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AFGHANISTAN: Drought, Poppy Profits Cause Wheat Shortage

Analysis by Sediqullah Bader - The Killid Group*

KABUL, Aug 7 2006 (IPS) - Millions of Afghans are facing hunger because of a food shortage that the government and aid agencies say is because of a prolonged dry spell in the country.

This year, output of the staple wheat dropped from 4.4 to 3.7 million tonnes. At a recent press conference, the Minister of Agriculture blamed the ongoing drought for the sharp fall. Wheat is the most important crop, and the main source of food for the majority of Afghans.

But experts and the public contest the government’s claim. They argue that drought is not the only factor to blame for the current wheat crisis in the country. There are other more important reasons, they insist.

A key determinant in the equation is poppy cultivation by Afghan farmers. Farmers stand to gain far more from cultivating poppy, and as a result few farmers are willing to grow wheat. This, according to experts, is causing wheat shortages in the market.

Afghan farmers are not able to find a market for their produce due to cheap imports of wheat flour from the neighbouring countries.

A farmer in the western province of Herat told The Killid Group recently that if the wheat market continues to perform poorly, farmers will have no other option but to go back to cultivating poppies. Poppy cultivation has been on the rise since 2005.

Prolonged drought conditions have contributed to the agriculture crisis in Afghanistan. Thirteen provinces are facing food problems due to little rain and hot weather. Farmers in the central Dai Kundi province risk losing a valuable almond harvest because of persisting dry weather. In southern Helmand, thousands of people have left their villages in search of food. The great Helmand River has run dry.

At a time of global warming, water shortages, drought and natural calamities are real causes for concern. Yet, with adequate planning and timely response from the government these can be some what addressed.

The federal government should take urgent steps to construct new dams and water distribution systems and rehabilitate existing ones. At least two thirds of farms in the country depend on irrigation water.

Under its mandate, the Ministry of Agriculture has the responsibility to assist Afghan farmers through the provision of improved seeds and fertilisers, improved access to water, new technology and mechanised equipment, monetary and material credits and facilitating access to markets at home and abroad.

Afghan farmers deserve greater government protection which can be made possible through passing of new legislation and adopting procedural measures to regulate cheap wheat imports from neighbouring countries.

According to news reports, farmers complain that the government is slow to deal with their problems. There are difficulties in accessing information on pricing of agricultural commodities and markets within and outside the country. Neither are financial or material credit, improved seeds, fertilisers and pesticides available.

Afghan farmers insist that these unresolved problems are the reason for the food shortfall. Because of falling prices farmers find it not worth their while to reap the harvest and market it.

Many analysts view the five-year plan which the ministry has recently introduced as a step in the right direction. But the strategies and plans mostly remain on paper.

On Jul. 25, addressing a press conference in Kabul, the second vice president and chief of the emergency assistance committee, Mohammad Karim Khalili, said surveys showed that 2.5 million Afghans are facing acute food problems.

The U.N. and the Afghan government have jointly appealed for 76.4 million US dollars worth of food aid. Afghanistan needs to import 1.2 million tonnes of wheat to make up the shortfall in production. So far the biggest contribution has come from the US aid agency, USAID, which has pledged 20 million dollars to the World Food Programme (WFP). Japan has promised 3 million dollars.

According to the minister for agriculture and irrigation, Obaidullah Ramin, seven million dollars would be required for maintenance of water supplies, nine million dollars on animal feed, and 50 million dollars on food. The remaining would be allocated to other programmes

The agrarian economy has not recovered from a severe drought between 1998 and 2001. Only a very small share of Afghanistan’s cultivable land (about 15 percent of the total land area), mostly in scattered valleys, is actually farmed. Years of drought and instability have pushed up rural indebtedness.

If the government doesn’t find a way to quickly address the wheat crisis in the country, Afghan farmers assuredly will turn to cultivating poppies in a much larger scale. This would place the government in a real long-term dilemma.

(*Released by arrangement with The Killid Group)

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