but gifts as well. The most common gift at Eid is money, but flowers or goods for the home may also be given. Known as “Eidi,” gifts are most often given to children, who are a special focus during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations.