In March of last year, Rabia and her two young daughters were forced to leave their home in northern Afghanistan. While facing the threat of increased violence, their village was also in the midst of a severe drought that strained the water supply and devastated crops. Rabia could no longer raise her sheep, which had provided a steady source of income. She was estranged from her husband and lived with her brother before he was killed in a Taliban attack. She said she depended on his family for additional support. But they were farmers, and without water, wheat, maize, and other crops would not grow. Out of desperation, the entire clan packed up and moved, hoping to find work outside their village.
They eventually settled at a camp for internally displaced persons, Nawabad Farabi-ha located outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In early August, Rabia sat with her daughters on the mud floor of their current home: a one-room structure with mud walls and a thatched roof. Rabia, who like many Afghans, goes by one name, recalled the months leading up to their journey. “The land dried up, and the violence worsened,” she said, referring to the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces. “We had nowhere else to go.”
Rabia and her daughters are among the nearly 500 families at the camp who have fled drought and violence. According to UNICEF, as of October, more than 682,000 Afghans were internally displaced. They left their homes seeking food, work, and safety — but even still, they face fraught decisions. This past February, Rabia’s oldest daughter, 11-year-old Shukria, was betrothed to a man nearly twice her age, in exchange for flour, rice, and cash to sustain her family in the coming years. “I know my daughter is a child, and it was too early for her to be married,” Rabia explained. But without the ability to provide for Shukria and her sister, Rabia said she had no other choice. “It was either her marriage or our funerals.”
Shukria, thin and soft-spoken, did not protest the decision. At the time of the August interview, she was attending a local madrassa in her community to study the Quran. At home, she was learning to cook and sew, she said, “so I can be a good wife.”
Child marriage is not a new phenomenon in South Asia, and despite attempts to legislate against it, the practice remains common across Afghanistan. Reports suggest a spike in such marriages, spurred by the violence that preceded the Taliban takeover, and by the effects of climate change on this agrarian country. Over the past half century, temperatures here have risen nearly twice the amount they have globally, speeding up evaporation and leading to extended droughts. This, experts say, has decreased crop yields and plunged many Afghans into poverty as they are no longer able to make a living from the land. With few viable employment options, some families are turning to a traditional wedding custom known as toyana, whereby money is given to the family of the girl. With little time to spare, these families say, the best available option is a heart-wrenching one: to marry their daughters while the girls are still young.
In exchange for Shukria, the man’s family promised to give Rabia money and goods worth more than $6,000, a princely sum for the starving family. Inside her mud home, Rabia retrieved a small piece of paper, a log of the payments from the man’s family. So far, Rabia said, she had received roughly one-sixth of the toyana in food and medical expenses for her children. “Just basic necessities to survive,” said Rabia. “I won’t give my girl to them until the entire amount is paid.”
Child marriages are not usually documented in Afghanistan and data collection is limited. However, several nongovernmental organizations have observed a rise in child marriages, corresponding with increased periods of drought. In 2018, for example, the worst Afghan drought in a decade affected two-thirds of the country and displaced more people than the growing conflict between the Taliban rebels and the Afghan government. A report from UNICEF that same year noted that “drought has exacerbated the practice of child marriage affecting at least 161 children” from two provinces.
In a separate report published this past June, the Norwegian Refugee Council, which operates programs in displaced persons camps across Afghanistan, wrote that drought-stricken families in need of money had turned to child labor and early marriage. Some allowed their children to earn money by joining the fighting. The situation, in other words, was dire. “Parents have reported giving their children sleeping pills to avoid them asking for food,” the report stated.
“Studies show that there has been an increase in the number of drought and flood events, and since Afghans are largely dependent on agriculture, they are directly affected” by changing conditions, said Assem Mayar, a lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University who studies water resource management. In some regions, precipitation decreased between 1950 and 2010 by as much as 30 percent; meanwhile, Afghanistan’s mean annual temperature increased by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit, approximately double the increase globally over that same period.
“Annual droughts in many parts of the country will likely become the norm by 2030, rather than being a temporary or cyclical event,” warned a 2016 report from the United Nations. “This will mostly be due to higher temperatures leading to higher evapotranspiration and higher crop and livestock water demand.” The International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency that monitors displacement in the region, reports that currently, nearly 3.5 million Afghans are severely affected by drought.
In Shukria’s home province of Faryab, more than 874,000 residents are at risk of displacement due to droughts this year, according to the IOM dataset. “The debt level for households is increasing astronomically,” said Michael Speir, a displacement expert who works at the IOM. These families, he said, “are forced to exercise the worst of all solutions.”
Mayar has extensively studied the region’s changing climate, and is a Ph.D. candidate in water resource management at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. He says that the impact of water scarcity could be mitigated with better planning and infrastructure. Droughts, he said, “don’t have to result in famines and food insecurity.” Spier agreed that better water management would improve the situation, but the current political context presents a challenge to any infrastructure upgrades. The former government and humanitarian bodies responsible for implementing solutions are now defunct or severely downsized.
“The new administration is not capable of managing this situation,” Mayar said. “Most low-level Talibs believe that God created the people and he will feed them. They don’t concern themselves with the ‘how?’ Meanwhile, the high-level Taliban officials have asked for international support in addressing the droughts. But looking at their financial situation, it is unlikely they will secure funds to manage this,” he said, referring to the sanctions implemented by the United States, as well as other countries and international organizations, in the wake of the Taliban takeover. “They can hardly pay the salaries of their government employees,” he added. “How can they help in water management?”
All of this suggests hard times ahead for many Afghans. “The lack of water forced us to leave our homeland,” said Qudratullah, a village elder from Faryab Province who now lives in the Nawabad Farabi-ha camp. Walking past rows of mud homes and clusters of tent encampments spread across the country’s vast northern plains, he described the situation in his hometown, not far from where Shukria and Rabia once lived.
“The debt level for households is increasing astronomically,” said Speir. These families, he said, “are forced to exercise the worst of all solutions.”
“There wasn’t even any drinking water left, so irrigation was out of question,” he said. The dwindling water supply placed a heavy burden on women, whose job was to carry water to the village. As wells began to dry up, the women had to walk further, up to 12 miles in a day to get water, said Qudratullah. They started getting sick. Some complained of problems with their menstrual cycles. “Mentally, they were not doing well,” Qudratullah added.
“When the crops started to fail and livestock began to die, younger boys were pulled out of school and sent to work to support the families,” he continued. “Those who had daughters sold them in marriage.” This was his first experience of displacement, Qudratullah said — a rare claim in a country that has struggled with decades of conflict and crisis. “Even the wars of many decades could not make us leave, but the lack of water has forced us to leave our homeland.”
A 1,000-gallon tank in the center of camp serves as the families’ primary source of water. Donated by the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the tank is perched on top of two-story brick columns. “Some NGOs help pay for the water,” Qudratullah said, which is used for bathing and chores. Drinking water, meanwhile, is provided by families within the camp who had set up small businesses. One father-son team, for example, rented a small rickshaw and about 20 canisters to take into the city, where they purchase drinking water to fill their canisters. Once back at the camp, they sell their water at a small profit.
Shukria was not the only girl in the camp destined for a child marriage, Qudratullah said. At the time of Undark’s August interview, there were several other cases, but families did not wish to talk. “Many of them are aware that it is wrong to marry girls that young,” he explained. But, he added, people need to survive.
Rabia once held big hopes for her daughter’s future, including getting the girl an education. “But I can’t afford to even feed her — this is was our only option,” she said.
“Besides,” she added, “she will be sent to a good family who can take care of her.”
Yet the prospective groom’s family isn’t much better off. They were also displaced by the droughts, according to the man’s father, Mohammad Ismail. The males in the family worked in nearby brick kilns, Ismail said, earning some savings “so we can marry our son to the girl he chose.” Ismail said his son saw Shukria at the madrassa and fell in love with her.
The water resources expert, Assem Mayar, characterized the global climate situation as fundamentally unfair. Afghanistan produces a very small amount of greenhouse gases, he said, and yet its people — including young girls like Shukria — are bearing the brunt of the world’s emissions.