While the nations of the world come together at the COP26 to seek solutions to climate change, Afghanistan is already suffering from global warming. One of the worst droughts in recent years has caused rainfed wheat crops to fail, led to plummeting livestock prices and shortages in drinking water. 19 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – are severely food insecure and require urgent assistance. AAN guest author Mohammad Assem Mayar,* a water resource management expert, maps out the severity of the drought and its effect on people and agriculture, explains how climate change will make drought in Afghanistan more common and looks at what should be done to mitigate their harm. A family leaves their home because of drought in Badghis province. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP, October 2021
Highlights of the report
- Afghanistan is experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last two decades. Conditions are particularly severe in the south, western and northwestern parts of the country. Water resources in these regions are severely reduced – a major factor behind 19 million people – nearly half the country’s population – at crisis levels of food insecurity and poverty.
- The report maps out the drought and its affects, with detail on snow and rainfall, vegetation cover, groundwater and river flows, harvests and livestock.
- While drought is a frequent and devastating phenomenon in Afghanistan, climate change is making for more regular and more severe droughts, with the current drought worse and more widespread than the last one in 2018. According to the Afghanistan drought risk management strategy, by 2030, annual droughts in many parts of the country will likely become the norm, with weather prediction models warning of continued drought conditions in 2022.
- The recent success of the UN-led fundraising efforts for Afghanistan will be critical to helping families already pushed into poverty if assistance can reach them.
- However, humanitarian aid will not address the underlying issues that leave Afghanistan vulnerable to climate change-related shocks. There is a need to build and – and re-build – Afghanistan’s national disaster mitigation and management infrastructure, with particular effort to create effective watershed management mechanisms. Harvesting rainwater during the wet season and directing it to the groundwater aquifers would go a long way in moderating water shortages during future droughts. Afghans should take local action to build small water conservation ponds or groundwater recharge schemes. Employing new techniques such as drip irrigation and cultivating different varieties of crops can increase revenues per unit of irrigation water.
An overview of the current drought in Afghanistan
The occurrence of the La Niña phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean at the end of 2020 has meant that Afghanistan and some of its neighbours have experienced a drier and warmer than normal wet season from October 2020 to May 2021. The entire Central Asian region and further west to Iran and Turkey have experienced a considerable reduction in snow and rain compared to previous years. For Afghanistan, where the annual water supply relies largely on winter precipitation in the mountains that accumulates as glaciers, snow and ice, this has resulted in one of the worst droughts of the past two decades.
According to the World Bank, some 70 per cent of Afghans live in rural areas, and millions depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods (see here). Meltwater from glaciers, snow and ice in the mountains – which act as natural stores – feeds irrigable land, rivers and reservoirs. Water shortages, this year, have devastated Afghanistan’s agriculture and pastures and led to water scarcity for human consumption. For example, in 2021, rainfed wheat crops have failed in much of the northern regions; the country’s hydroelectric dams are performing at far below usual levels; many drinking water wells have gone dry in Kabul due to dwindling groundwater levels and children are having to queue for hours at deeper wells, often far from their homes (as observed by this author).
The current drought was expected, with predictions and warnings given by a range of experts as early as the beginning of 2021 (see this AAN report). While reports pointed to both the predictability and severity of the drought already taking hold in rural areas, the former government only declared drought conditions on 22 June 2021 (see, for example, here and here).
This report provides a comprehensive picture of the spread of the drought and the areas most affected by it. It analyses its severity and impact on different sectors of the economy and the Afghan people. The author also offers an update and commentary on responses to the crisis now and likely responses in the future.
The severity of drought in Afghanistan – a breakdown
According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s (FEWS NET) snow cover monitoring maps, the shortfall of snow depth in Afghanistan on 1 March 2021 was even more extreme than in 2018, the third-worst drought in the last two decades. In this section, the author compares the current year’s data both with historical averages and the 2018 drought (see the past drought maps of Afghanistan here).
Figure 1 depicts the snow depth anomaly (the difference between existing snow depth and long-term average conditions) on 1 March 2021 and 2018. As seen in the 2021 map, accumulated snow depth decreased by up to two metres in Afghanistan’s mountainous areas. The highest snow deficit is recorded in the central Hindu Kush mountains, where all of Afghanistan’s major rivers originate (especially in the east, where total precipitation is usually highest). In the same period in 2018, although drought was severe across much of the country, the overall reduction in snow depth was not as bad as in 2021 (as seen in the maps’ brown sections) and in some areas, the snow depth had increments. In other words, the shortfalls in 2021 were more severe and more widespread.
The watershed division in the 2021 map shows the highest snow reduction occurred in the Kukcha River basin, which drives accelerated melting of the glaciers that store water in the Hindu Kush mountains. Less snow cover leaves the glaciers exposed. As a result, they melt faster, reducing water resources for future years. The 2021 map shows that the Kabul and Helmand River basins and the Kunduz and Harirud River catchments received less snow than usual, while snowfall was also low across the northern parts of Ghazni and southern parts of Faryab and Samangan provinces. Only Sar-e Pul province received above-normal snow (see the blue-green spot on the 2021 map).
A reduction in snow accumulation over winter decreases overall water volume and its distribution throughout the year. Figure 2 shows snow water volumes – the amount of water in existing snow in the catchment – for the Helmand sub-basin in 2021 compared to 2020, 2018, and the long-term average, maximum and minimum circumstances, based on data since the year 2000. As can be observed, the snow water volume in January 2021 is significantly lower than the usual average and at record lows from February 2021 onward, amounting to only 22 per cent of the usual snow water volume in the basin on 4 March. Water from the sub-basin drains to the Helmand River, then crosses the border to Iran (and is at the root of a century-old conflict between the two countries, see here and here).
Snow piling up in the peaks and valleys of Afghanistan’s mountains serve as natural reservoirs, storing water over the winter and slowly releasing it during spring and summer melts. The snow melts from March to June in the south and west of the country. There, the current snow deficit has resulted in lower river flows. This process is slower in the east as glaciers formed by snow feed the rivers continuously. River flows in the eastern regions were not considerably reduced in 2021 because continued glacier melt delays the impact of the drought; there the effect of the drought is less dramatic but longer-lasting, owing to the shrinking of the glaciers. However, higher than normal melting of the glaciers in 2021 will gradually reduce river flows in the east in the coming years. Nearly 14 per cent of the total area of glaciers was lost between 1990 and 2015 due to climate change and increased droughts in the past two decades. (For more details about glacier melt, read this AAN report.)
Melting water from the (already reduced) snow in central Afghanistan’s mountainous regions flows first to the agricultural areas nearest the sources of the rivers. This year, even irrigated areas in the central region had reduced water levels. The remaining water flows to the lower parts of the country, including significant agricultural regions, where the volume of water in the rivers is even lower.
In addition to winter snow, precipitation from March to May plays a crucial role in Afghanistan’s agriculture. In March 2021, Afghanistan received above-normal precipitation, which led many in the former government and the public to believe that the early winter’s extreme drought conditions had ended. However, April and May saw drier than normal conditions in most parts of the country. Figure 3 presents the spatial distribution of cumulative March to May precipitation in 2021 and 2018. As these maps show, the country’s western half was most drought affected in 2021.
Precipitation in the March-May period is mostly rain rather than snow. Unlike snow, which is stored in the mountains, rainwater washes away quickly, with lower capture for agricultural needs and groundwater recharge, and exits the country swiftly. In the absence of reservoirs to retain rainfall, most of the water is lost quickly in spring. According to the streamflow lag time map(Figure 4) developed by FEWS NET, surface water leaves Afghanistan in two to 14 days, depending on the length of the river basin.
Research by this author and a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report show that shifts in precipitation patterns in Afghanistan from earlier snowfall in colder winter seasons to heavy rainfall later in the year result from global warming and climate change. Managing these changes in precipitation patterns would require the construction of several reservoirs to control floods and stabilise water supplies in line with the country’s demands.
In 2021, Afghanistan was hit with both reduced winter snowfall and below average spring rainfall in the west, resulting in low river flows and insufficient water in existing reservoirs and dams. Water levels in Dahla and Kajaki reservoirs, and the recently constructed Kamal Khan diversion dam, located in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, respectively, remain well below capacity (see this Facebook post by Khan Mohammad Takal, Former Director of National Water Affairs Regulation Authority – NWARA).
Figure 5 depicts the streamflow graph for the lower Helmand station in 2021 in contrast to 2020 and normal circumstances. This graph shows a significant reduction in river flows in 2021 to extremely low levels (the green line), with shortages reportedly affecting Afghanistan and Iran – Tehran has accused Afghanistan of cutting off its water supplies from the Kamal Khan dam reservoir (see this Pajhwok report).
Impact of the drought
Drought-induced water scarcity affects agricultural productivity, livestock production, the availability of drinking water and the capacity of hydroelectric power plants. In Afghanistan, agriculture, which consumes most of the water, is most severely affected.
Impact on agriculture, pastures and orchards
The Vegetation Health Index (VHI) is a measure used to determine agricultural land conditions; it looks at the growth of leaves of plants and trees using satellite imagery. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the VHI shows that growth across rainfed and irrigated agriculture in most parts of the country has been harmed. Afghanistan’s cropland VHI for April 2021 (Figure 6) was poor in the northern, western, and southwestern areas due to reduced precipitation from March to May 2021. In the eastern and northeastern provinces, which received more precipitation over that period, measurements were more positive, with irrigated areas appearing to be more resilient to water shortages and leaves growing normally.
Although VHI measurements for irrigated orchards were positive, they were impacted by the warmer weather in January and February 2021, followed by severe rainfall and colder weather in March. These conditions negatively affected tree blossoms, leading to a considerable drop in orchard and garden yields. For instance, several farmers in the Chak district of Wardak province told the author that their apple orchards had been severely affected by winter temperatures and precipitation anomalies in 2020-2021 and their yield will be significantly lower this year. They said much of their district was similarly affected.
As seen in Figure 6, the VHI is worst in the lower-lying and northernmost rainfed (lalmi) areas from Herat in the west to Balkh in the north. In these areas, data represents mostly rainfed ‘winter wheat’ cultivated in the autumn of 2020 and expected to grow in the spring of 2021. Some small areas in the south and north had higher VHI values, which may represent solar irrigation using groundwater – a recent practice in these areas. In Samangan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar and some parts of Sar-e Pul above average precipitation resulted in stronger agricultural growth.
According to the Crop Monitor’s September 2021 Global Agricultural Monitoring (GLAM) report, the winter wheat season failed in the northern and southwestern provinces, meaning the seeds sown at the end of the previous season failed to yield in spring. The report also pointed to poor wheat-growing conditions in central Afghanistan and warned that irrigated agriculture would deliver lower-than-average yields owing to water shortages. The Ministry of Agriculture also estimated that the wheat yield would fall by 20 per cent due to the drought (see this TOLOnews report). In September, the FAO warned of an expected 25 per cent deficit in national wheat yields.
According to estimates, Afghanistan’s total wheat demand for 2020 was 6.4 million tonnes; 5 million tonnes was produced domestically and 1.4 million tonnes was imported. (See this Hasht-e Sobh report). Due to the drought in 2021 and the 25 per cent deficiency in national wheat production, the country will need to import 2.65 million tonnes of wheat.
In addition to cropland and orchards, as shown in Figure 6, the drought has devastated pastures, the main food source for livestock, particularly in the west and parts of the north. The drought’s impact on pastures corresponds to its effect on agriculture, with the main pastureland in the northern and southwestern provinces most severely affected.
Decline in groundwater recharge
The decline of precipitation, especially snow, also had repercussions for groundwater, the primary source of drinking water in urban and rural areas. According to a report by Pajhwok news in June, the groundwater table (meaning the level of the water naturally stored underground) in Kabul city had dropped by 12 metres in 2021 alone. Extensive groundwater extraction upstream of the Afghan capital in Wardak and Logar provinces using solar energy-driven pumps for irrigation is partially to blame for this rapid decline. In March, Afghanistan’s National Water Affairs Regulation Authority (NWARA) announced they would disable about 80 irrigation wells around Kabul city to address the water shortage and the declining water table (see Neshana News here). However, it is not clear if this ban was implemented. Furthermore, in June 2021, the author observed Kabul Polytechnic University staff using sewage waste and street water, both of which are highly acidic and harmful as they contain soap and various chemicals, to irrigate trees and shrubs. The use of unfiltered wastewater for irrigation in populated areas is prohibited due to public health concerns and its unpleasant odour. Furthermore, while wastewater is filtered by surrounding soil (which may eventually lose its filtration capabilities in the long term) before it reaches the deep roots of large trees, it can dry out shrubs and small plants.
In addition to the groundwater deficit in major cities, there have been reports of drying irrigation wells in rural areas, for instance, in April 2021, Radio Azadi reported on the impact on wheat fields in Uruzgan province.
A drop in hydroelectric power capacity
Another consequence of the drought is a drop in Afghanistan’s capacity for hydroelectric power. While Afghanistan imports most of its electricity, major dams such as Naghlu in Kabul province and Kajaki in Helmand are significant to the domestic supply. Both reservoirs currently have low water levels because of the drought, drastically reducing their capacity to generate electricity.
The branch of Afghanistan’s power company (De Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat – DABS) in Helmand province reported in early September that owing to the drought and the subsequent decline in water levels in the Helmand river basin, the power generation capacity of the Kajaki hydropower plant was down by about 85 per cent, resulting in electricity shortages in Kandahar and Helmand (see images here and here).
Furthermore, as the impact of the drought spreads across Central Asia, the severity of the current drought and predictions that such droughts will become more common bring into question the viability of the current energy strategies of some Central Asian countries that rely on unpredictable water supply. Tajikistan has announced that it will reduce electricity exports to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and severe electricity shortages in Kyrgyzstan, which relies heavily on hydropower, have also affected its export plans (see RFE/RL here). However, Turkmenistan may partially fill these import gaps over time, having expanded its gas-powered electricity generation capacity (see here and here).
Implications for people and the economy
Afghanistan’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, with about 70 per cent of Afghans living and working in rural areas, mostly on farms, and 61 per cent of all households relying on agriculture for their livelihoods (see this World Bank report). This means declines in crop yield restrict access to typical sources of food and income, especially for those in rural areas. The impact of the drought on agriculture and livestock has intensified already severe food insecurity. According to the FAO, wheat makes up half of the average Afghan’s daily caloric intake. A poor yield one year has an impact not only on the food supply that year, but also on the ability of farmers to plant the following year. In June, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) warned: “12.2 million Afghans, 32 per cent of the population, now face ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ levels of food insecurity – placing Afghanistan among the top three countries in the world with the highest number of people in emergency food insecurity and already exceeding levels seen during the 2018-19 drought.”
The reduction in pasture and thus animal feed has resulted in declines in livestock quality and prices in the worst-affected areas, as farmers unable to afford commercial feed sell their animals as soon as the pasture season ends. People typically purchase young livestock in March and April, the delivery months for most farmed animals in Afghanistan. They feed these animals in nearby pastures and grassland and sell them for a higher price in the autumn and early winter. However, during a drought, as fields yield lower feed, the animals are sold earlier, resulting in a drop in market prices. According to FEWS NET’s July 2021 update, household incomes from livestock sales were lower than last year and below average in impacted regions, owing to decreased livestock prices, which were anticipated to fall even further in the following months. The most extreme price drops were seen in Herat and Badghis provinces in western Afghanistan, where the price of livestock decreased by more than 40 per cent from March to May 2021. In May, prices were still 20 per cent below average. The Head of the FAO’s Emergency and Resilience programme, Kaustubh Devale, reiterated the threats facing livestock owners in a September interview with the US Public Radio news programme The World:
For example, in the Injil livestock market, which is one of the big livestock markets, prices of livestock had already started going down and the prices of fodder and feed were almost doubled even in March, when the pasture availability should be high.
The impact of the drought on communities can be far-reaching, as Danish Refugee Council’s (DRC) Country Director for Afghanistan, Jared Rowell, stated: “It will take a farmer or herder at least three years to recover from the impact of drought. However, within this period, families will have already resorted to negative coping mechanisms, some of which may be irreversible.” Such coping mechanisms can include borrowing money that the family cannot pay back, sending boys to work to supplement the family income instead of to school, and giving daughters in early marriage.
According to the FEWS NET report published in July 2021, food security levels across the country were at “stressed” and “crisis” levels and were expected to deteriorate even further in the worst-affected rural areas between July 2021 and January 2022. In August, WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley told Reuters that Afghanistan was “marching towards starvation” and raised concerns about the agency’s emergency food stocks. In September – as conflict and economic collapse compounded the worsening drought – 14 million people, or one in three Afghans, and by October, an unprecedented 19 million Afghans were reported to be “highly food insecure due to prolonged drought, conflict and economic collapse” (see here and here).
“Afghanistan is becoming the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with needs surpassing those in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen,” announced the WFP in a 25 October press release. It cited the IPC assessment (the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), a global standard for assessing food insecurity: “22.8 million people could face acute risk, while 8.7 million face emergency levels of hunger – a record in the ten years the UN has been conducting IPC analyses in the country” (see also this UN press release).
Alongside food insecurity, the drought is expected to lead to further displacement of people, both within Afghanistan and across the country’s borders. According to an International Rescue Committee (IRC) assessment published on 15 June 2021, severe drought is expected to trigger high levels of displacement, destroy livelihoods and exacerbate the hardships already facing families as a result of conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic. During previous drought years, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and moved into the cities searching for work and charity. In 2018, for instance, according to the IRC, more than a quarter of a million Afghans were displaced by drought. Many did not return home because they had nothing to go back to – they had sold their livestock and had not planted for the next season.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned on 9 September 2021 that in a worst-case scenario, 97 per cent of Afghans could be plunged into poverty by mid-2022. Even in a best-case scenario (which does not seem likely), the country would still see poverty increase by 7 to 15 percentage points. According to UNDP: “In addition to a prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan is contending with the upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, collapsing public finances, increasing pressure on the banking system, and rising poverty.” (see also AAN’s report on the economic crisis).
With so much of the country already at crisis levels of food insecurity, timing is of the essence. The response to the drought requires humanitarian action to alleviate the suffering of Afghans who have been pushed into poverty, but it also necessitates steps to address longer term infrastructure and institutional deficits that have left Afghanistan’s population highly vulnerable to changes in precipitation as a result of climate change. Neither of the two strands can be separated from the broader economic and political crisis Afghanistan. Relief efforts should support those who have lost crops and livestock over the winter and through the lean spring season to ensure planting in the spring and support farmers until the summer harvest allows them to get back on their feet. While humanitarian action may alleviate urgent needs, but it does not offer the kind of investment needed to build more drought-resilient systems that are so desperately needed (see Afghanistan Drought Risk Management Strategy here).
With the collapse of the Republic, and as the international community rethinks the scope and scale of their future engagement with Afghanistan’s new leadership, donor support has, at least for the time being, halted. This includes fund significant drought prevention and water management projects such as the 222.50 million USD World Bank project to develop early warning and response systems, the Asian Development Bank’s Arghandab Integrated Water Resources Development project and the Afghanistan Drought Early Warning Decision Support (AF-DEWS) Tool, which was in a test phase all are now off the table and face an uncertain future.
Despite predictions of drought, the former Afghan government did not include drought risk response in its annual budget plan for the 2021 financial year, nor did it announce and operationalise a response plan before it fell to the Taleban.
The 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), launched in January 2021, sought 1.3 billion USD to support the humanitarian needs of 15.7 million Afghans who were in need of assistance as a result of drought, the conflict, political upheaval, the COVID-19 pandemic. On 15 July, one month before the fall of the Republic, the HRP was less than 40 per cent funded, a shortfall of 850 million USD (see here).
On 13 September, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, convened a conference to mobilise international support for the UN’s flash appeal seeking 606 million USD in humanitarian aid for the remainder of 2021. At the meeting, funds in excess of 1.2 billion USD – almost double the appeal’s target – were pledged in what Guterres called a “quantum leap” in commitments to alleviating the suffering of many Afghans while cautioning that such assistance “will not solve the problem if the economy of Afghanistan collapses.”
The European Union pledged 57 million Euros (65.5 million USD) in humanitarian support and stated on 2 October 2021 that “additional humanitarian funding will be made available [for] interventions … focus[ing] on providing emergency health care, shelter, food assistance, access to clean water and sanitation facilities, as well as various protection services targeting women and children.” Later during the G20 summit in Italy on 12 October 2021, it pledged 1 billion euros (1.15 million USD) to Afghanistan and its neighbours; that included 300 million euros (346 million USD) that had been committed earlier to Afghanistan to avert humanitarian collapse. On 28 October, the United States announced nearly 144 million USD in “new aid to those affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” bringing the total US assistance for Afghanistan in 2021 to nearly 474 million USD.
In addition, to facilitate humanitarian support to Afghans in need, the US Treasury Department issued two licenses on 24 September 2021 authorising the US Government, UN and other non-governmental organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and undertake activities that support basic human needs, such as the provision of agricultural commodities and medicine. This was a critical step in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the face of US sanctions, which were choking the flow of aid to Afghanistan (see AAN’s report here). On 9 and 10 October 2021, an interagency US delegation met with senior Taleban representatives in Doha to discuss various issues, including the “provision of robust humanitarian assistance, directly to the Afghan people.”
Support has also been forthcoming from Afghanistan’s neighbours. Kazakhstan has donated 5,000 tonnes of wheat flour to Afghanistan. Before the collapse of the Republic, India had pledged 150,000 metric tonnes of wheat as part of its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Fulfilling this promise seemed less probable after the takeover of the government by the Taleban. However, India has now announced that it would send 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan in response to the food crisis.
The drought has been on the Taleban’s radar for some time. In February, during the dry winter, the Taleban called on the publicto perform ṣalāt al-istisqa (rain prayer). On the diplomatic front, the humanitarian crisis caused by the drought has loomed large in the Taleban’s attempts to forge diplomatic relations with the country’s western donors, since the group took control of the country on 15 August 2021 (see this Al Jazeera report).
The Taleban have made clear their willingness to allow, and even facilitate, the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In a letter to the UN in mid-September, they appealed for international support, guaranteed humanitarian access, and committed to providing security to humanitarian actors when needed. However, currently, neither the NWARA, which is now part of the re-formed Ministry of Energy and Water and is responsible for drought mitigation, response and management (for more detail about this change, read here) nor the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, which is responsible for the post-disaster response and recovery, is fully functioning. The Ministry of Energy and Water is busy restructuring the ministry after it was split to the two National Water Affairs Regulation and Energy Services Regulation Authorities in March 2020. The Taleban have appointed an acting deputy to the previously ineffectual National Disaster Management Authority in an apparent attempt to revive it; Haji Ghulam Ghaws met representatives from various UN agencies and NGOs on 13 October to discuss plans for the upcoming winter.
The next challenge is actually spending aid in a timely and transparent way to reach the people in need. The Taleban takeover shattered the organisational structure of the Afghan government and undermined the operational capacity of many of its international partners. Specifically, donors and aid agencies face the challenge of how to work in a Taleban-controlled Afghanistan where many of the systems previously used to deliver life-saving aid are at best severely impaired. A number of UN agencies (including the FAO, UNHCR, WFP, and IOM) and humanitarian NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and Organisation for Relief Development (ORD) are still operating in most parts of Afghanistan and can assist reaching families in need. Discussions about whether and how donors can continue humanitarian and development funding (see this AAN report) are ongoing. Will coordination with provincial and district government offices still be a viable option? Will the aid agencies continue to be able to utilise existing local organisations, such as community development councils, to target and distribute aid? Will they repeat the 2018 mistake of drawing people into unmanageable displacement camps by making them distribution centres for aid?
Recent climate prediction models suggest the La Niña will reoccur this winter, starting from October, indicating continued drought conditions for another year in Afghanistan. Seasonal predictions for the coming months show that the remainder of 2021 will be very dry, with lower than average precipitation (snow and rain) continuing into January and February of 2022. By March 2022, some precipitation is expected but it will not be enough to stave off another year of drought. More accurate predictions through May 2022 will be available at the end of 2021, but already it is clear that another drought year is on the horizon. Furthermore, climate projections show that in the future, droughts are likely to become more frequent and harsher. According to the Afghanistan Drought Risk Management Strategy, annual droughts in many parts of the country are likely to be the norm by 2030, and by 2050 nearly 90 per cent of the country will be drought-affected.
Droughts do not automatically lead to suffering. They only cause suffering when a country lacks the economic resilience, infrastructure, institutions and political will to manage their (entirely predictable) environmental impacts. As the emergency response ramps up, the longer-term picture is much less clear. To prevent repetitive drought-induced emergencies, there needs to be a focus on longer term solutions.
Building (and re-building) the country’s irrigation infrastructure, water reservoirs, drinking water systems and climate-monitoring technologies are not part of what would traditionally be classified as humanitarian aid and are not exempt from sanctions, even though investments in these areas would help reduce the likelihood of future drought-induced humanitarian crises. Making the necessary investments in a drought-resilient economy would require an agreement between the Taleban and international donors to get their support to develop the country’s infrastructure. Development partners, including the World Bank, have thus far remained silent, and the current pledges for Afghanistan are earmarked for humanitarian assistance only and cannot be used to fund development initiatives which were, as was common practice, implemented in partnership with the former government. While the international powers deliberate the next phase of their engagement with Afghanistan and the Taleban, political and legal questions dominate the conversation and operational challenges, such as how to deliver aid and services most effectively on the ground, are yet to take centre stage.
There are a number of best practices that Afghanistan’s international partners and the Taleban government would do well to heed to mitigate the harm of future droughts. In particular, even if investments in larger infrastructure are ruled out, investments in small-scale water-related projects would be a critical part of any response aiming to support more resilient communities in the future. Rainwater harvesting, such as through the construction of small-scale water management infrastructure like small reservoirs to collect rainwater and karezes, are proven investments that help the agriculture sector adapt to drought and climate change (see also this AAN report on traditional water storage methods in Faryab). Karezes are ancient irrigation systems that tap into the groundwater table in the hillsides with long horizontal tunnels and vertical wells for operation and maintenance. In Afghanistan, most karezes are in the southern provinces. However, the recent drought and the practice of extracting water using solar pumps has depleted the water in most karezs. (For more on Afghanistan’s karez system, see the author’s piece for the BBC Pashto service here). Therefore, in addition to the sponsored small and medium scale projects, Afghans should take public action to build water conservation ponds or groundwater recharge schemes. Furthermore, employing new irrigation techniques – drip irrigation – and cultivation of different varieties of crops assist to increase revenues per unite of water used in irrigable lands.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proposed in early September:
A package of interventions designed to help improve the immediate living conditions of the most vulnerable people and communities, prioritising safeguarding women and girls’ rights.
The package focuses on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure and aims to support close to nine million vulnerable people through a 24 month community development programme.
Under the plan, the most vulnerable would benefit from a cash-for-work schemes, grants for small and medium enterprises, especially women-run businesses. Children, people with disabilities and elderly citizens would receive temporary basic income through monthly cash transfers.
Afghanistan has extensive experience in implementing cash-for-work schemes such as the National Solidarity Program (NSP) and the Citizens’ Charter, where investments in local infrastructure pay local labourers for construction (see for example here), thus supporting the basic cash needs of those who can earn daily wages and reducing the usual squabbles over who wins construction contracts. By hiring local workers – a common practice in Afghanistan through long-established community development councils – ownership and support from the projects by the local communities is higher than if outsiders were hired, and can utilise local knowledge of things like water, land, and soil. In addition to cash-for-work schemes, food supplies and cash handouts should target those unable to provide labour, such as female-headed households, persons living with disabilities, and orphans. These and other initiatives implemented by humanitarian actors in farming communities would encourage families to stay in their villages or towns rather than moving to displacement camps or urban areas in search of livelihoods. This is but one example of the operational solutions familiar to Afghans and the aid community – if only the financial and political issues tying up the funding could be addressed quickly.
Looking at the obstacles to the transfer of money to Afghanistan, it is expected that some committed funds may not arrive in Afghanistan during the current drought response period. These delayed funds should be earmarked for responding to next year’s drought as it is unlikely that international pledging summits for Afghanistan will be held in two consecutive years.
To cope with consecutive droughts, Afghanistan requires investment in water infrastructure development. The Paris Agreementand the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction commitments to vulnerable nations could be used to fund development projects. Rather than providing funding directly to a Taleban administration, which the donors are reluctant to do, Afghanistan’s international partners should consider working through the United Nations and independent international and national NGOs to combat climate change-induced droughts and mitigate the impact of natural disasters.
Although Afghanistan still lacks a master plan for water management, it has the potential for multiple irrigation and water management projects that can significantly reduce drought effects and tackle food insecurity.
Other factors notwithstanding, Afghanistan will not experience sustainable economic development until its droughts are better managed. It will also fail to implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular on poverty reduction, the elimination of hunger and the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation for its population.
Afghanistan is still very much in the eye of the storm, with a population battling the Covid-19 pandemic, political transition, drought, most aid and foreign reserves frozen and an economy in free fall. With the foreign aid that helped keep the machinery of the Afghan state afloat and the vast flows of rent that propped up the economy now largely gone, agriculture remains Afghanistan’s economic fallback. In the face of the dramatic political wrangling underway, the headlines on human rights abuses and the urgency of the humanitarian needs, it is easy to forget that for Afghans, needless and predictable suffering due to drought-induced shortages of food, water and fodder continue to weaken the foundations of Afghanistan’s economy and undermine the ability of ordinary Afghans, particularly those living in rural areas, to lift themselves out of poverty.
At least two decades of neglect and mismanagement have left the country without the drought mitigation and water management resources needed to mitigate the impact of drought on the country’s economic engine and on the lives of ordinary Afghans. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported with regards to US government aid in particular, “The failure to strengthen the Afghan state was most stark in agriculture. Despite two billion USD in US spending, farming output has barely increased over the past two decades.” (See also this special AAN report for a detailed account of why the policy failed so badly.)
Afghanistan is not represented at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (commonly known as COP26) meeting currently underway in Scotland. While six Afghan environmental activists had intended to participate in the global conference that brings together world leaders, experts and civil society actors, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) declined to accredit a delegation from Afghanistan. This is an unfortunate outcome for a country that produces only 0.19 per cent of the global CO2 emissions and is disproportionately impacted by climate change.
For their part, the Taleban called on Afghanistan’s international partners to resume their work and invest in green projects. In a series of tweets on the first day of COP26, senior Taleban official Suhail Shaheen said:
Afghanistan has a fragile climate. There is need for tremendous work. Some climate change projects which have already been approved and were funded by Green Climate Fund, UNDP, Afghan Aid, should fully resume work. This, on the one hand, will help change the climate for the better and on the other hand, will provide job opportunities for people. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is committed to providing security and safe environment for work of NGOs and charity organizations.
As donors continue debating how much to engage the Taleban, the lack of investment in the country’s own productive potential will continue to be disastrous for Afghanistan as Afghan families find ways to cope with food insecurity, lack of access to water and poverty not only for this year but also for the coming year and beyond.
* Mohammad Assem Mayar is a water resource management expert and lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is also a PhD candidate at the Institute for Modelling Hydraulics and Environmental Systems at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. He tweets via @assemmayar1.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour, Hannah Duncan and Kate Clark
This article was last updated on 5 Jun 2022