KABUL - More than 160 people have died from the cold in Afghanistan this month in the worst winter in more than a decade, authorities said on Thursday, as residents described being unable to afford fuel to heat homes in temperatures well below freezing.
"162 people have died due to cold weather since January 10 until now," said Shafiullah Rahimi, a spokesperson for the Minister of Disaster Management. About 84 of the deaths had taken place in the last week.
The coldest winter in 15 years, which has seen temperatures dip as low as -34 degrees Celsius (-29.2 degrees Fahrenheit), has hit Afghanistan in the middle of a severe economic crisis.
Many aid groups have partially suspended operations in recent weeks due to a Taliban administration ruling that most female NGO workers could not work, leaving agencies unable to operate many programmes in the conservative country.
In a snowy field in the west of the Afghan capital, children rummaged through rubbish looking for plastic to burn to help their families, unable to afford wood or coal.
Nearby, 30-year-old shopkeeper Ashour Ali lives with his family in a concrete basement, where his five children shiver from cold.
"This year, the weather is extremely cold and we couldn't buy coal for ourselves," he said, adding the small amount he makes from his shop was no longer enough for fuel.
"The children wake up from the cold and cry at night until the morning. They are all sick. So far, we have not received any help and we do not have enough bread to eat most of the time."
During a visit to Kabul this week, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said the world body was seeking exemptions to the ban on most female aid workers that was coming at one of the most vulnerable times for many Afghans.
"The Afghan winter … as everybody in Afghanistan knows is the big messenger of doom for so many families in Afghanistan as we go through these many years of humanitarian need … we see some of the consequences in loss of life," Griffiths told Reuters.
(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield, Editing by William Maclean)