AFGHANISTAN: "State of alert" declared as snow causes deaths, blocks roads

Kabul, January 8 (IRIN): The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) in Afghanistan declared a "state of alert" on 8 January after heavy snowfall killed at least 17 and caused severe road blockages across the country.

"The notice of high alert has been communicated to all 34 provinces and it will remain valid until further instruction," said Mohammad Amin Fatimi, Afghanistan's minister of public health.

"From now on over 30,000 health workers across the country are vigilant round the clock, and are being told to immediately deliver health services wherever and whenever needs arise," he said.

At least 17 people died and over a dozen others were injured after heavy snow hit Herat Province, western Afghanistan, and Ghor Province in central-western Afghanistan on 6-8 January, said Noorudin Ahmadi, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Herat Province.

Minister Fatimi told IRIN the MoPH would be working to alleviate the plight of those affected, and called on the UN and aid agencies to be vigilant and provide support and assistance to the government and affected communities.

Adrian Edwards, a UN spokesman in Kabul, said the UN was aware of the current problems and was ready to help the government and other partners to respond.

Heavy snow fell in parts of the country 4-8 January – up to over a metre in places.

Hundreds evacuated

About 600 passengers stranded in snowstorms on the Kabul-Kandahar highway on 7 January were safely evacuated by police, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of Interior on 8 January.

"From 9pm [7 January] to 2am [8 January] 120 police and 40 vehicles successfully conducted the life-saving evacuation operation," the press release said.

In the west of the country 15 road workers marooned by the snow in a remote location in Herat Province for over 24 hours were evacuated on 8 January, said Habibullah Timory, head of Herat's public works department.

Roads blocked

The main highway which connects Kabul with the north through the Salaang Pass has remained blocked since 7 January due to avalanches and snow, Abdul Matin Edrak, head of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), told reporters on 8 January.

The road between Kabul and Khost and Paktia provinces to the southeast was also reportedly blocked by heavy snow.

Officials in Badakhshan, Daykundi, Bamiyan, Ghor and Logar provinces also said all routes from provincial capitals to districts and within districts had been blocked by snow.

Access to several districts in Herat, Badghis and Faryab provinces was also cut-off, local officials reported.

The Afghan government has contracted several private companies to keep the country's main highways open throughout the winter, ANDMA said. Local councils have also been tasked in vulnerable locations to keep minor roads open.

"We have called on our contractors and local people to immediately start work," said Ghulam Haider, an official at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

Food prices up

The delivery of food and non-food items to a number of already vulnerable locations has been delayed due to the bad weather.

As a result, the price of food and fuel has risen sharply, making it more difficult for low-income families to meet their food and heating requirements, officials say.

Officials in some affected provinces have warned that if roads remain blocked and food and non-food items do not reach vulnerable communities in the near future, the current shortages could lead to a possible humanitarian crisis.