Water shortages leave Afghanistan dependent on food aid

News and Press Release
Originally published
Senior Advocate Larry Thompson and Director of Development Scott Schirmer recently completed a humanitarian assessment mission to Afghanistan.
"Water," the farmer in the Bamyan valley in Afghanistan said when asked what he needed. "More water." He pointed to uncultivated fields. "I don't have enough water to plant those fields." The same story was told us in the Shomali plains north of Kabul and in the rain-fed agricultural areas of northern Afghanistan.

The farmers' contention that water is their most important problem is backed up by a study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Persistent drought conditions have forced most farmers to decide how much wheat to plant each season based on the availability of water, not the price of wheat."

According to climatic records, precipitation in Afghanistan has declined for forty years. For example, annual precipitation averaged about 14 inches (350 mm) in Kabul in the 1960s. In the 1990s the average annual precipitation in Kabul was about 10 inches (250 mm). Whether these unfavorable climatic changes will endure is unknowable, but droughts and years of insufficient rainfall in Afghanistan have become more frequent. Small declines in precipitation or irrigation water can be catastrophic for poor farmers attempting to eke out a living on marginal lands. In a country in which 70 percent of the people depend upon agriculture for at least part of their livelihood, the availability of water is crucial.

2003 was a banner year for agriculture in the northern two-thirds of Afghanistan as precipitation was at 1960s average levels and farmers reported bumper yields of wheat and other crops. 2004 will be less favorable, which means hungry people and a need for increasing amounts of international food aid.

Southern and western areas of Afghanistan have been impacted by an unbroken drought since 1999. Irrigation water for crops continues to be in short supply and the region's pastoral economy has been devastated. Irrigation water is scarce, wells have dried up, vegetation has disappeared, and flocks of sheep and goats have died. Range land is so degraded by drought in the south that three or four years of good rainfall may be needed for recovery.

In the dry-land farming area of northwestern Afghanistan, wells must be sunk about 50 meters to find often-brackish water. Based on recent records of decreasing vegetation, this already-poor region may be undergoing desertification. This year, drought has also reached back into some parts of the central highlands of Afghanistan, the Hazarajat region. The NGO Action Against Hunger reports that 75 percent of arable land is unused in some parts of this region due to lack of water and that even drinking water is in short supply. Many of the residents are contemplating migration to the city of Herat, where they would probably end up in the Maslakh displaced person camp.

Also impacting food production has been the explosion in opium poppy growing since the fall of the Taliban. Poppies have become a major cash crop in many rural areas. Poppy cultivation has absorbed much rural labor and resources leading to a rise in wages and contributing to a construction boom, financed by narco-dollars, in much of the country. The government's eradication programs, however, plus an infestation of worms killing some of the poppy crop in the central highland region, may have dampened some enthusiasm for poppies as a cash crop.

The World Food Program has large programs of food distribution for both emergency assistance and economic recovery in Afghanistan. A recent national survey indicated that approximately five million people -- about one third of the rural population -- are food insecure. A field assessment by WFP and FAO of food needs for the remainder of 2004 was delayed because of a lack of FAO resources, but is now underway. The expectation is that more food will be needed this year for emergency distribution.

In the three years since the fall of the Taliban, international aid for agriculture has focused mostly on short- and medium-term objectives in Afghanistan. Agricultural experts also advocate long-term policies for Afghan agriculture, such as shifting away from growing irrigated wheat, Afghanistan's most important crop, into production of more valuable crops. Farmers in high-altitude mountain valleys like Bamyan already seem to be shifting away from wheat in favor of growing potatoes, forage crops like alfalfa, and timber for the burgeoning construction industry in the cities. A new strategy for range management will also be forthcoming shortly.

For the foreseeable future, large quantities of food assistance will continue to be needed because of water shortages. The growing demand for water matched against its scarcity argues in favor of careful national policies for utilizing water wisely. Good rains in northern Afghanistan in 2003 enabled huge numbers of refugees and displaced persons to reestablish themselves as farmers on land they had abandoned because of civil war and drought. Their ability to continue to remain on their land will depend in large part on the availability of water for their crops.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • Donors be prepared to pledge additional food resources to the World Food Program this year to provide food to additional people impacted by drought.

  • UNHCR and other agencies be alert to the possibility of displacement of people due to drought conditions in the Hazarajat (central highlands) region.

  • Afghan government agencies, international organizations, and aid donors come together to develop long-range water policies and research priorities. Potential activities include: monitoring snowfall as an early predictor of water availability for irrigated agriculture; rangeland recovery and promotion of ecologically acceptable livestock production; improvement in irrigation practices to preserve water; study of groundwater resources; and promotion of new crops which are commercially viable and economical in water usage.