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Drought Threatens Afghan Farmers During Uncertain Transition Year

Farmers in Parwan Province prepare a field for crops. Farmers across Afghanistan are worried that an unfolding drought will ruin their livelihoods.

Farmer Abdul Shakur planted green beans in the northern Parwan Province. But the fate of his crop hangs in the balance this year due to a lack of adequate snowfall.

The 65-year-old farmer says his seven-member family depends on his small plot of land, one-third of a hectare, in the Qala-e Khowja village on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Charikar, north of Kabul.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, Shakur says the signs of drought are on the horizon. "I am very worried. I have no business other than farming. We only hope in God. If the water comes, there will be crops. If it does not, there will be nothing.”

He rents the land for roughly $200 a year and says without water he stands to lose about $1,290. He says other farmers can't afford to take the risk. "They are asking why they should spend extra when there is no snow or rain," he said.

An irrigation canal in Parwan Province is drying up because of a lack of snow and rainfall this winter.
An irrigation canal in Parwan Province is drying up because of a lack of snow and rainfall this winter.

Haji Shirin Agha is another farmer in Qala-e Khowja. The 75-year-old has planted his nearly 3 hectares of land with wheat. He is also concerned about a potential drought. “Without water everything will dry up and we will be left with nothing,” he added.

Agha estimates he’ll lose more than $2,570 if the rains don’t come. He says their lands are irrigated by water from the Panjshir River, which is experiencing low water levels due to little snowmelt from the Hindu Kush Mountains.

The fear of drought goes beyond Parwan. Sohbatullah is a farmer in the Bagh-e Shah village of the Argo district of northeastern Badakhshan Province. He pins his hopes on the rainfall that typically occurs toward the end of winter but has yet to arrive this season.

"The drought is having a huge impact. Everyone's eyes are on the sky,” he said, adding that in just a few days without rain, the price for 7 kilograms of wheat went up by a third, from $2 to $3.

Sohbatullah says his eight-member family live off their 1-hectare plot. In good years, he can earn up to $1,550 from his land. But he and other villagers are concerned about this year’s lack of snow and rainfall.

Farmers in northwestern Badghis Province are worried, too. Baz Mohammad lives in the region’s Muqur district. He worries about losing his sheep to the drought. "It is not raining, and it has only snowed three times this year,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The wheat crop has dried up.”

“People are very concerned. They are leaving for Herat,” he added. Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan, has long attracted struggling farmers from neighboring regions such as Badghis.

Lalai is a 51-year-old farmer in the Uruzgan provincial capital of Tarin Kowt. The father of 11 says he could only plant wheat on a small part of his 3-hectare plot because of a lack of irrigation water. "What should I do when there is no water and I can’t afford to do the drilling?” he asked.

Another Uruzgan farmer, Ubaidullah, is the breadwinner for 25 family members. He says the lack of water has forced him to cultivate poppy instead of wheat. Many impoverished Afghan farmers turn to the illegal illicit crop, which typically yields higher profits than any other cash crop. “We’ve cultivated poppies because the wheat does not give us enough income to provide food for ourselves,” he said.

Potential Food Insecurity

La Nina and other climate conditions that drastically impact weather patterns have resulted in several severe droughts in recent decades. Each one has a devastating impact on rural farmers, who often survive on seasonal crop yields and lack the support to cope with unforeseen weather events. The droughts also impact food security in the country of 35 million where dry seasons are typically followed by food inflation and a spike in rural poverty.

A makeshift refugee camp outside the city of Herat shelters thousands of families driven from their homes by a devastating drought in neighboring regions in 2018.
A makeshift refugee camp outside the city of Herat shelters thousands of families driven from their homes by a devastating drought in neighboring regions in 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan experienced one of its worst droughts on record. Based on the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 10.5 million people in 22 provinces of Afghanistan were severely affected.

Afghan officials say they are working to prevent a disaster during a crucial year when international forces may possibly leave, forcing Afghanistan into a major transition.

Anwarul Haq Ahadi, Afghanistan’s agriculture and livestock minister, says that based on current predictions total rainfall may decrease 30 percent in 2021.

“This year we have a shortage of about 1.5 million tons of wheat,” he said about the potential fallout. “Next year, we may have a shortage of 2.9 million tons of wheat.”

Ahadi says his ministry has worked out a three-pronged contingency plan to fight the impact of the drought.

“One is a state of emergency. If grain becomes scarce, the government will help the poor. We are preparing to buy about 200,000 to 250,000 tons of wheat,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We built facilities to increase our imports. And the third part is that international organizations help us every year. And next year they may be helping more.”

In a February press statement, the World Bank said it had approved $97.5 million for Afghanistan to help reduce the effects of drought, improve food security, and mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

“This new financial assistance will help the Government of Afghanistan lessen drought impacts that have displaced millions of Afghans and pushed them into poverty,” said Henry Kerali, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan. “The project’s support to Afghan rural households will contribute to overall poverty reduction and economic recovery.”

But Afghan farmers are fearful that they will see a repeat of the 2018 disaster. Sohbatullah says he has received no wheat or fertilizer from the government.

"My life will be ruined,” he said of the looming prospect of a drought. “There is no work, no income.”

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents contributed reporting from Parwan, Badakhshan, Uruzgan, and Herat provinces.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Mustafa Sarwar

    Mustafa Sarwar is a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi in Prague.