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Afghanistan: Population Increasingly Unable To Cope With Drought

Afghanistan is in the third year of a sustained drought which is threatening the country with severe food shortages. A UN mission recently visited Afghanistan and estimated that the country will face a shortfall of over a million tons of cereal grains this year. The mission has warned that the most urgent international response is needed to cover the food deficit and avert a humanitarian catastrophe. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with one of the experts who led the mission to learn more about its findings.

Prague, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A UN team has returned from a month-long survey of Afghanistan to assess this year's likely crop harvest and calculate the country's food aid needs.

The mission -- which included experts from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, and World Food Program -- found that Afghanistan faces a much more serious food crisis this year than last year, as the now three-year-old drought in the country continues.

It also found what it calls "mounting evidence of emerging widespread famine conditions," with millions of Afghanis already having sold off their livestock and other personal assets to cope with soaring food prices. Left with nothing, they have no choice but to face starvation or leave home unless they receive outside help.

Turi Fileccia is one of the FAO's agricultural officers who led the mission. He said the team found that both rainfall and snowmelt -- the country's two sources of water -- were both extremely low this year. The result, he says, is an almost total failure of rain-fed agriculture and substantially reduced irrigated agriculture:

"The most severely hit is the northwestern part of the country, where the situation was even worse than last year in some areas. All the western [water] catchment [region] of the country had insufficient snowfall, and this is the main reason [for water shortages there], because the snow recharges the rivers and the rivers charge the irrigation system of the country."

Fileccia continued:

"The eastern part of the country was somewhat better this year, in all the eastern catchment [region] of the country, which goes from north to south. Some central provinces were a bit better off, but all the rest of the country was in really bad shape." The FAO team estimated that in total, Afghanistan will face a domestic grain shortfall for the July 2001 to June 2002 marketing year of some 2.2 million tons.

That is slightly less than last year's record shortfall of 2.3 million tons. The improvement reflects a somewhat better cereal production overall for the country compared to 2000, which was one of Afghanistan's worst drought years in three decades.

But the team says that Afghanis' ability to cope with domestic shortfalls has continued to decline with each successive year of drought. Many now have nothing left to sell in order to buy grain that is commercially imported.

Fileccia says that this year Afghanistan will be able to afford to commercially import only some 760,000 tons of grain. The World Food Program, which is funded by international donors, currently is able to supply Afghanistan with an additional 400,000 tons of free grain, as it did last year. But Fileccia says that will still leave a grain deficit of more than a million tons which, if unaddressed, could have disastrous consequences.

"Last year, the country as a whole was able to cover this gap, because the economic situation of the country was better. This was because of the [opium] poppy economy. [Whereas] this year, without the poppy economy, and with the people already having sold all their assets, they will not able to cover the gap, or deficit. So this year we will really be able to see the effects of the drought in terms of famine in the Afghan population."

This year, the 95 percent of Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is producing no opium poppy crop, following a ban by the militia on its cultivation. The ban in Afghanistan -- which for years produced 75 percent of the world's opium crop -- has been welcomed by international drug control officials. But it has also left millions of rural Afghanis without an income, because the drought has prevented them from switching to more water-intensive crops like wheat.

The FAO mission estimates that the poppy ban will affect some 480,000 farmers and their family members, along with the additional 2.8 million migrant workers and their family members who used to help bring in the poppy harvest.

At the same time, Fileccia says, the loss of taxes that the Taliban previously collected on the opium harvest is likely to diminish the militia's ability to commercially import cereal grains for sale at subsidized prices:

"At the macroeconomic level, there also was an economy which was pushed by the poppy cultivation and is not going to be there [this year]. We do think if Afghanistan last year was able to cover the deficit, it was also due to the poppy economy. Without the poppy economy, they will not be able to cover the deficit this year. We know that the Taliban authorities [previously] were able to put in the market something like 600,000 tons of cereals."

The migrant workers and poppy farmers who once were insulated from the effects of the drought now could be the next segment of Afghan society to have difficulty staving off hunger. They will join millions of other Afghanis in struggling to survive as long as they can by selling their possessions for food. That predicament has already seen many nomads selling off their livestock for slaughter as pasturelands have shrunk. The FAO now estimates that the total livestock population of Afghanistan has decreased by some 40 percent since 1998.

The UN has predicted that as drought and fighting continue in Afghanistan, the number of internally displaced people in the country could grow from some 450,000 today to up to one million by the end of winter. An additional 200,000 have entered Pakistan in recent months as refugees.

The FAO this month issued a special alert to warn UN donor countries of the urgency of the food situation in Afghanistan and to recommend steps for easing it. The recommendations call for additional emergency food aid and for long-term assistance to Afghanistan's rural economy.

The agency says the steps needed include a massive rehabilitation of the country's irrigation infrastructure, which has been reduced by half in the past 10 to 15 years of internal conflict. It also recommends restocking the country with seeds, since locally there are now almost none available after Afghanistan's own rain-fed crops have failed for two consecutive years.

Such aid may be essential not only for preventing famine. It also may be necessary to help assure the Taliban's ban on poppy cultivation holds. Fileccia says his team saw no signs of opium cultivation as they toured the country. But he also says that unless farmers find economic alternatives soon, they may well try to resume poppy growing next year in order to feed their families.