Afghan farmer exodus exacerbates rural crisis for Taliban rulers

Afghanistan updates

Mohammad has farmed the verdant land in Wardak, a province near Kabul, his whole life. The grey-bearded farmer managed orchards of apple and apricot trees, wheat fields and scores of animals from cows to sheep.

His animals are gone and the orchards are parched by successive droughts, with Mohammad now felling barren trees for firewood. “You would not imagine they were farms. They look like a desert,” he said of his lands.

The drought and economic crisis enveloping rural Afghanistan will prove one of the biggest challenges to the country’s new Taliban rulers, one that international aid groups fear will spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

The solar-powered well that helped irrigate Mohammad’s land has dried up, as have two nearby streams. This year’s drought was so bad that Mohammad’s family ran low on drinking water. “This summer we decided to leave.”

His family is now scattered. His five sons have migrated to work as labourers, drivers or guards in Kabul. He is considering travelling west, to find work as a tenant farmer on someone else’s land.

Rural Afghanistan is home to about three-quarters of the country’s population of nearly 40m people, most of whom depend on farming directly or indirectly. But repeated droughts, one of the consequences of a country hard hit by climate change, is threatening millions of livelihoods and food security.

Poppy cultivation presents a big challenge to the Taliban © Muhammad/EPA/Shutterstock

The Taliban draws much of its base from rural communities, where their ultra-conservative strictures, such as on women, are more readily accepted than in cities. But with the country facing a loss of foreign aid, inflation and cash shortages, analysts said the Taliban was ill-equipped to manage chronic drought and mass poverty in rural areas.

The UN has warned of famine, with a third of the population already going hungry and many more at risk.

“It’s not only a drought. There’s this massive inflation because of this political crisis . . . then of course you have a liquidity crisis and borders shut to trade,” said Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank.

“It’s this perfect storm that, on top of the drought, every single factor that could help people survive or cope has been taken away.”

Afghanistan is being buffeted by dramatic changes to its climate. Erratic spring rain and winter snowfall is leading to both more droughts in some parts of the country and flooding elsewhere, according to a UN report from 2016, which warned that droughts would become an annual occurrence.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said that more than 80 per cent of the country was experiencing drought.

The crisis has been exacerbated by population pressures and decades of war. Afghanistan’s population has nearly doubled since the Taliban ruled in the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while much of the fighting of the past 20 years has taken place in rural villages and fields — damaging crops, disrupting trade and claiming tens of thousands of lives.

Afghan women carry saffron flowers
Afghan women carry saffron flowers but poppies require less water to grow and proved a lifeline for poor communities © Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty

Haji Jan, a grape farmer on the Shamali plain near Kabul, recalls how business took off in the years after the US-led invasion in 2001, thanks to newly-paved roads and refrigerated trucks that allowed him to export his fruits to Pakistan. “Our business was great,” he said.

But as conflict intensified, roads and even the canal that helped irrigate his field were blockaded. This year’s harvest was all but lost as fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan army paralysed trade. “There was too much insecurity,” he said. The best of his grape harvest has “just turned to dust”.

The Taliban has to decide what to do about Afghanistan’s most important crop: poppies. Cultivation of opium poppies has tripled since the US invasion despite multibillion-dollar eradication efforts. It is a lifeline for poor communities and employs hundreds of thousands of people in the country, said Philip A Berry, a researcher at King’s College London. 

The Taliban, which partly funded its insurgency through narcotics, has vowed to clamp down on poppy growing in an effort to gain international acceptance. This could turn rural populations, otherwise grateful for the end of the war, against them, Berry warned.

“All previous opium prohibitions over the last two decades have shown that unless economic alternatives are in place, any ban is likely to be shortlived,” he said. “In such a scenario, the new regime will lose support in rural areas and potentially face violent resistance.”

For Gul Jan, farming no longer offers any security. He still lives on his land in the same Wardak district as Mohammad but no longer farms, instead working in Kabul as a bus conductor. His brothers, who farmed with him, have emigrated to Iran to work as labourers.

His apple and apricot orchards are now a source of firewood to keep warm in the winter. His family try to keep the remaining trees inside their mud compound alive by bathing next to them and allowing the run-off water to seep into the soil.

But he accepts their efforts are in vain. “They are dying,” he said. “We know they will die so there’s nothing more we can do.”

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