- 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.”

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