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Severe drought adds to Afghanistan’s misery and puts millions at risk if the economy collapses

KAJAKI, Afghanistan – Afghan farmer Niamatullah survived nearly two decades of conflict, growing beans, wheat and corn in Helmand province while war raged around him. When he finally decided to uproot his family and flee last month, it was the weather.

One of the worst droughts in Afghanistan in decades has parched the fields of the 38-year-old, who has only one name, and left his crops withered and worthless. He felt like he had no choice but to pack his extended family of 15 into a rented truck and head out to look for day laborers in a less desperate place.

“Our children cry because there is nothing to eat,” said Niamatullah.

Farmer Niamatullah’s family left their home in Kajaki, Afghanistan last month to look for work elsewhere.

This year’s deep drought is exacerbating the economic crisis, which worsened when the Taliban overthrew the previous Afghan government.

Now water scarcity is depressing farmers’ incomes and driving up food bills for people in cities. The drought threatens the livelihoods of up to 9 million Afghans and affects 25 of the country’s 34 provinces, according to United Nations estimates.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, difficult conditions have already plunged 14 million people – more than a third of the Afghan population – into a food crisis. Afghanistan’s current crop is expected to be 15% below average due to the drought, the FAO said.

“This is the worst drought in 35-36 years,” said Richard Trenchard, FAO country director in Afghanistan. “Many public institutions that offer a public safety net have ceased to function,” he said after the Taliban takeover. “Farmers have very little to fall back on.”

Mohammad Amir, a farmer from Dasht-e-Top, Afghanistan, said economic hardship could lead to unrest.


Sune Engel Rasmussen / The Wall Street Journal

Afghanistan is heavily dependent on weather-sensitive livelihoods such as rain-fed agriculture and livestock. Impoverished villagers often lack the capital and technology to switch to more modern and resilient farming methods. Climate change will increase the burden.

Around 12% of Afghan land is suitable for agriculture, but around 80% of the population depends on agriculture for survival, said Samim Hoshmand, a former top climate negotiator with the Afghan National Environment Protection Agency.

“If the drought continues and political instability continues, the future will be a disaster,” said Hoshmand.

The new Afghan Taliban government has so far not presented a plan on how to create jobs or support a population that continues to be impoverished. Anger over the economic hardship could turn into unrest, said Afghan farmers.

“We’ll wait six months. If it doesn’t get better, we will turn against the Taliban, ”said Mohammad Amir, a 45-year-old farmer from Dasht-e-Top, an arid plain in Wardak province west of Kabul. The area used to be famous for its sweet, crunchy apples – but has dried up. A wide river bed that runs along the highway shows no trace of water. Farmers say they haven’t seen snow in 20 years.

Construction of the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province, which, due to the low water level, produces far less electricity than it has capacity.

Drought doesn’t just affect agriculture. The Kajaki Dam in Helmand was built in the 1950s as part of an American initiative modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan through development work.

The Helmand Valley Authority, as it was called, was supposed to promote irrigation and agricultural development along the Helmand and Arghandab Rivers. The US converted Kajaki into a hydroelectric power station in the 1970s, a project that was halted with the Soviet invasion in 1979.


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In 2004, the US restarted the project and refurbished two turbines to supply southern Afghanistan with electricity and displace the Taliban with the appeal of government-sponsored development. In 2008, thousands of mostly British troops hauled parts for a third, 220-ton turbine on trucks across some of the country’s most dangerous areas, but the equipment remained unassembled for a decade until it was finally installed in 2019.

Due to the low water level, Kajaki now produces 6 megawatts of electricity, which is well below its capacity of 51 megawatts, according to Tufan Özcag, program manager of the Turkish 77 Insaat construction company, which is leading the renovation at Kajaki.

Water scarcity has in the past led to conflicts with neighboring Iran, which receives water from the Helmand River after it flows through the locks at Kajaki and across the border.

A dried up river bed in Dasht-e-Top, Afghanistan, where farmers say they have not been able to grow crops for years.


Sune Engel Rasmussen / The Wall Street Journal

Iran accuses Afghanistan of appropriating more than it was supposed to keep under a 1973 water treaty between the two countries. Security officials from the now overthrown Afghan government accused Iran of assisting the Taliban in attacking a dam project under construction in Nimruz province to promote agriculture and irrigation, which Iran fears will choke water and the Hamoun – Drying out wetlands will be on its side of the border.

Climate change could “reduce the flow of critical freshwater across the Afghan borders and possibly increase tensions with its neighbors,” said Oli Brown, senior researcher at Adelphi, a Berlin environmental think tank, and author of a climate risk letter on Afghanistan. It could also speed migration, he said, “and it could encourage farmers in some areas to grow poppies.” Opium poppies require less water to grow than most other crops and can be more lucrative.

In Dasht-e-Top, Wardak Province, farmers complained that they did not have wells and that few wealthy farmers can afford solar panels for irrigation.

The Helmand River is an important source of water for irrigation and electricity.

On one of these solar-powered farms, Rahima Wardak’s son is now picking tomatoes for $ 3 a day, which is the family’s only income. Ms. Wardak, a farmer in her fifties, said that she and her husband grew potatoes, onions and carrots on their own land, but their fields have now dried up. Dead sticks crunched under their feet as they walked between rows of withered apple trees.

“Up until two years ago we could water a garden or two,” said Ms. Wardak. Since then, she complained, the area’s traditional system of underground irrigation tunnels has dried up completely.

“How can our sons be farmers? You have to look for something else, ”said Mohammad Omar Jalalzai, Ms. Wardak’s 70-year-old husband, as he stood between his withered apricot trees.

Farmer Mohammad Omar Jalalzai said he cut the branches of his nearly-dead apricot trees so they would not soak up valuable rainwater that could fall.


Sune Engel Rasmussen / The Wall Street Journal

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]

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