Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Finally, Rain and Snow in Afghanistan: Will it be enough to avert another year of drought?

Kate Clark AAN Team 17 min

The last few weeks have finally seen rain and snowfall in Afghanistan, raising hopes for farmers and herders that this year could be better than the last three drought years. Afghans typically categorise a drought year as one where the low amount of precipitation causes problems for agriculture – a poor harvest or crop failure or not enough grazing for livestock. At its worst, a drought also affects drinking water. The long-term future for Afghan agriculture is grim: scientists predict the global climate crisis will bring more severe droughts more frequently. But this year, AAN’s Kate Clark found, together with Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Rohullah Sorush and Sayed Asadullah Sadat, farmers hope there might be enough rain and snow to, at least, avert another year of drought.

A boy walks with his donkey as snow falls in Faizabad in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. Photo: Omer Abrar/AFP, March 2024.

Afghanistan has had three consecutive drought years (khushk sali), with terrible consequences for many farmers and herders. Winter and spring is when most precipitation in Afghanistan should fall, but this winter began with two dry months. Since then, there has been some good snow and rainfall, but coming into the Afghan new year, Nawruz, which falls on the spring equinox, cumulative precipitation was still only creeping up towards average levels. See the Food Security Outlook for Afghanistan from the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which this report will quote from extensively, for more detail.

Afghans usually view drought through the prism of agriculture,[1]Scientists have different categories of droughts. Meteorological drought occurs when there is a prolonged period with less than average precipitation. Hydrological drought occurs when water reserves … Continue reading not surprisingly, given it is the backbone of the Afghan economy, providing jobs, income, food for households and more than a third of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[2]This is from the latest World Bank GDP figures, from 2022. Those cultivating rain-fed land (lalmi) are most vulnerable to drought, but farmers who have access to irrigation also suffer the consequences of low rain and snowfall, with springs drying up or streams running dry at times of the year when they should not. The greater variation in the rain-fed wheat harvest when there is drought, compared to the irrigated crop, can be seen in the chart below, which shows Afghan annual wheat production from 2005 to 2020.[3]FEWS NET reports that irrigated wheat typically makes up around 85 to 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s national wheat production, with rainfed wheat contributing around 10 to 15 per cent. Lack of snowfall on the mountains, or higher spring temperatures leading to premature snowmelt, can also result in a shortage of irrigation water downstream at critical times.[4]See also AAN’s earlier report on how climate change is melting Afghanistan’s glaciers, ‘Shrinking, Thinning, Retreating: Afghan glaciers under threat from climate change’ and the threat that … Continue reading Herders are also hit hard if pasture is too little to sustain their flocks and herds. Scientists modelling the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate forecast that Afghanistan will see more frequent and harsher droughts, as well as warmer temperatures, a general shift from snow to rainfall, and heavier spring rains.[5]Modelling of what would happen to Afghanistan’s climate was carried out by WFP, UNEP and NEPA in 2015 and quoted in this 2022 report by AAN guest author, Assem Mayar The projections used what they … Continue reading

Annual Afghan wheat production, rain-fed and irrigated, 2005-2020
Annual Afghan wheat production, rain-fed and irrigated, 2005-2020. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock; chart compiled by Mohammad Fahim Zaheer, FEWS NET regional scientist with the University of California, Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center.

For this report, we spoke to farmers in Helmand, Daikundi, Ghazni, Paktia, Laghman and Kunduz to get a sense of their outlook for the coming year. Most had some access to irrigated, as well as rain-fed land, and many also had a small number of livestock.[6]This report hears from those growing crops, who, typically, also have some livestock. The multi-year drought has also devastated livestock and the livelihoods of herders in Afghanistan. FEWS NET … Continue reading We found that after the distressingly dry early winter, there is renewed hope that this year will be wetter and crops and pasture might flourish. Still, most famers we spoke to worried that spring rains would not fall in enough quantity or not at the right time to ensure a healthy crop and fear for the longer-term future.

The interviews were conducted in mid-March, just before the Afghan New Year (Nawruz). Farmers refer to the Afghan months: the last month of winter, Hut (20 February to 19 March) and the three months of spring: Hamal (20 March to 19 April), Saur (20 April-20 May) and Jawza (21 May to 20 June).

Farming in uncertain times

The winter of 2023/24 was unremittingly dry, until finally, in the month of Hut (beginning on 20 February), rain or snow fell, and it has rained or snowed several times since.

A farmer in Zurmat district of Paktia, said those two dry months at the start of winter had made people worry if there would even be drinking water this year. He has ten jeribs of irrigated and three jeribs of rain-fed land, plus five jeribs shared with a neighbour; he grows wheat for the household and maize, beans, onions, tomatoes and potatoes to sell. He also has two cows and a 20-strong flock of sheep and goats. After so many dry years, he said he had not bothered to sow winter wheat on his rain-fed land in the autumn. Those few people in the village who had saw the wheat dry up, or be eaten by birds or, at best, it had cost more to get it to harvest than it brought in.[7]FEWS NET wrote that despite the multi-year drought and dry soil, some farmers did sow winter wheat, “expecting better precipitation due to the ongoing El Niño. By late January, irrigated crops … Continue reading The snow that fell in the last month of winter had come too late to save the winter wheat, but at least there was hope for the spring crops and people had been spurred into action:

The weather was cold, but it made the people happy. It snowed four times in all, although not more than 30 cm in depth. Then, it rained and the snow melted. As a result, the underground water level has increased a little and there is water in the wells. Water in our village’s karez is running again because water has come down from the mountains.[8]A karez is formed from a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by sloping tunnels, which tap into subterranean water to efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface by … Continue reading Agriculture is renewed. People are busy sowing crops, wheat, some are even planting trees. Everyone’s busy and happy. A few days ago, I was able to sow barley. The earth is soft and moist and the barley should grow very welI. I hope it will rain again so that we get a good harvest.

Another farmer,from Jaghatu district of Ghazni province, who is landless and cultivates irrigated land as a sharecropper, said they had had about 40 cm of snow, enough for drinking water and the animals (he has 25 sheep, four cows and a calf) and a slight improvement for the crops.

In years when there’s more water [than average], we can get a harvest large enough not only for my family and the landlord, but also with a surplus to sell. But for the last three or four years, we just didn’t get enough rain and snow and I’ve only been able to meet my family’s needs. We’ve had so many losses – we weren’t able to grow winter wheat and had to buy flour and potatoes and I’ve had to reduce the herd and flock by half, while the price of animals had gone down.

A farmer in Qarghahi district of Laghman said, “It recently rained so much that it went a long way towards quenching the earth’s thirst – not enough yet to meet the needs of farmers, but much better than last year or the year before.” He grows wheat for household use and a second crop of barley for sale on three jeribs and vegetables – cucumbers, chives, green onions and cauliflowers – all for sale on another two jeribs of his own land, as well as on six jeribs which he rents with his brother. He also has five cows and ten sheep grazing on his land and grows fodder crops for them. Laghmani farmers, he said, generally have access to water for irrigation from the Kabul and Panjshir Rivers and, in some areas, canals. Despite that, he said, rain is invaluable:

Compared to water from the river, rain can double the harvest. It functions like fertilizer. Last year, we grew winter wheat, but it dried up due to a lack of water and we had no harvest. When it snows on the mountains for three consecutive months, the water in the rivers increases and the groundwater level rises. When there’s no snow or rain, the water level drops. In the summer months when it gets hot, the water level in the river also goes down and people face a water shortage. When there’s a lot of rain, of course, the water in the springs that was reduced or dried up increases again and the springs flow.

Prospects had also turned for a farmer from Nad Ali district of Helmand Province who cultivates winter wheat on 5.5 jeribs to feed his household, and spring crops on another one-and-a-half jeribs – vegetables to eat and sell and cotton to sell. He also has 10 goats. The dry winter followed a long drought – not a single drop of rain had fallen in spring 2023, he said, and that had badly affected his winter crops.

The wheat turned yellow because of the lack of rain and was very weak. It was only around ten centimetres tall when the grain started to fill out and the cumin was about to dry up. [But then], it rained in the month of Hut, the wheat turned green again and began growing taller and the cumin got better. The wheat and cumin crops are happy now, very happy. We hadn’t watered our crops for around 50 days because the canal was dry.

The rain in Hut, he said, had “more than 90 per cent” addressed the drought. A local well-digger had told him the water table had risen from a depth of about 18 to 20 metres to 11 metres. “People are now ploughing their land,” he said, “and preparing to sow the new crops.” However, elsewhere in the province, the rain in February had come just in time, and the situation remains precarious:

The population of some districts of Helmand like Washer, Nawzad, Kajaki and Musa Qala were about to migrate because of the shortage of water. They were lacking even drinking water. Now the karezes there are full of water again. In Nawzad and Washer districts, snow fell. If the rain continues, I mean if it rains occasionally in Hamal [began 20 March], the drought in those districts will be addressed. If not, they will still have severe problems irrigating their crops.

Changing and chaotic weather patterns and ‘untimely rain’

Precipitation is crucial at various points in the growing cycle. Wheat, for example, needs water to germinate and for the initial growth, and then for flowering and finally for the grain to swell. The farmers stressed that it was not only the overall amount of rain and snowfall that was crucial, but also its timing and whether it was in or out of sync with what used to be the normal weather patterns – which their crops are adapted to. One interviewee in Daikundi province referred to the problem of ‘untimely rain’ (bidun-e mowqa), ie rain falling at the wrong time. He could also have referred to ‘untimely warmth’ and ‘untimely cold’ as equally serious problems brought about by climate change.

Two fruit farmers from the same province, from Khadir and Kiti districts, both described how untimely warmth had affected their fruit trees, especially almonds. The dry early winter had been unseasonably warm (that is, such warmth was unseasonable prior to climate change). Sudden snow and rain had prompted the fruit trees to come into blossom early. Then, a cold snap devastated the blossom. As a result, they said there would be no crop of almonds or stone fruit, or only a very poor crop, this year. “The experience of the past few years,” one added, “has shown me that changes in the weather, and late rains are usually more harmful than beneficial. They also increase the likelihood and number of pests, which people don’t have the capacity to deal with.”

The farmers in Paktia and Laghman both also described the harm of rain that is too heavy. In spring 2023, such rainfall had caused flooding and damage to the crops. The interviewee in Laghman warned that rain in the third month of spring, Jawza (21 May-20 June), was also problematic; the earth cannot absorb the water, he said, and it can lead to floods. Indeed, it is generally difficult for the soil dried out by the multi-year drought, to hold and absorb water, especially if it rains heavily. With Afghanistan now likely to see more droughts, warmer springs and heavier spring rainfall, catastrophic run-off and more frequent flooding is forecast (an upcoming report will delve into this). The other major change affecting agriculture is snow melting too early and too quickly. That causes a sudden rush of meltwater when farmers need it to come gradually, so they can use it for irrigation across the growing season.

Storing water

Pressure on water resources is not only due to the climate crisis, but also changing water use. The development of turbo wells, whether powered by diesel or solar, has enabled farmers to draw water up from deeper levels than was previously possible and expand the area of cultivation – crops can now even be grown in the dasht (desert) if water can be drawn up from the deep aquifers. As a result, groundwater is being extracted at a rate greater than it is being re-supplied by precipitation or run-off, only adding to the risk of water shortages and crop failure.[9]Similar problems are seen in the cities, where a growing population and mismanagement of water supplies has drained aquifers to deeper and deeper levels, meaning the wealthier may be able to dig ever … Continue reading Many of our interviewees mentioned the water that was ‘stored’ in the environment, whether in reservoirs, canals, or aquifers, or as it flowed in springs, streams and canals. Most said the recent rain and snow was not yet enough to end their worry over whether they could count on water being available in the coming months.

The farmer in Zurmat, for example, said he only has access to irrigation from the public karez and because water levels are low everyone only gets their turn every 12 days, which is not sufficient. People have mostly been using water from wells, deploying solar power, he said, but again, water levels are low in the wells as well.

If it had snowed at the beginning and during the winter, it would have been useful, as the water storage could get full. The snow and rain in the month of Hut is not that effective, but it’s still good. If it rains and snows for three months in winter, we can call that year a water year because the springs and ground water come alive with it. [In that case] there will be enough water in the wells and the water will be flowing during the month of Jawza and Saratan [21 May to 20 July] and people will be able to irrigate their lands. However, this year, there was snow only at the end of winter, and then it rained and the snow melted. The greater the quantity of snow on the mountains and on the ground and the longer it remains, the more useful it is.

Re-charging the streams and aquifers and the very soil itself after three years of drought will take prolonged precipitation, as the farmer from Jaghatu explained. Following the recent snow fall, he said the water in their small spring [saqawa] had increased, but so much more was needed.

If there’s wet, heavy snow [tarbarf] and it snows four or five times during the winter and each time it is more than 50 cm, that’s good and we’ll have enough water. However, because there’s been drought for several years and the land is completely dry, it has to snow a lot and for the entire winter for us to say the drought has ended.

A boy brings tea to his father working in the field in Bati Kot district of Nangrahar Province, Afghanistan. Photo: Shafiullah Kakar/AFP, January 2023
A boy brings tea to his father working in the field in Bati Kot district of Nangrahar Province, Afghanistan. Photo: Shafiullah Kakar/AFP, January 2023

Looking to the past… and to the future

Every farmer we spoke to had stories of just how different the weather was not so long ago. The farmer in Kunduz, who is 50 years old, said that when he was a child, it had snowed a great deal in Dasht-e Archi and the canal behind his home had frozen in winter, so hard that the cows could cross it. “My family returned from Pakistan around 15 years ago,” he said, “and I haven’t seen the canal frozen since.” The farmer in Laghman, now in his early 40s, also recalled colder and wetter winters in his childhood, which meant that “every valley in Laghman flowed with water. In recent years, that’s much reduced. The water level in the wells used to be three metres and you could easily get water out, but now they’re down to 25 metres.” The interviewee in Paktia also recalled:

When I was a child, there was so much snow that even the street to the mosque was blocked and the people in the neighbourhood would gather to clear it and open up the way. We used to get at least one metre of snow, but now, it’s not more than a span [a hand’s width). We’d take water from our well with a jar: you could just put the jar in the water and get it out. Now the level is down to 50 metres. Winters used to be very cold. Now, they’re warm.

The farmer in Ghazni remembered how, during his childhood, it would start snowing at the end of autumn.

It snowed through the entire winter and we could have snow even during the first full month of spring. There was more than enough water, but now climate change has had its effect and there has been severe drought. As a result, we can’t keep a lot of animals and we can’t grow enough.

Those days of regular plentiful rain and snow in most years falling at the right time, are gone. Yet, how to respond, said one interviewee from Daikundi, is complicated by the fact that the crisis facing Afghan agriculture and the rural economy goes wider and deeper than ‘just’ climate change. There are now more people to feed, he said, and at the same time, natural resources are damaged, diminished or lost. He spoke about the loss of vegetation, soil and upland forests and the lack of a plan to restore them. He described how the loss of ground cover meant that when it does rain, or the snow melts, water now runs off the hills and is not absorbed by the soil. Avalanches and spring floods have destroyed cultivated land, orchards and water resources. At the same time, the people lack water storage in the foothills and around the sources of springs. And all of this, he said, is the backdrop to a growing population and expanding villages:

A patch of land on which a hundred man [450 kilogrammes] of grain could be grown, fifty years ago, would support one family. Now, that same patch of land is expected to support at least five and even up to ten families. Agricultural land can no longer, in no way, answer the food needs of the local people.

While Afghans can do nothing about the changing climate – Afghanistan is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gasses – there are ways to minimise the ill-effects. Better water management is urgent, to ensure what water there is goes further and that flooding and loss of soil in run-off is minimised. Measures include harvesting water in reservoirs, ponds, diversion dams and check dams,[10]For an example of measures taken locally to conserve water in Faryab province, see this AAN report: ‘Kanda and Backyard Pools: Faryabi Ways of Coping with Water Shortages’. changing irrigation methods, growing cover crops to reduce transpiration and ensuring there is vegetation cover, including trees, planted at the higher altitudes to reduce and slow down run-off.

There should be international help for this: the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement recognised that countries like Afghanistan are suffering out of all proportion to the contribution they have made to damaging the planet’s atmosphere and climate. Yet, as AAN guest author Assem Mayar reported in 2022, Afghanistan is largely blocked from accessing global funds dedicated to helping poor countries mitigate the effects of climate change because their government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is not recognised.

Hopes and worries for the next few months

In the short-term, the outlook this spring is better than it has been for the last few years. The deficit in cumulative precipitation from October 2023 through to the end of February, of 60 per cent below-average and 70 per cent below-average in the driest areas, as reported by FEWS NET, is now reducing because of the recent snow and rain. If there is average precipitation from March to May, FEWS NET said, the cumulative deficit will be further reduced and there will be enough moisture to support the all-important spring wheat crop.

However, FEWS NET also has a warning: the snowpack, which is the mass of lying snow that is compressed and hardened by its own weight, whose melting is so important for providing irrigation water to many communities, will likely be below-average. “Near-record low snow-water volumes,” it said, “have been recorded through much of the winter.” It said the snowpack needs to develop in March and April to ensure “water availability in the summer for downstream areas where irrigated crops are cultivated.” However, high temperatures are forecast for April and May 2024, which would result in early snow melt and high evapotranspiration rates and, potentially then, causing stress to both pasture and rainfed crops because of the lack of moisture in the soil.

FEWS NET also had other forecasts about harvests and livestock. This year, it still expects national wheat production and second-season crop production to be below-average, although vegetable and cotton production could be near-average. It also expects the condition of pastures to be near-average, although with a later decline in the warmer areas, and the bodily condition of livestock and production of milk to be below-average.[11]The forecast from FEWS NET in greater deal was: The spring rainfed wheat harvest is expected to be lower than normal due to the drier start of the wet season, a reduction in planted area for … Continue reading All of this means that even after the recent relief of rain and snow, the outlook for farmers and herders remains precarious.

Farmers everywhere are always acutely aware of the weather and the climate and pondering what to do for the best. That anxiety has been exacerbated by the chaos to weather patterns brought about by the climate crisis. In Afghanistan, where so many live on the breadline, the worry is especially acute. Watching the skies and hoping, they contemplate various futures this year, as one of our interviewees in Daikundi concluded:

If the spring rains continue to fall regularly, rain-fed crops and the grass and mountain plants will improve and thrive. The pastures and fields in our region will be green. But if the spring rains stop, pests will thrive and the harvest will be insignificant.

The recent rain and snowfall have turned despair into hope, but still, the fear lingers.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert

References

References
1 Scientists have different categories of droughts. Meteorological drought occurs when there is a prolonged period with less than average precipitation. Hydrological drought occurs when water reserves fall short in aquifers, lakes and reservoirs, run-off and stream-flow. In Afghanistan, drought usually refers to agricultural drought, when crops or pasture becomes stressed because of lack of moisture. That is often due to a meteorological drought, but could also be due to evaporation and low soil moisture.
2 This is from the latest World Bank GDP figures, from 2022.
3 FEWS NET reports that irrigated wheat typically makes up around 85 to 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s national wheat production, with rainfed wheat contributing around 10 to 15 per cent.
4 See also AAN’s earlier report on how climate change is melting Afghanistan’s glaciers, ‘Shrinking, Thinning, Retreating: Afghan glaciers under threat from climate change’ and the threat that poses to irrigation and drinking water, and of floods.
5 Modelling of what would happen to Afghanistan’s climate was carried out by WFP, UNEP and NEPA in 2015 and quoted in this 2022 report by AAN guest author, Assem Mayar The projections used what they called a ‘moderate’ scenario, which would see greenhouse gas emission peaking in 2040 and included:

Temperatures in Afghanistan would increase by more than the global average and there would be further melting of glaciers and snow cover, a shift in precipitation from snow to rainfall and a rise in demand for water for crops, with plants possibly requiring extra irrigation.

There would be an increase in drought and flood risks. Local droughts would become the norm by 2030, while floods would be a secondary risk.

Snowfall would diminish in the central highlands, potentially leading to reduced spring and summer flows in the Helmand, Harirud-Murghab and Northern River basins, while spring rainfall would decrease across most of the country.

In the northeast and small pockets of the south and west, along the border with Iran, there might be a five per cent or more increase in ‘heavy precipitation events’ that can lead to flash floods. However, these potentially devastating events might actually decrease across most of the south and other parts of the north.

In the medium-term, the frequency of snowmelt-related floods in spring might increase simply due to accelerated melting associated with higher spring temperatures.

6 This report hears from those growing crops, who, typically, also have some livestock. The multi-year drought has also devastated livestock and the livelihoods of herders in Afghanistan. FEWS NET reported:

As a result of the early depletion of pasture and grazing areas last year and below-average straw availability following below-average domestic production, fodder availability for livestock in January and February, the peak of the lean season, is at below normal levels, which is negatively impacting livestock body conditions. Overall, herd sizes remain at below-normal levels as households are still recovering their herd sizes following the drought, but herd sizes are near average levels in the eastern, northeastern, and some parts of the southeast that were not impacted by the drought. According to field reports, the livestock sector has been significantly impacted by the drought in northern (Samangan, Faryab, and Jawzjan) provinces due to a lack of fodder and insufficient drinking water during the winter and the peak of the lean season, resulting in poor body condition and productivity.

7 FEWS NET wrote that despite the multi-year drought and dry soil, some farmers did sow winter wheat, “expecting better precipitation due to the ongoing El Niño. By late January, irrigated crops sown in October were stressed due to a lack of available water for irrigation, low rainfall, and poor soil moisture.” There was also early germination in some lower-altitude areas because of above-average temperatures from October 2023 to January 2024, “leading to a need for moisture earlier than normal during the agricultural season.” Better precipitation at the end of the winter, it said, was “supporting the recovery of previously stressed crops.”
8 A karez is formed from a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by sloping tunnels, which tap into subterranean water to efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface by gravity, without need for pumping. More on this UNESCO website on how karez “allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates without loss of much of the water to evaporation.”
9 Similar problems are seen in the cities, where a growing population and mismanagement of water supplies has drained aquifers to deeper and deeper levels, meaning the wealthier may be able to dig ever deeper wells, but not the poorest.
10 For an example of measures taken locally to conserve water in Faryab province, see this AAN report: ‘Kanda and Backyard Pools: Faryabi Ways of Coping with Water Shortages’.
11 The forecast from FEWS NET in greater deal was:

The spring rainfed wheat harvest is expected to be lower than normal due to the drier start of the wet season, a reduction in planted area for rainfed wheat production, low snowpack development that will be important for water for irrigation during the dry season, and high temperatures. However, irrigated wheat production is likely to be average. 

National wheat production is expected to be below average due to the cumulative impact of three years of drought and the poor start to the October to May precipitation season that negatively impacted winter wheat planting.

Vegetable production in eastern, southern, and central parts of the country is expected to be near average, with the harvest likely in April and May. Cotton production in southern Afghanistan is expected to be near average as it was not significantly impacted by the drier start of the wet season and is supported by groundwater. Second-season crop and horticulture production is anticipated to be below average due to limited water access for irrigation, high temperatures, and lower-than-normal water availability in the main water basins.

Pasture is expected to regenerate to at least average levels with the average March to May spring rains and remain at those levels through at least May. From May to September, pasture conditions in lower elevation areas of the country will decline and be below average due to high temperatures, leading to high evapotranspiration rates.

Livestock body conditions are anticipated to be below average from February to April due to lower-than-normal fodder availability and lack of grazing areas, specifically in northern, central, and western parts of the county. However, livestock body conditions will improve seasonally through September due to improved access to fodder and grazing areas following the anticipated average March to May spring rains.

Livestock milk production is expected to be below average nationally due to poor conception rates over the past three years. However, livestock milk production is expected to be better than last year as regenerating pastures during the March to May rains support livestock access to food.

Livestock prices are expected to be lower than the five-year average through most of the scenario period due to below-average body conditions, lower-than-normal demand, and below-average pasture conditions.

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