LASHKAR GAH -- Aziz Ahmad is a deeply worried man. With two wives and seven children at home, the 30-year-old farmer depends entirely on his opium-poppy crop to make a living.
This year, it's proving to be an increasingly difficult task. First, falling water tables stunted his crop. Then a mysterious blight emerged to destroy most of what remained.
In a normal growing season, Ahmad's 4-hectare plot in the Washer district of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province yields 100 kilograms of opium -- enough to cover his debts and ensure his family's survival over the winter.
This year he managed to bring in a mere 25 kilograms, barely enough to keep food on the table and pay the laborers who harvest his crop and transform it into opium gum, the substance on which the lucrative global heroin trade depends.
Ahmad managed to bring in just a quarter of his usual crop.
Afghanistan produces nearly 90 percent of the world's illicit opium production, harvesting 6,900 tons of opium last year. That means steady income for farmers like Ahmad -- and for the Taliban, which come calling every year to collect tax from poppy growers. Driving Farmers Out
Avoiding the Taliban and the dire consequences he would face for not paying up led Ahmad to leave in search of work in villages around Lashkar Gah, 70 kilometers away.
Speaking to RFE/RL in Helmand's dusty capital, Ahmad says that while the falling water tables are easy enough to explain -- there was less rain this year -- the disease that decimated his poppies remains a mystery.
"Poppies are a very delicate crop and are affected by everything. This disease hit the crop while water was in short supply. Some people say it was because of some sort of pesticide," Ahmad says.
"It first weakens a plant. And the next day the whole plant will just dry up. This obviously affected their yield. When one plant dries up, tomorrow another 10 will wither. Another day, and a whole field will wilt."
The mysterious disease has wreaked havoc on poppy production across the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan. But the problem has hit particularly hard in Helmand, home to a fertile river valley roughly the size of Switzerland that produces nearly half of the country's opium. Mysterious Blight
While the livelihoods of poppy farmers are hit by the loss of opium yield, declining supplies are pushing opium prices higher. This is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in bonus profits for drug lords and the insurgents who have stored hundreds of tons of opium.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who heads the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan, says that "very rough, nonscientific" estimates suggest that around 30 percent of this years' opium production will be lost to the disease. The UNODC is conducting tests to determine the exact nature of the blight, which might be caused by an aphid, fungus, or virus.
But he suggests that perceptions among farmers that the disease is some kind of eradication strategy are "conspiracy theories," unless scientific diagnosis proves it.
Lemahieu says that the decrease in opium production is a "positive," but his office is very concerned about the potential impact the mysterious blight could have on traditional crops, such as apples and wheat, if it were to spread.
The main worry for now, however, is the increasing price of opium. "The prices for the wet opium -- the fresh opium -- has gone up 57 percent since 10 months ago," Lemahieu says. "And that, of course, is a worrying trend because if those prices [keep] on going up dramatically high later on the year when the cultivation is to start, more farmers might be enticed to get opium planted."Taliban Counts Profits
Lemahieu suggests that it's too early to gauge how the disease will affect Taliban fortunes, because the exact impact of the disease on this year's yield has yet to be worked out. But early signs indicate that even a 57 percent increase in opium prices will help in maintaining their war chest, which is partially funded through protecting opium production and trafficking.
But a dramatic rise in opium prices will result in windfall profits for the insurgents. Farmers suggest that the amount of opium the Taliban insurgents collected last year was worth nearly $3 million in the local market. The insurgents are likely to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars because a price increase will multiply the value of their opium stockpile.
Ahmad, the poppy farmer in Helmand, agrees. He says that the Taliban in Washer continues to demand the same amount of opium they collected in Washer last year. He says the insurgents "will lose nothing because they didn't invest anything" in planting poppies and producing opium.
The impact on poppy growers, however, is dramatic -- with hundreds of poppy farming families looking for ways to sustain themselves without incurring the Taliban's wrath. written by RFE/RL correspondent in Prague Abubakar Siddique; contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Aliyas Daee from Lashkar Gah