This story was originally published by Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Shazia is only five months old, but she already has the cough of a heavy smoker. Near her crib, in a mud-brick room in a camp for displaced people in western Kabul, sits a line of medicine bottles. The labels are torn and faded: amoxicillin, paracetamol, cefixime, cough syrup. Most are empty. The air has the acrid tinge of plastic, and the corner of a shopping bag protrudes from a small stove in the corner of the room.

Shazia’s father, 25-year-old Salim Khan, offers a resigned gesture towards the battered stove.

“All the children are ill,” he says, speaking through a translator. His youngest daughter has a bad cough, and his 18-month-old son has serious breathing issues too. These issues, he says, are “caused by this plastic smoke.”

Khan’s family is one of roughly 1,200, he says, who live in the Charahi Qambar Camp for internally displaced people, or IDPs, on the western edge of the Afghan capital. Although many of the families have been there for years, widespread fighting in 2021 spurred a fresh influx. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 736,900 Afghans were internally displaced in 2021, many ending up in camps like this one.

Shazia, Salim Khan’s five-month-old daughter, has a persistent cough, likely caused by plastic fumes that come from the family’s stove. Like many families, they can’t afford to burn coal or wood. “All the children are ill,” Khan says. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Life is hard in the Charahi Qambar Camp. At the tail end of winter, nighttime temperatures can drop to freezing, and the winding alleyways between houses turn into a mud bog. Even as rooms and walls collapse due to melting snow, families huddle around the metal stoves that feature in nearly every home. But keeping warm is not as simple as throwing another log on the fire.

A typical bundle of firewood, weighing around 15 pounds, costs the equivalent of just a few dollars. For families teetering on the edge — a 2021 United Nations Development Program report indicated that 97 per cent of Afghans may face abject poverty by the middle of 2022 — even this price can be out of reach. Work is scarce, and Afghan families are often large; it’s not uncommon for a single breadwinner to support 10 or more people, from newborn babies to elderly grandparents.

The most immediate dangers of the stoves are clear: Each winter, hospitals treat numerous patients with severe — and often preventable — burns from curtains that caught alight or stoves that were left unattended overnight.

Families like Khan’s also face health issues from breathing in smoke from burning plastic and other materials. Burning plastics release toxic compounds including phthalates and dioxins. Phthalates have been linked with multiple health issues, from insulin resistance to various reproductive issues, and infants and children may be especially vulnerable. And according to the World Health Organization, dioxins are also linked to problems with reproductive health, as well as issues with the immune, developing nervous, and endocrine systems. Even Afghan families who can afford to buy firewood are still at risk, as scientific research has increasingly shown that wood smoke can be damaging to human health.

Many families in #Afghanistan can’t afford to buy firewood and coal. Instead, they burn whatever they can find. #ClimateChange #Pollution #AirQuality #Plastics

Since conflicts reached a head last summer, many non-governmental organizations are again delivering food, cash, and medical aid to Afghanistan. But Khan, who relies on sporadic labouring jobs to earn a meagre income for his family, says that many in the camp have largely been left to fend for themselves when it comes to heating their homes. No one has given them help for firewood, he says, even though it was one of the biggest problems this winter. “On the radio, we heard that NGOs are giving cash to people, but so far they didn’t give us any cash,” he adds. “Just a small amount of food, which is not enough.”

Qargha Reservoir in winter, on the outskirts of Kabul. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Life inside Charahi Qambar Camp

In 2021, nearly three-quarters of a million Afghans were displaced inside the country, many ending up in camps.

Karim Ahmad Khan is a young community leader living in the Charahi Qambar Camp for internally displaced people. He says few families can afford to heat their homes with anything but plastic. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Small metal stoves, or bukharis, are a source of heat for many Afghan homes. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Without proper heating in the winter, temperatures inside homes can drop to near freezing overnight. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Around 736,900 Afghans were internally displaced in 2021. Many ended up in camps like Charahi Qambar, where they face difficult living conditions. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

A winter evening just outside the Charahi Qambar Camp, on the western edge of Kabul. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

A family endures tragedy

For a family with six young children, an accidental fire brings even more hardship.

On a cold February morning, Sayed Muhammad, who, like many Afghans, does not have a last name, poured what he thought was motor oil into the family bukhari to help ignite wet firewood. But it was gasoline, which engulfed the whole room in flames, he says. He was badly burned. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

The hands of Sayed Muhammad’s nine-year-old after the fire. Two of his sons were badly burned in the accident. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Sayed Muhammad’s eldest son, with a burned hand wrapped in a bandage. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Sayed Muhammad, his wife, and their six young children now live with his brother’s family. The 13-member household lives on the income of that brother, who makes a little less than three U.S. dollars a day. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

Sources of heat

While wood and coal sellers struggle to make ends meet, the price of fuel is too steep for those living in poverty.

Mahmadullah, a young man who runs his father’s coal business in northwest Kabul. “Business is going down about 50 per cent from the past year,” he says. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

A fresh snowfall covers the streets of Paghman District, west of Kabul. For families living below the poverty line, snowfall and freezing temperatures bring a host of challenges. A UN report released last year estimates that 97 per cent of Afghans may face abject poverty by mid-2022. Photo by Kern Hendricks/Undark

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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