In the last two decades, Afghanistan has experienced more droughts than ever before. New data suggest that after two relatively good years, the country is facing a moderate-to-high drought risk for the new year 1400 (2021). Half of Afghanistan’s agricultural land depends on spring rainfall, which has become less reliable because of climate change. Annual droughts in many parts of the country will likely become the norm by 2030. On top of this, the country’s population has more than tripled since the 1960s, while arable land has not expanded. The increased frequency of droughts has already made the country more dependent on imported food and pushed more Afghans into food-insecurity. In this critical but under-reported situation, AAN guest author Mohammad Assem Mayar* looks at what measures the Afghan government has taken so far but doubts that their new strategy for years up to 2030 is realistic.Dry water reservoir of the Amir Ghazi Dam in Khak-e Jabbar, Kabul province, constructed under Amir/King Amanullah (r 1919-29). Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).
After two relatively good years (2018/19 and 2019/20), Afghanistan’s current water year that started on 1 October 2020 has shown lower rainfall than normal, both in terms of lower cumulative precipitation and fewer precipitation days. Weather satellites show that, compared to local averages, precipitation from November 2020 to January 2021 dropped by 50 to 75 per cent in the northern and south regions and by 20 to 50 per cent in the critical central highlands (Figure 1) where all large rivers of Afghanistan originate.
For the ongoing winter season, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University predicts a total precipitation decline of about 50 per cent in northern Afghanistan and of about 40 per cent for the rest of the country (Figure 2). Furthermore, the institute also predicts a similar decline of precipitation for the coming spring (Figure 3). This results in a moderate-to-high drought risk for the new year 1400 (2021) that will start on 21 March 2021. This year’s drought situation is related to La Niña, a natural climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean which has huge ramifications for weather all over the world, including floods and drought, depending on the season in which La Niña falls.
The past: Increasing drought frequency
Afghanistan has an arid and semi-arid climate. Its annual water budget relies largely on the winter precipitation in the mountains, which accumulates as glaciers, snow and ice. Meltwater from these natural storages feeds irrigable land through ground level and underground irrigation systems, involving canals and karezes. This ancient irrigation technique mainly used in the southern and some northern provinces taps into the groundwater table in the hillsides with long horizontal tunnels and vertical wells for operation and maintenance. (See an article by the author for the BBC Pashto service about Afghanistan’s karez system here.) The amount of water available depends on the amount of precipitation and stable weather patterns causing the snow and ice to melt more or less continuously into the planting season. The Hindukush mountains in Afghanistan are the source of 80 per cent of the country’s renewable water, flowing to the north-east (the Amu river basin); the north (Northern river basin); the south (Kabul river basin); the west (the Harirud river basin) and the south-west (the Helmand river basin).
Afghanistan has experienced droughts in the past. Before the recent wars that started in the 1970s, droughts have not resulted in famines, despite the lack of reservoirs, due to a much smaller population and sufficient irrigable lands. Farmers were mostly able to manage periods of water scarcity using the karez systems which then were the water source for six per cent of Afghanistan’s irrigated land. Due to recent wars and continued droughts, most karez systems have been destroyed and fallen into disuse.
There was a major investment into irrigation from late 1940s to 1973, when the governments under King Muhammad Zaher launched ten large irrigation systems to manage water, expand arable land and modernise agriculture and its administration as part of a broader modernisation programme. These irrigation systems added 332,800 hectares of irrigable land to the area traditionally cultivated, which made Afghanistan food secure in the 1960s, with a population of less than ten million. (1) Despite these efforts, a severe three-year drought from 1971 to 1973 resulted in famine, during which many people died of starvation. The Afghan government made an unprecedented global appeal for food aid during this disaster. The UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) provided emergency food, medicine and clothing to distressed areas. This drought impacted Afghanistan’s political situation, triggering the resignation of the government of prime minister Abdul Zaher in 1972 after severe criticism for its response to the emergency. Zaher was replaced by Muhammad Musa Shafiq. The crisis even contributed to the collapse of the monarchy in 1973 (read also chapter 6 of this AAN report).
Another severe drought occurred from 1996 to 2001, when Afghanistan was under Taleban rule. Drought was acute in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Uruzgan and Nimroz, where in 2000, the UN estimated there were 2.5 to three million people in need of emergency assistance. Depleted water sources meant the wheat harvest failed completely, orchards dried up and 50-60 per cent of the livestock perished in those provinces. 1998/99 had been Afghanistan’s driest winter for 40 years, according to contemporary media reports, and was followed by another winter of low precipitation. All over the country, the UN said, crop production had dropped to 50 per cent in two years. By 2001, a 230 million USD UN relief programme fed almost six million Afghans across the country. The UN called the most affected areas stretching from north-western Afghanistan through the central Hazarajat to the south the “hunger belt.” There were no official figures on drought related mortalities, but tens of thousands were displaced by the drought in western Afghanistan, with reports of children dying from the heat and dehydration. (2)
Afghanistan’s drought cycle tends to last from three to five years once in a decade, according to water data records for Afghanistan, which started in 1946 in the Helmand basin; the data collection was later extended nationwide. (Find the river discharge data from which this is calculated on this website.) However, in the recent two decades, Afghanistan has experienced droughts twice a decade, in the 2000s in 1996-2001 and 2007-09, in the 2010s in 2011-13 and 2016-18. While there are distinctions between short term and longer term weather patterns, there is no doubt that Afghanistan is already seeing effect of climate change, with its glaciers in rapid retreat (see AAN analysis about disappearing glaciers here). Afghanistan is expected to face more extreme weather including unreliable rainfall and more frequent drought. The main areas affected are the vast lalmi (rain-fed) agricultural lands on the hills of northern and western Afghanistan, the main source of major crops such as rain-fed wheat, sweet melons and water-melons. The ensuing food insecurity will be compounded by a rapidly growing population – currently estimated to be around 35 million, while the amount of arable land stays the same.
The most recent drought, in 2018, directly affected 22 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, more than two-thirds of the country. Around 10.5 of the total 17 million people in these provinces were severely affected, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). (3) In September 2018, 13.5 million people were facing “crisis” or worse levels of food insecurity. Further, according to the global report on internal displacement by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council, drought in 2018 added more than 371,000 new internal displacements, comparable to those being displaced by conflicts.
The present and near future: after a respite, further deterioration
After two good years, the situation is currently deteriorating again. In 2019, with rain or snow falling every week from October to March, all of Afghanistan received about 45 per cent more precipitation with a good temporal distribution, according to weather data. In 2020, Afghanistan received 45 per cent higher precipitation from October to March in most of the country, while the northern and north-eastern parts received 45 per cent less than in normal conditions (1981-2010), according to this Food Security Outlook Update.
In contrast, the current water year (starting from 1 October) had less rain and snow and fewer wet days than under normal conditions, as shown in Figure 1. According to predictions, although February and March will have some wet days, overall levels will be drier than under normal conditions in the same period of the year. With Afghanistan’s dependency on the winter precipitation and its predicted downturn, as well as its lack of dams and reservoirs for retaining rainwater, it can be concluded that the country will face a moderate-to-high drought in the next year 1400 (2021).
Recent research about climate projections suggests that drought risk will be the most significant negative impact of climate change in Afghanistan, with an increasing flood risk being the secondary concern. Annual droughts in many parts of the country will likely become the norm by 2030, rather than a temporary or cyclical event. The drought impacts on agriculture and population modelled by the FAO for Afghanistan are depicted in Figure 4, which shows that almost 90 per cent of Afghanistan will be drought-affected by 2050. Furthermore, the World Resource Institute designated Afghanistan as one of the world’s most serious water shortage countries, projected to suffer extreme water scarcity by 2040.
This author also found that the river flow regime has changed in the recent two decades, with the frequency of both high flow (floods) and low flow days increased in the rivers of the Kabul river basin. (4) This means the number of flood days increased in spring, followed by low flow days in the summer season. For farmers this can be devastating, threatening irrigable lands in the time they need more water. Furthermore, rising temperatures caused by climate change increases the speed with which water used by crops evaporates (and transpires), which in turn increases the amount of water that crops require through irrigation.
Drought is a natural phenomenon, so humans cannot prevent it from ever happening. However, with good governance and management practices, the extent of damage could be managed so that the impact on people’s lives is minimised. Predicting drought is a core component of its risk management, with changing climate patterns and their fallout making seasonal weather forecasts and the prediction of drought a vital affair.
For this reason, during the most recent severe drought in 2018, President Ashraf Ghani sent his advisor Dr Humayun Qayumi to the University of California Irvine to set up an early warning system for drought in Afghanistan. No agreement was signed, as the proposed project did not meet the government’s expectations. In August 2018 President Ghani discussed the establishment of a research centre with professors of Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU). This research centre was officially inaugurated on 31 May 2020 at KPU, but so far little progress has been seen.
In late 2018 the Afghan government also asked the FAO to prepare a drought risk management strategy for Afghanistan in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL). The strategy, an enormous program for the management of drought risk until 2030, was released in February 2020.
The Afghan drought risk management strategy sets the 2018 drought as a benchmark and suggests starting work from the provinces most affected by it. It comprises short, medium and long terms objectives in four types of actions: (i) policy and procedures development; (ii) Institutional capacity improvement; (iii) risk mitigation; and (IV) research, monitoring and evaluation, and knowledge management. These actions are tailored to several levels, national, river basin (cross-provincial), provincial, watershed and local farmland. The strategy also proposes constructing several medium and large-scale reservoirs to increase the country’s water-storage capacity, expand the irrigable area to the potential level surveyed during President Muhammad Daud’s Republic (1973-78), (5) improve irrigation efficiency and crop yield production and modernise the irrigation sector. It is to be executed by the President’s office in collaboration with six sectoral ministries, authorities and their provincial divisions. (6)
The strategy has a comprehensive vision and ambitious goals, but it will be extremely difficult to implement with the time period and resources required. While a strategy stretching to 2030 may seem like a good amount of time, the scale of the problems will require far longer to address. Experience of other developing countries, such as in neighbouring Iran, shows that such ambitious goals require about 40 years of persistent governance, government structures and policies. Many crucial and complex elements in the strategy have barely reached the drawing board, for instance, the planned reservoirs are still neither studied nor designed.
Furthermore, the program requires a tremendous investment of at least 5 billion USD by 2030 (500 million per year) [figure corrected on 4 May 2022]. Although this is not totally new money but includes re-allocations of existing funds, this amount is not feasible in the current situation due to a wider reduction in assistance from international donors. (On latest aid trends and pledges, read this AAN analysis.). The unstable political situation, changing governmental structures and security problems also make this level of investment to a medium-term challenge like drought unlikely, however critical it is. The coordination of contributing ministries, with their parochial interests and mutual jealousies, is not an easy task.
It was made even more difficult by the establishment of National Water Affairs Regulation Authority (NWARA) through a presidential decree issued on 19 February 2020 that abolished the Ministry of Energy and Water. (A separate Energy Services Regulation Authority/ ESRA was also created; see detail on the NWARA Facebook site.) The decree also revoked the water law passed by parliament just three months earlier, with the replacement amendments required for a new law not yet submitted to parliament, leaving a legal gap.
These measures are aimed at putting all water-related sections of the ministries in one office, including the deputy ministry of irrigation from MAIL. However, since the passing of the decree almost one year ago, this has not been accomplished. According to sources in various ministries, the establishment of NWARA occurred without sufficient consultation with stakeholders. The existing drought risk management strategy was also designed in accordance with the previous ministerial structures, so that would also require modifications.
In addition, the drought risk management strategy does not currently figure in the national budget allocation, which parliament still has to approve. Furthermore, the fact that there was no drought in the past two years seems to have led to some complacency.
Despite these challenges, without the sustained implementation of such an enormous program, the risk of drought in the country cannot be managed. The strategy also would enable the Afghan government to request financial assistance from international organisations combatting climate change and deal with natural disaster risk mitigation worldwide. However, Afghanistan’s government institutions still lack the capacity to formulate appropriate proposals and have so far failed to win support from these sources. Previously, third parties such as the FAO, the UNDP and World Bank supported the proposal preparation for donor funds.
One hopeful point is that the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate forces the carbon-producing countries to support climate-change-prone nations. In addition, under the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, developing countries aim to cope with natural disasters globally. Since Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, it can request financial assistance regularly until managing its risks.
With a much needed rainfall predicted for the coming months, the population’s awareness needs to be urgently raised to increase the prospects of rainwater harvest and decrease water consumption. The Afghan government should call on people in all major cities to reduce water consumption and harvest rainwater on the ground or in storages as much as possible. Further, the agriculture planners and farmers should shift toward crops that generate higher revenues per unit of water used in irrigable lands. This would sustain the water balance and help to somewhat reduce the drought risk.
Beyond these urgent short-term measures, the implementation of Afghanistan’s ambitious drought risk management strategy needs to become a political priority. This is challenging given the competing priorities and obstacles, including an unstable political situation, security concerns, lack of government capacity, inadequate financial stability as a result of decreasing aid and the multilateral challenges of reservoir construction. Notwithstanding other reasons, Afghanistan will not experience sustainable economic development until its drought risk is better managed. It will also fail to implement the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, in particular on poverty reduction, the elimination of hunger and the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation for its population.
For Afghanistan, the year ahead will be a challenging one. On top of the ongoing war, peace negotiations, the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary vaccination campaign, the drought risk will worsen the situation. The Afghan government need to begin preparations for drought early, including global appeals for assistance. Otherwise, many Afghans will once again die preventable deaths without access to emergency assistance.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Rachel Reid
* Mohammad Assem Mayar is a water resource management expert and lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is also pursuing his Ph.D. at the Institute for Modelling Hydraulics and Environmental Systems in the University of Stuttgart, Germany. He tweets via @assemmayar1.
(1) The ten projects were, according to a 2008 paper by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU):
- Helmand-Arghandab irrigation scheme in Helmand and Kandahar provinces with 103,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Sardeh irrigation scheme in Ghazni province with 15,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Parwan irrigation scheme in Parwan and Kabul provinces with 24,800 hectares of irrigable land;
- Nangrahar irrigation scheme with 39,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Khanabad irrigation scheme in Kunduz province with 30,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Shahrawan irrigation scheme in Takhar province with 40,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Kelagay irrigation scheme in Baghlan province with 20,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Nahr-e Shahi irrigation scheme in Balkh province with 50,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Gawargan irrigation scheme in Baghlan province with 8,000 hectares of irrigable land;
- Sang-e Mehr irrigation scheme in Badakhshan province with 3,000 hectares of irrigable land.
(2) Jan Heller, “Kein Schnee, kein Brot: Afghanistan zwischen Währungskrise, Dürre und drohender Hungerkatastrophe”, Südasien, Heidelberg, 4/2000, pp 62-64.
(3) FAO, “Afghanistan drought risk management strategy.”
(4) Experts noticed water reduction or low level drought in 2016 and 2017 already, but 2018 was much more intense (analysis of this data in this paper: Mohammad Assem Mayar, Hamidullah Asady, and Jonathan Nelson, “River Flow Analyses for Flood Projection in the Kabul River Basin.” Центральноазиатский Журнал Исследований Водных Ресурсов (Central Asian Journal of Water Research) 6 (1), 2020, pp 1–17, Almaty).
(5) The cultivable land in Afghanistan is estimated at 7.7 million hectares, which is about 12 per cent of the country’s total territory, according to the above mentioned AREU paper (see FN 4). A survey of land use from the 1990s found that 3.2 million hectares were cultivated both as irrigated and rain-fed. Since then no new irrigation scheme has been implemented.
(6) These institutions were, apart from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), the now defunct Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) (see AAN’s overview over the current cabinet here); the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD); the Afghanistan Natural Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MoMP), the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA).
This article was last updated on 4 May 2022