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After drought and floods, Afghanistan confronts critical harvest

An Afghan farmer harvests wheat at his farm on the outskirts of Jalalabad province. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Kabul, Afghanistan Mar 28, 2019, 12.11 PM (IST)

Afghanistan's summer harvest will be one of the most critical in years, especially of wheat, its biggest cereal crop, as the country recovers from floods and the worst drought in decades, government and aid organization officials say.

Ample snow and rain during winter partly replenished soil moisture and raised hopes for a better wheat crop, which is a food source for rural families who turn their harvested grain into bread. Last year, however, drought displaced hundreds of thousands of people and also forced farmers who stayed in their homes to sell livestock and tools to survive, making recovery a multi-year challenge.

Many farmers were unable to plant crops last year because of parched conditions.

Jabbar, 44, a farmer in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, sold sheep, cows and one camel at discounted prices to buy food for his family of 12. Recent floods washed away some of his land that had been planted with peas and wheat.

"I have a big family so it's my responsibility to feed them. If it rains or not, it is harmful to us," he said, referring to the double damage inflicted by drought and flood.

"I hope I can get good results this year."

Floods in March complicated the recovery. Heavy rains killed at least 63 people and destroyed or damaged more than 12,000 homes, affecting 119,600 people, according to the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Some 243,000 people remain displaced from last year's drought in the western provinces of Herat, Badghis and Ghor, according to OCHA. Many have moved to urban areas where they live in tents on public and private lands, creating tensions with landowners.

"If the harvest is OK, that will help communities come out of a terribly bleak period. If it's not OK, we'll need a massive injection of food quickly," said Toby Lanzer, the UN's deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

The winter wheat harvested in June and July will need to help feed displaced people and some 10.6 million people who are struggling to find enough food where they live, Lanzer said.

Farming accounts for one-third of the country's economy, although only 12 per cent of its land is arable.

The wheat crop's outlook remains uncertain, said Agriculture Minister Nasir Ahmad Durrani, in an interview on March 20. If the temperature warms too rapidly, melting snow could create floods that wipe out ripe crops, he said.

It is also unclear how many wheat farmers were able to plant last autumn, said Rajendra Aryal, the representative in Afghanistan for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Many farmers used the wheat seed to make bread to survive, rather than save it for planting, Aryal said.

"The people were already poor," he said. "It will be very difficult if the harvest fails, so I don't even want to think that way."

The floods also damaged critical farm infrastructures, such as irrigation canals, reservoirs and wells. The Afghan government is working to repair damaged infrastructure, especially in the provinces of Kandahar and Farah, Durrani said.

Afghanistan produced 3.6 million tonnes of wheat last year, down 25 per cent from the five-year average, according to the FAO.

The country dipped into its grain reserve last year for 190,000 tonnes of wheat, leaving just 50,000 tonnes left, Durrani said.

The expected shortfall between supply and demand this year will be made up through wheat imports from countries including Pakistan and Kazakhstan, he said.

Abdul Majid Khan, who coordinates aid related to food security and agriculture for the UN, said a plan is in place to assist families who return home as the drought abates. It includes food assistance, cash for work and farm supplies, but the plan still requires approval from international donors.

"My biggest concern delays in funding," he said. "We can lose the trust of the people."

A significant number of families should be able to return, as long as it is safe, said Zlatan Milisic, country director for the World Food Programme.

"There are no more resilient people on Earth," UN Representative Lanzer said about Afghans. "But goodness me, it is being tested."