Afghan farmers flock to cities as record drought ravages countryside



A girl is shown July 19 carrying empty containers to collect water in Sakhi village on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province. [FARSHAD USYAN/AFP]

MAZAR-E-SHARIF -- After his wheat crop failed and wells dried up, Ghulam Abbas sold his animals and joined thousands of other farmers migrating to cities as Afghanistan's worst drought in living memory ravages the country.

A huge shortfall in snow and rain across much of the country over the normally wet colder months decimated the winter harvest, threatening the already precarious livelihoods of millions of farmers and sparking warnings of severe food shortages.

Like hundreds of farming families in Chaharkent village in normally fertile Balkh Province, Abbas, 45, has moved with 11 family members to the provincial capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, to find work.

"I don't remember a drought as severe as this year's," Abbas, who has been a farmer for more than three decades, told AFP.


In this photo taken on July 19, a boy uses a pump to collect water in Sakhi village on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province. [FARSHAD USYAN/AFP]

"We never had to leave our village or sell our animals because of a drought in the past," he said.

As dry conditions and high temperatures persist, there are growing concerns about the spring and summer crops that will be harvested later this year.

Afghanistan's 2018 wheat harvest is already expected to be the worst since at least 2011, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, set up by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1985.

Faced with an estimated shortfall of 2.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, more than two million Afghans could become "severely food insecure" and would be in "desperate need" of humanitarian assistance in the next six months, the United Nations (UN) has warned.

Tens of thousands of sheep and goats have died and many farmers have eaten the seeds for the next planting season, as rivers and wells dry up and as pastures turn to dust.

"If the authorities and the international community don't step up to this challenge now, Afghanistan could face a calamity as we head into the next winter," UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Afghanistan Toby Lanzer told AFP recently.

But thousands of farmers like Abbas have already given up hope, abandoning their land and moving their families to towns and cities to survive.

More than 70,000 Afghans have been displaced to urban areas by the drought, estimates the UN.

"Three years ago it rained and snowed well in our village," Abbas said.

"The crops yielded well, and I made more than 300,000 AFN (almost $4,300). But this year, even though I sold my sheep and goats, I made less than 100,000 AFN (about $1,400)."

More help needed

The lack of precipitation in Balkh has left most of its farming and grazing land parched, Zabiullah Zoobin, provincial director of crops and cultivation management, told AFP recently.

More than 450,000 farmers and nomadic herders in the province have slaughtered their cattle, goats and sheep or sold them for a pittance, he added.

"All villagers are wondering what to do with their livestock and how to keep them alive because that is all they have in life," Haji Sorab, a sheep and goat herder in Dawlatabad District, told AFP.

Agriculture is the backbone of the economy. Almost 15 million Afghans are employed in the sector in the 20 provinces worst affected by the drought, according to the UN.

With already high unemployment made worse by record numbers of Afghans returning from the Iranian cities of Tehran, Mashhad, and Zahedan and many more internally displaced by the conflict, their chances of finding other work are grim.

Prices of sheep and goats have plunged as farmers rush to sell their animals before they become even weaker, Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock Ministry spokesman Akbar Rustami told AFP.

At the same time, the cost of fodder has soared. Most of the country's livestock are in "urgent need of food", said Rustami.

UN food and other assistance has reached more than 460,000 residents of drought-affected provinces in recent months, Lanzer said -- less than a quarter of those who need it.

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