By Sanjeev Miglani
KABUL, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Afghanistan's worst drought in three decades is ending in the north of the country and signs look promising for the impoverished south after snow and extensive rain this winter, U.N. experts and officials say.
Glacier-fed rivers in the north are filling up and farmers planted wheat as early as December when the first rains fell in the agriculture intensive areas of Kunduz, Baghlan and Takhar, experts from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the government found in a nationwide farm survey.
The northern region had already received fair rains last year for the first time since the drought started in 1998 and a recovery had begun.
This year's rains, which have continued through January and this month, have replenished key aquifers in a swath of land stretching from Faizabad in the extreme north east down to Herat in the west.
"So with quite a good degree of confidence, we can say the drought cycle in the north has broken," Raphye Favre, a consultant with the FAO, told Reuters.
He said the crops sown by northern farmers, many of whom have borrowed from moneylenders, would need more rain in the spring, but things looked promising.
Government officials hope an end to the drought might also spur factional fighters to return to farming.
"With the plenty of rain and snow we are getting, we are hopeful a number will go back to their agricultural life," said President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Tayeb Jawad.
"The drought actually pushed a lot of people from their villages and farmlands," he said. "This will be an incentive for them to go back to their traditional way of life. The drought is nearly over in the north."
Militia armies of regional warlords are widely seen as the biggest threat to Karzai's transitional administration as it struggles to enforce its writ beyond the capital.
The crushing drought, exacerbated by conflict, turned much of Afghanistan's fertile farmland into desert, with both surface and ground water resources drying up in mountain valleys and plains for the first time since 1970-71.
Families were forced to sell land, livestock and water pumps and many moved to cities or even neighbouring Pakistan in search of livelihoods.
Orchards withered away for lack of water. More than two decades of fighting in Afghanistan also took a toll, with dams and irrigation networks damaged or completely destroyed.
A U.N. environmental report released last month said the drought had destroyed arable land, lowered water tables, desiccated wetlands and caused widespread soil erosion and loss of wildlife.
Favre said for the first time in four years, there were signs of a recovery in the south, which along with central Afghanistan, took the brunt of the drought.
"Last year, the rains failed in the south. The positive thing now is that rains are covering the whole country, and rivers have started flowing in the south too. We are moving toward a recovery."
Reservoirs have finally started filling again in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, and fields have been sown in Farah and Nimroz. But it will take time for reservoirs which have completely dried up in places like as Kandahar to fill up.
"The surface water is quite good, but when you talk about ground water, aquifers, it will probably take 18 months to replenish," Favre said.
The government says a clear picture in the south will take time to emerge.
Favre said the survey team that toured Zabul, one of the worst affected southern provinces, last month found several villages deserted.
"When we went out to interview the villages, we did not find anybody to interview because the whole population has migrated."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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