Afghanistan Withered by Drought
By Pamela Constable
The Washington Post, Jan. 21, 2002
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- In the parched fields surrounding Sher Mohammed's mud farmhouse in Helmand province, sprigs of wheat are struggling to break through the soil. But hidden inside his compound is a smaller, carefully tended plot of new plants that will guarantee his survival this season: opium poppies.
"We don't want to plant poppy, but we have no choice," said Mohammed, 60, munching a handful of tender, dandelion-like poppy shoots. "There is so little water that the wheat won't grow well, and cotton prices have fallen by half. But with poppy, we can get 50 times the money. Everyone is starting to grow it again."
A hundred miles east, in the village of Joilahore in Kandahar province, there is not a leaf or a blade to be seen in the vineyards, apple orchards and wheat fields that thrived there until three years ago. The river that once meandered nearby is a bed of stones, and the deep wells dug by wealthier farmers last year have also run dry.
"There is no water and no work here now. Most of the men go into the city looking for work as laborers," said Lal Mohammed, 55, a village shopkeeper, surveying a field of withered grape stumps. A neighbor strode by with a sack, scavenging wisps of straw to feed his cow. He smiled briefly, shouldered the sack and walked on.
While Afghanistan's new leaders are preoccupied with establishing security, consolidating political control and rebuilding the country in the wake of the Taliban's collapse late last year, most rural inhabitants here in the arid south are consumed by a single, urgent issue: how to coax a living from land exhausted by nearly four years of relentless drought. While not causing famine or widespread hunger, relief officials said, the drought has left tens of thousands of families in dire need and with exceedingly poor prospects for the future.
International relief agencies, which had been digging tube wells and providing food aid to the areas most stricken by drought, suspended much of their work and withdrew their foreign staffs last October, when U.S.-led military forces began an intensive bombing campaign against the ruling Taliban militia and the area around Kandahar was convulsed in fighting.
Now that peace has returned, relief programs are starting up again, with food and blankets being distributed to thousands of needy people in towns and some rural areas. But aid officials here said they have lost precious time and will not be able to resume digging wells, vaccinating weakened livestock or providing other drought-related assistance for several more weeks.
"Ninety percent of the people in this region depend on agriculture and have been affected by the drought," said Nigel Pont, a program officer for Mercy Corps, an international aid agency, in Kandahar city. The agency planned to build 132 tube wells starting in November, but the work had to be postponed during the conflict and will now begin next month.
Hardest hit, aid officials said, are internal refugees who have fled from one arid region to another, finding no relief and becoming stranded without the community support systems of home.
"We are trying to get drought victims to stop migrating and stay in one place, where we can provide them with drinking water and short-term jobs for cash until things improve," said Pont. In some remote areas such as Uruzgan province, he said, drought refugees are "barely surviving. People are living under bushes, with no water. It's an absolute disaster."
In settled communities, farmers as hard and tough as the land they till have responded with shrewd pragmatism to the combined impact of long-term drought and recent political upheaval. Some have sold water rights to their wells, some are planting poppies for producing heroin, some are hoarding crops that no longer fetch a profit on the market.
In Helmand province, a once prosperous agricultural area known as the region's bread and cotton basket, growers are already taking advantage of the collapse of the Taliban, which had strictly banned poppy cultivation and virtually eradicated the crop from Helmand last year, according to U.N. anti-drug officials.
"The truth is, everyone is starting to grow poppy again. Nothing else makes sense," said Sher Mohammed, one of several dozen farmers from across the province who met on Saturday with the new governor here in the provincial capital to complain that their cotton and wheat are no longer worth selling.
Outside the meeting, which took place in a guarded mill and warehouse complex, thousands of bales of raw cotton sat unsold. Farmers said that before the coalition assault stopped their trade with Pakistan and other countries, cotton fetched $900 per ton. Today the price has dropped to $500, so the farmers said they have temporarily agreed not to sell it.
But in other areas such as Kandahar province, less affluent to begin with and far more affected by the drought creeping east across the harsh Rigestan desert, hardscrabble farmers who grow a few acres of grapes, pomegranates or vegetables do not have the luxury of waiting for the market to improve or their meager yields to return to pre-drought levels.
Adamkhan, an 80-year-old farmer from Shorandam village, said his four acres of land used to produce about 60,000 pounds of onions at each harvest; this season the parched earth yielded less than 2,500 pounds. Two years ago, as the drought intensified, he invested several hundred dollars in a well, but now it gives water only intermittently, he said.
"When the water dried up, some people went to the United Nations for help, but I was too ashamed to beg," said the leathery, white-bearded man, who was paring sprouts off a pile of onions, his eyes tearing from the tart juice, as he prepared to cart his crop to the bazaar in Kandahar city. "When I bought this land years ago, it was a flower garden," he said. "Now look at it."
In some Kandahar villages, water has become such a precious commodity that it has created a hierarchy of debt between wealthier farmers who can afford to dig deep wells and poorer ones who purchase their neighbors' water by the hour, directing it along a maze of earthen dikes to irrigate their land.
In Joilahore, a once thriving farm community of 500 families that drew abundant water from the now dry river, many farmers borrowed money to pay for hourly well-water rights. But now most wells have run dry, the wheat and grapes have died of thirst, and the men are saddled with debts they must repay by working as laborers in Kandahar city.
Lal Mohammed, who runs a small general store, said he is one of the few villagers left who earns a regular living. Guiding a journalist around the village Friday, he stopped at one dead vineyard whose owner had fled to Pakistan in search of work, then at a dirt yard crawling with children. The family's only possession, a milk cow, munched straw next to her spindly calf.
"The father has 10 children. He is a farm laborer, but there is no water and no work," Mohammed said. "This morning he went to the city in a truck. If he is lucky, he will load carts and come home tonight with 50 rupees," worth about $1.
Half a dozen children gathered around him silently. The oldest girl said they would have bread and tea for dinner, but not milk. "The cow used to give us enough, but she has dried up too," the girl said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company