| ||Afghanistan's future is more than just a matter of soldiers and police|
By Emma Graham-Harrison
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Recent devastating floods show that without investment in development and disaster preparedness, efforts to stabilise Afghanistan will come to nought
Sari Pul - A muddy swirl of water was lapping at the operating theatre door before Hashmatullah Stanekzai agreed to suture up his patient's abdomen and stretchered him out. Barely a minute later, the room was scoured by a flash flood that ripped apart the only hospital in northern Afghanistan's isolated Sari Pul province, swept away homes, bridges, roads and acres of crops, and killed at least 19 people.
There had been nothing like it there in living memory, village elders said, but the calamity barely made headlines in Kabul, much less beyond Afghanistan's borders. The meagre coverage was symptomatic of a dangerous lack of interest in Afghan problems not related to the decade-long war, according to experts working on challenges ranging from the chronic malnutrition of millions of children to poor healthcare services and weak irrigation systems.
As foreign troops start heading home, under plans to have all Nato combat troops out by the end of 2014, international efforts to stabilise the country have focused on training its army and police to fight the Taliban.
But if Afghanistan's development problems and vulnerability to natural disasters are not tackled, they risk seriously undermining the multi-billion dollar programme.
"Security isn't just having the Afghan army and police trained and equipped, it's knowing that you will be able to survive, to make a living," said Michael Keating, the deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan and chief of its humanitarian co-ordination. "If you don't make an investment in development, you can have all the soldiers in the world and it's not going to stick," he added during a trip to assess the damage in Sari Pul.
Funding for projects in Afghanistan has already started falling as the departure of troops and strained economies push donor countries to review their budgets.
"I am really worried, resources are really declining," said Wais Ahmad Barmak, the minister for rural rehabilitation and development, after meeting refugees and touring acres of destroyed crops.
"When I compare today even with two or three years ago, there is a huge gap between the way we engage, they way donors respond to our requests my worries are going up, not down."
In Sari Pul hospital, everything from anaesthesia equipment to rows of washing machines was ruined by the flood; whole wards were left unusable and a few pill boxes, half-buried in mud, offered the only remaining traces of months-worth of medicine supplies.
"I've never seen flooding this bad in Afghanistan," said one shocked doctor from the UN delegation.
Down the road, half the nearby village of Asiabad has disappeared, replaced by a jumble of boulders washed down from the hills. Houses, roads, fields – even a three-metre wall around a new school house – were all swept away by the furious waters.
"We climbed into the trees, and I held my son in my arms until the water went down," said 22-year-old Mohammad Naseem, gesturing to a toddler. "All I had afterwards were the clothes on my back."
"There has been nothing like this in my lifetime," said Haji Ismael, a 60-year-old villager. "Even my grandparents never told me about anything like this."
But although Sari Pul's flooding was extreme, it was not unique. A map of natural disasters across Afghanistan in April, provided by the UN's emergency relief arm, showed more than half of the country was hit by flooding, landslides or dangerously heavy rainfall in that month alone, a sign of how pervasive the problems are.
Approximately 65 people were reported dead; there may have been other victims in remote, isolated areas. More than 40,000 people were affected, and more than 4,600 homes destroyed.
Nor was April exceptional; Afghanistan has a long list of interconnected problems, linked to both the decades of conflict it has endured and the country's harsh geography, sprawled across the unforgiving foothills of the Himalayas and prone to earthquakes, drought and flooding.
As much as $57 billion according to some estimates has been spent in Afghanistan on development over the past decade, often as part of projects to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans in Taliban-dominated areas. Many see the limited progress as a painful indictment of waste, corruption and mismanagement.
"After 10 years of unprecedented investment, where has it all gone?" wondered Keating. "You have to ask, why are there still so many people so incredibly vulnerable to disasters like floods and landslides?"
The countryside, which is home to three-quarters of the country's population, bears the brunt of many development problems.
Four out of five people in rural Afghanistan cannot afford to eat the recommended 2,100 calories a day, said Barmak, who at 40 is one of the younger ministers in the cabinet, an affable man with a postgraduate degree in development from a UK university.
"This is a country where only 1% of rural Afghans have access to sanitation facilities. Only 20% have access to safe drinking water," he added.
But Barmak is optimistic about his plans to bring clean water, new roads and better health to the countryside, and sees hope in the desire of many Afghans not for charity, but simply for the tools to improve their own lives.
"They said: 'Don't give us a tent, don't give us a blanket. Do some work that will last'."