- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ARGU, Afghanistan

A seven-year drought has devastated farmland and livestock, especially in this corner of northern Afghanistan, compounding the travails of a nation at war for more than three decades.

Officials in the Agriculture Ministry said lack of water has ruined up to 80 percent of agricultural land, affecting 19 of the republic’s 34 provinces and the livelihood of more than 1 million Afghans.

About 10 percent of the country’s livestock - at least 1.5 million animals - have died from water and food shortages, according to aid-agency workers.

The drought and failure to develop a modern irrigation system highlight the struggles facing Afghanistan’s rural communities, where a little more than half of the population already lives in poverty.

“With no agriculture, no livestock, there’s no money,” said Abdul Jabbar Mosadic, 53, chief of the drought-stricken Argu district in the northern province of Badakhshan.

Unlike in the ethnic Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where opium is the crop of choice, poppy cultivation is minimal in many areas of the north, including the Argu district.

As a result, thousands are trekking to the capital, Kabul, and across the border to Iran, desperately seeking work and survival.

Along a rolling slope of a mountain in Argu last month, Abdul Kareem plowed his two acres to prepare for the planting season as his 3-year-old grandson, Yahouda Mushin, sat on a canvas tarp. The little boy was bundled in a heavy coat with a white scarf wrapped around his head.

During a good year, Mr. Kareem’s labor garners nearly 1,100 pounds of wheat, but he “harvested almost nothing” this summer, he said.

The 65-year-old farmer and his extended family of 15, like many in the province, consume all the wheat they produce. Another potentially lean harvest and rising grain prices mean some families will suffer from food shortages.

The World Food Program and the Afghan government have provided more than 15,000 tons of food aid to Badakhshan, but need 105,000 more tons before road closures this winter, according to Mohammed Alimi, who heads the Agriculture Ministry office in the provincial capital of Faizabad.

“If no one helps us, we don’t know what will happen,” said Mr. Kareem’s 50-year-old neighbor, Aman Allah.

Sebghatullah Khaksary, Badakhshan’s executive-affairs director, warned that 1.3 million people in the province may suffer a health crisis of epidemic proportions without sufficient aid.

“A shortage of food will reduce immunities among the population, particularly young children and the elderly,” Mr. Khaksary said. “This will lead to the spread of disease and other serious health problems throughout the province this winter.”

On a rocky and sparsely vegetated pasture above a dry riverbed in Argu, Abdul — who, like many Afghans, uses only one name — vaccinated his sheep and goats. The 30-year-old farmer said he was hoping to preserve his remaining herd through the winter. During the past year, 30 in his herd of 50 sheep and goats died from a lack of water and food.

“I’m losing money, but this is my job with or without a drought,” said Abdul, who sells sheep for $80 each and goats for $60 each. “I have no other work.”

Runoff from melting snow atop the Hindu Kush mountain chain is the main source of water for the province, but a lack of snowfall since 2001 has created shortages.

Pir Azizi, the director of irrigation in the Agriculture Ministry, said another problem is the fact that Afghanistan has few modern structures in place to control water distribution, though nearly three-quarters of the country’s water supply is used for agriculture.

According to a survey conducted by the Water and Energy Ministry, 70 percent of available water sources in the country of 33 million are wasted.

Construction of large-scale irrigation systems began in 1970 but were never completed because of the start of fighting in 1978, before the onset of the Soviet invasion, said Shojauddin Ziaie, an engineer and deputy minister of energy and water. Subsequent decades of war extensively damaged the water systems already in place.

The Afghan government wants to build 12 major dams at an estimated cost of $9 billion, but needs foreign funding to complete the work. In the meantime, the Energy and Water Ministry has launched 2,000 smaller projects in the past four years to repair existing irrigation and canal systems, Mr. Ziaie said.

Residents in Argu complain that government officials in Kabul have forsaken them, neglecting to assuage shortages or develop and bring jobs to the area.

“They’ve built a road and nothing else,” Mr. Kareem said, pointing to the one-lane dirt path running past his wheat field.

Argu’s leader, Mr. Mosadic, said 500 families in the district of 120,000 already have left the area, and he expects more to depart if the drought persists.

In Kabul, the exodus from drought-stricken areas of the country is evident in the numbers and faces of anxious men, young and old, scouring the city for opportunities.

On a recent afternoon, Sher Zada, a 55-year-old tenant farmer from the northern province of Samangan, sat idly in the Sarhia Shamaly section of the city along a traffic circle lined with men of all ages keen to find work.

“The drought is all over the north,” Mr. Zada said. “That’s why there are so many people here.”

Others have abandoned hopes of landing a job in the capital and are trying to leave the country.

Mohammed Hussein, 30, was squatting outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul in a long line filled with scores of men eager to apply for a visa.

“I’ve come to Kabul many times looking for work but found nothing,” said Mr. Hussein, who is from Wardak province east of Kabul. “I don’t want my wife and children to starve.”

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