Severe drought tests faith in government among war-weary Afghans

Approximately 20,000 Afghans displaced from their drought-ravaged farms in Ghor, Baghis and Faryab provinces fled to camps on the outskirts of Herat in the last month, where they await national and international aid.


By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 9, 2018

HERAT, Afghanistan — Severe drought and violence have sent thousands of Afghans fleeing to camps on the outskirts of this city during the past two months in search of aid from the government, a situation that could benefit the Taliban if Kabul is seen as failing to care for its people.

The camps next to the capital of Herat province, which borders Iran, have become home to as many as 28,000 people, many of them farmers and their families, officials say.

About 70 percent come from Badghis, a war-torn province next to Herat, though the drought has affected almost two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and could harm an estimated 2.2 million farmers in the coming months.

The Taliban could gain influence if Afghans perceive their government as incapable, said Thomas Johnson, an Afghanistan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

The drought could also pressure Afghan soldiers and security personnel to desert to take care of their families, Johnson said, which would hinder U.S. and allied military efforts to help their Afghan counterparts gain control of the country.

“With the stagnant economy and 55 percent of the population living below poverty level, having a drought is just a recipe for disaster,” Johnson said.

The first sign of trouble in Badghis and other provinces came in the winter, when the mountain snow that normally melts into rivers never fell.

Less snow fell on Afghanistan last winter than in any year going back to 2001, when NASA scientists first began recording the data. Much of the country measured a 70 percent shortfall of rain and snow over the unusually warm winter. The driest provinces received a third of their normal rainfall.

Increased bloodshed often follows long periods of drought, according to research by Colin P. Kelley of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. Kelley’s research traced how a multiyear drought, agricultural collapse and internal migration heavily contributed to outbreak of the Syrian conflict.

“When there is heightened vulnerability, particularly in an agrarian society that is strongly dependent on its rainfall, then severe drought episodes can cause displacement and potentially conflict,” Kelley said.

War and famine

Each year, Afghanistan needs more than 6.6 million tons of wheat to feed its people, according to the Afghanistan Humanitarian Country Team, which consists of U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations. Analysts forecast a crop of only 3.8 million tons this year.

The Kabul government says it has stockpiled more than 220,000 tons of wheat.

But in Herat, officials say a wheat distribution, expected to begin next week, will not be enough to solve the misery driving Afghan migration.

“Insecurity plus drought is what brings people to Herat,” said Hamid Mobariz Hamidi, said director of Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, Western Region. “The problem is not going to be solved by wheat.”

The drought wiped out about half of the wheat in Herat province, said Abdul Saboor Rahmany, the province’s agricultural chief. The many farmers who did not have irrigation and relied on winter snowfall lost everything, he added.

In Badghis, 80 to 85 percent of farmers lack irrigation and most lost their entire spring crop, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

As spring arrived, the livestock — mostly goats and sheep — began to die. Prices plummeted as everyone tried to rushed to sell their livestock, as they had no way to feed them.

Abdullah, a farmer from Badghis now in the camps in Herat, said he found a patch of fresh grass on a mountainside, and he brought his hardiest sheep to graze there. Then a freak spring snowstorm killed them, he said.

Spring storms swept through Afghanistan, leading to floods killing 20 people in Badghis, but those rains came too late to save the wheat crop, analysts said.

Allah Dad, a displaced farmer from the rocky hills of Badghis province, joined an exodus of thousands of families in Western Afghanistan two months ago. He said he sold the last of his livestock for a steep discount to move his family to Herat.

“We cannot go back,” Allah Dad said. “There’s drought, there’s no work, there’s insecurity. We have no choice left but to stay here, no matter what comes.”

Adding insult to injury, the arrival of the drought came as Taliban began their spring offensive. In Badghis, the Taliban claimed they overran a district center on May 16, and they have ambushed and killed police officers and tribal leaders there.

Fighting in many parts of Afghanistan has inflamed the effects of the drought, as farmers are unable to access markets, according to a United Nations report in May.

The drought, in turn, could intensify insecurity by encouraging increased desertion in the Afghan National Security Forces.

“The ANSF, even in the best of times, they have had trouble feeding themselves,” said Johnson, of the Naval Postgraduate School. “If the soldier’s family is suffering from starvation he’s not going to stick around in the military; he’s going to go and help his family.”

The Taliban, meanwhile, are often fed directly by the local population, in addition to getting supplies provided by foreign backers such as Pakistan, Johnson said.

Call for aid

International aid organizations have issued an urgent appeal for drought aid. Aid organizations recently revised their plan for humanitarian action in Afghanistan, calling for $547 million this year, increasing their request by 27 percent due to the drought’s severity.

“Without quick action, the number of families and gravity of suffering will grow exponentially and that will end up costing us much more later,” United Nations Humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer told Stars and Stripes.

The money will go to six months of food aid for 1.4 million people and emergency water supplies, Lanzer said.

Aid organizations are now surveying the displaced families near Herat. The region already has so many families displaced by fighting that it was difficult to find out how many arrived because of drought, officials said. The World Food Program halted its first round of distribution in late May to conduct an additional survey.

Delivery of food and cash, now on hold, is expected to begin next week, when the assessment is complete.

The delay in aid is another disappointment for Allah Dad, who distrusts the government in Kabul and whose province is a battleground.

“If the government was capable of doing anything, they would have helped us already,” he said.

Mohammad Aref Karimi and Ghulam Rasoul Murtazawie contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jplawrence3


Approximately 20,000 Afghans displaced from their drought-ravaged farms in Ghor, Baghis and Faryab provinces fled to camps on the outskirts of Herat in the last month, where they await national and international aid.