The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.

Rain and Snow in Afghanistan: Will it be enough to avert another year of drought?

Part I

The last few weeks have finally seen rain and snowfall in Afghanistan, raising hopes for farmers and herders that this year could be better than the last three drought years. Afghans typically categorize a drought year as one where the low amount of precipitation causes problems for agriculture – a poor harvest crop failure or not enough grazing for livestock. At its worst, a drought also affects drinking water. The long-term future for Afghan agriculture is grim: scientists predict the global climate crisis will bring more severe droughts more frequently. According to Afghanistan Analysis Network (AAN), farmers hope there might be enough rain and snow to, at least, avert another year of drought. Afghanistan has had three consecutive drought years, with terrible consequences for many farmers and herders. Winter and spring are when most precipitation in Afghanistan should fall, but this winter began with two dry months. Since then, there has been some good snow and rainfall, but coming into the Afghan New Year, which falls on the spring equinox, cumulative precipitation was still only creeping up towards average levels. Afghans usually view drought through the prism of agriculture, not surprisingly, given it is the backbone of the Afghan economy, providing jobs, income, food for households and more than a third of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Those cultivating rain-fed land (lalmi) are most vulnerable to drought, but farmers who have access to irrigation also suffer the consequences of low rain and snowfall, with springs drying up or streams running dry at times of the year when they should not. The greater variation in the rain-fed wheat harvest when there is drought, compared to the irrigated crop, can be seen in the chart below, which shows Afghan annual wheat production from 2005 to 2020. Lack of snowfall on the mountains, or higher spring temperatures leading to premature snowmelt, can also result in a shortage of irrigation water downstream at critical times. Herders are also hit hard if pasture is too little to sustain their flocks and herds. Scientists modelling the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate forecast that Afghanistan will see more frequent and harsher droughts, as well as warmer temperatures, a general shift from snow to rainfall, and heavier spring rains. Farmers in Helmand, Daikundi, Ghazni, Paktia, Laghman and Kunduz have their outlook for the coming year. Most had some access to irrigated, as well as rainfed land, and many also had a small number of livestock. The AAN has found that after the distressingly dry early winter, there is renewed hope that this year will be wetter and crops and pasture might flourish. Still, most farmers the AAN spoke to worry that spring rains would not fall in enough quantity or not at the right time to ensure a healthy crop and fear for the longer-term future. The winter of 2023/24 was unremittingly dry, until finally, in the month of Hut (beginning on 20 February), rain or snow fell, and it has rained or snowed several times since. A farmer in Zurmat district of Paktia said those two dry months at the start of winter had made people worry if there would even be drinking water this year. He has ten jeribs of irrigated and three jeribs of rain-fed land, plus five jeribs shared with a neighbor; he grows wheat for the household and maize, beans, onions, tomatoes and potatoes to sell. He also has two cows and a 20-strong flock of sheep and goats. After so many dry years, he said he had not bothered to sow winter wheat on his rain-fed land in the autumn. Those few people in the village who had seen the wheat dry up, or be eaten by birds or, at best, it had cost more to get it to harvest than it brought in. The snow that fell in the last month of winter had come too late to save the winter wheat, but at least there was hope for the spring crops and people had been spurred into action: The weather was cold, but it made the people happy. It snowed four times in all, although not more than 30 cm in depth. Then, it rained and the snow melted. As a result, the underground water level has increased a little and there is water in the wells. Water in our village’s Kariz is running again because water has come down from the mountains. Agriculture is renewed. People are busy sowing crops, and wheat, some are even planting trees. Everyone’s busy and happy. A few days ago, I was able to sow barley. The earth is soft and moist and the barley should grow very well. I hope it will rain again so that we get a good harvest. Another farmer from Jaghatu district of Ghazni province, who is landless and cultivates irrigated land as a sharecropper, said they had about 40 cm of snow, enough for drinking water and the animals (he has 25 sheep, four cows and a calf) and a slight improvement for the crops. In years when there’s more water [than average], we can get a harvest large enough not only for my family and the landlord but also with a surplus to sell. But for the last three or four years, we just didn’t get enough rain and snow and I’ve only been able to meet my family’s needs. We’ve had so many losses – we weren’t able to grow winter wheat and had to buy flour and potatoes and I’ve had to reduce the herd and flock by half, while the price of animals had gone down. A farmer in the Qarghahi district of Laghman said, “It recently rained so much that it went a long way towards quenching the earth’s thirst – not enough yet to meet the needs of farmers, but much better than last year or the year before.” He grows wheat for household use and a second crop of barley for sale on three jeribs and vegetables – cucumbers, chives, green onions and cauliflowers – all for sale on another two jeribs of his own land, as well as on six jeribs which he rents with his brother. He also has five cows and ten sheep grazing on his land and grows fodder crops for them. Laghmani farmers, he said, generally have access to water for irrigation from the Kabul and Panjshir Rivers and, in some areas, canals. Despite that, he said, rain is invaluable: Compared to water from the river, rain can double the harvest. It functions like fertilizer. Last year, we grew winter wheat, but it dried up due to a lack of water and we had no harvest. When it snows in the mountains for three consecutive months, the water in the rivers increases and the groundwater level rises. When there’s no snow or rain, the water level drops. In the summer months when it gets hot, the water level in the river also goes down and people face a water shortage. When there’s a lot of rain, of course, the water in the springs that were reduced or dried up increases again and the springs flow. Prospects had also turned for a farmer from Nad Ali district of Helmand Province who cultivates winter wheat on 5.5 jeribs to feed his household, and spring crops on another one-and-a-half jeribs – vegetables to eat and sell and cotton to sell. He also has 10 goats. The dry winter followed a long drought – not a single drop of rain had fallen in spring 2023, he said, and that had badly affected his winter crops. The wheat turned yellow because of the lack of rain and was very weak. It was only around ten centimeters tall when the grain started to fill out and the cumin was about to dry up. [But then], it rained in the month of Hut, the wheat turned green again and began growing taller and the cumin got better. The wheat and cumin crops are happy now, very happy. We hadn’t watered our crops for around 50 days because the canal was dry. The rain in Hut, he said, had “more than 90 percent” addressed the drought. A local well-digger had told him the water table had risen from a depth of about 18 to 20 meters to 11 meters. “People are now ploughing their land,” he said, “and preparing to sow the new crops.” However, elsewhere in the province, the rain in February had come just in time, and the situation remains precarious: The population of some districts of Helmand like Washer, Nawzad, Kajaki and Musa Qala were about to migrate because of the shortage of water. They were lacking even drinking water. Now the Karizes there are full of water again. In Nawzad and Washer districts, snow fell. If the rain continues, I mean if it rains occasionally in Hamal [began 20 March], the drought in those districts will be addressed. If not, they will still have severe problems irrigating their crops.

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.