Climate change is making Afghanistan's hunger crisis worse

As the planet warms, the worst dry spell in 20 years has coincided with Afghanistan's political and economic upheaval. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (BLOOMBERG) - Drought had already devastated Mr Allawddin Rahimi's wheat fields when the Taliban reached his village in northern Afghanistan. The group's takeover left him with no choice but to flee.

"I wasn't worried about the Taliban's return as much as I was worried about the drought that dried up our only revenue and source of food," Mr Rahimi, 37, said from the port city of Bandar Abbas in neighbouring Iran, where he arrived in November to search for a job.

He now earns about US$3.50 (S$4.80) a day as a labourer on a construction site, which he sends home to support a family of seven in Afghanistan's Balkh province.

As the planet warms, the worst dry spell in two decades has coincided with Afghanistan's political and economic upheaval.

Climate change is expected to have severe effects on the country over the coming decades, with the ousted Afghan government and the United Nations (UN) projecting extreme temperature rises of more than 6 deg C if global carbon emissions are left unchecked.

Already one of the world's poorest countries, its economy's dislocation from billions of dollars in aid leaves Afghanistan more ill-equipped than ever to confront the challenges of global warming and reduced rainfall.

The fallout from the Taliban's takeover, coupled with the drought and soaring wheat prices thanks to Russia's war with Ukraine, means that some 10 million people - more than a quarter of Afghanistan's population - are near famine.

For the first time, city residents are as vulnerable to starvation as rural citizens who rely on local crops for income and sustenance, according to the Afghan Analysts Network, a research organisation in Kabul.

"The overarching drivers on top of a whole lot of other things are the drought and the economic crisis," Ms Mary Ellen McGroarty, country director for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), said in an interview from Kabul.

"They're just wiping away the coping mechanisms that households would normally have."

It's not just rural farmers who are suffering.

Mr Sayed Ehsan was once a teacher in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh. After the Taliban closed his school for months, he borrowed US$5,000 from a relative and sold his wife's jewels for around US$1,000 to buy a taxi.

He makes about US$100 a month.

He and his wife regularly have foodless days. They make sure that their four children, ranging from four to seven-years-old, eat once or twice a day.

Meals often consist of bread and green tea, rather than the traditional local dish of pilaf, made with rice, raisins, almonds and lamb, that they used to eat regularly.

The best meal they can look forward to now is a bowl of soup with a piece of meat.

"There is no other option," Mr Ehsan said in a telephone interview.

"The only thing that matters now is that we survive and eat. We're like wild animals in a jungle fighting for a slice of bread. That is the current state of Afghanistan."

Mr Ehsan sid that he's heard of people selling their infant daughters for between 15,000(S$232) and 20,000 afghanis in order to pay for food.

"It's alarming for everyone, and it explains why the country's hunger crisis is so severe," he said.

For the first time, city residents in Afghanistan are as vulnerable to starvation as rural citizens. PHOTO: AFP

In Mr Rahimi's village of Qarchi Gak, very low levels of moisture in the soil and inadequate rainfall presage a poor harvest, according to research meteorologist Andy Hoell at the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's physical-sciences laboratory.

Snow and rainfall will be crucial to Afghanistan's ability to recover from 2021's drought, which was driven by a massive drop in water melting off the nearby Hindu Kush mountains.

Meteorologists warn that the La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean threatens to prolong the drought at least until the end of the year.

The increasing risk of extreme weather events also raises the prospect of prolonged water scarcity in the country's rural areas, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

The timing of last year's La Nina couldn't have been worse. As the Taliban made advances and US troops began to withdraw, warmer weather intensified, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a US government-backed website that provides information and data about food-insecure countries.

The fundamentalist Islamist group swept to power in August 2021, emboldened by the chaotic US withdrawal from the country after its 20-year war.

Afghanistan's wheat yield dropped 30 per cent during last year's harvest, according to Dr Mohammad Assem Mayar, a former lecturer of water resources management at the Kabul Polytechnic University of Afghanistan and guest author on climate change for the Afghan Analysts Network.

Dr Mayar and other experts fear the 2021 drought will continue this year as rainfall drops below average levels in the coming months.

"Wheat is the backbone of Afghanistan livelihoods," said Mr Richard Trenchard, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's representative in Afghanistan.

More than 70 per cent of farmland - much of it lacking in water - is used to grow the crop.

Experts fear the drought Afghanistan suffered in 2021 will continue this year as rainfall drops below average levels. PHOTO: AFP

Meanwhile US sanctions have cut off much of the country's banking sector and left its central bank struggling to fund imports of essential goods, including food.

Ms McGroarty has urged the US and other countries imposing sanctions on Afghanistan's economy to preserve access to essential supplies like food. The US has said it won't block humanitarian imports but a decision last month to seize half the Central Bank of Afghanistan's assets to pay victims of the Sept 11 attacks has prompted wide criticism.

With no signs of policy changing, how the weather turns out this year could decide who gets to eat.

"We're all looking at the snowfall. That's going to be critical," Ms McGroarty said.

Afghanistan has seen massive displacement as people fled to urban centers or across its borders. The west and north, where Mr Rahimi used to farm, are among the worst affected areas, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

Those who arrive in cities often have to rely on handouts from organisations such as the WFP.

In Kabul and throughout Afghanistan, many marketplaces brim with food, but few can afford to purchase it. Costs have increased more than 50 per cent since the Taliban took power and many have lost their jobs.

Acute malnutrition is above emergency levels in 25 out of the country's 34 provinces is is expected to worse, according to the WFP.

"We have bags of flour and rice, as well as cooking oil and whatever else you would require, but no one is coming over to buy them," Mr Ghulam Qader, a shopkeeper in Kabul's main food market, said in a telephone interview. He is able to sell some food by lowering prices slightly, but most of the leftovers end up spoiled or thrown away.

There are only two or three customers per day, compared with as many as 15 last year.

Months before the Taliban took power, the former government's National Water Affairs Regulation Authority had announced plans to build 44 dams to help improve agriculture.

The future of those projects, along with scores of others related to water and irrigation, is now unclear.

Throughout Afghanistan, many marketplaces brim with food, but few can afford to purchase it. PHOTO: AFP

The Taliban says it's already started work on Afghanistan's "biggest ever canal project" to irrigate more than 580,000 hectares of farmland in the country's north by diverting water from the Amu Darya river, which demarcates a section of the border with Uzbekistan.

The group's deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi said the Qosh Tepa canal project kicked off on March 30 and is expected to cost some 60 billion afghanis and create 200,000 jobs.

Funding will come from the Taliban's "own revenue sources", Mr Karimi said, without giving further details.

No matter what happens with the project, the regime will have to carefully manage water resources to ensure food security in the future, according to Dr Mayar.

Ideally, that would include building and modernising dams to increase national water storage capacity, which is currently 10 times lower than Afghanistan's neighbours, Dr Mayar said.

Most current structures predate the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion and Afghanistan's subsequent four decades of almost uninterrupted conflict. After the US invasion in 2001, dams funded by the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation coalition were frequently targeted by the Taliban.

How bad the crisis gets depends heavily on the international community's response to the Taliban, given that it's listed as a terrorist group by the US, European Union and most of their allies.

Washington has said it will release $3.5 billion to organisations such as the UN that are working on the ground.

The Taliban has said that funding for water projects will come from its "own revenue sources". PHOTO: AFP

According to Ms McGroarty, who's managing the UN's response in the country, the WFP is already facing a shortfall of around US$1.9 billion of the US$2.6 billion needed this year to deliver food to 23 million people.

Her team has reduced daily food baskets to as little as 50 per cent of the full 2,100 calories that are normally provisioned per person.

"I'm terrified for the people getting across this winter and I hope we are able to do enough in time to be able to save lives and give people some succour, some comfort," McGroarty said.

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