Fighting drought in Afghanistan: commitment and tears
Jawid Sultany, National Resilience Officer, FAO.
©FAO/Alberto Trillo Barca
An FAO officer, Jawid Sultany, goes back to Herat and finds a worrisome situation
I have to admit that I was obsessed with getting back to the office. I couldn’t wait for the security clearance of the FAO regional coordinator. As soon as I reached Herat, back from being relocated for almost two months in Kabul, I passed by the office, which is embedded in the Provincial office for the Ministry of Agriculture, and couldn’t resist myself to ask about it.
"You’re very welcome," the new Taliban guard said.
I met with the Taliban watching over the office. They were interested in understanding what FAO does and they showed great enthusiasm about our work. "We need people like you in our country," they said.
But they also told me they couldn’t make any decision as they were only guarding. But that was a start.
I was excited to go back to the field and understand whether the communities we work with have already felt the cascading effects of drought. The western region of Afghanistan is one of the regions most affected by drought. I wanted to grasp in situ the findings we will be drawing from the beneficiary profile survey we were conducting.
I headed to Ghoryan, a far distant district, west of Herat, located in the lower stream of Hairoad river. As much as in the upper stream there is usually more water, Ghoryan is usually hit earlier and harder when there is drought.
The water shortage was evident. The land is dry. Canals are dry.
I met with some of the farmers we serve as part of the selection and profile survey to provide support for this winter wheat season. I listened carefully to all of them, one by one, as we went around the table. Their accounts were disheartening.
One man in his forties could barely speak. "I can’t continue with my life", he said, and he began to cry.
It was very emotional. I couldn’t hold back my tears either, while I was trying to somehow sooth his profound desperation. He continued: "I borrowed seeds and fertilizers last season to plant the plot of land that I rented, for which I have to pay with half of the harvest to the landowner. But harvest was zero. I have a huge debt to the landowner for the rent, plus I need to pay back the loan for seeds and fertilizers."
Many farmers were hopeless about their future. They think that foreign aid will stop, and so too will the opportunities to continue with their agricultural livelihoods. I explained that we will come back and provide seeds and fertilizers for the winter wheat season. In the western region, close to 140 000 people have been assisted in the provinces of Badghis, Farah, Ghor and Herat under this crucial campaign for the country.
Despite this support, the future does not look bright with another dry winter under the influence of La Niña.
This is why we are also reinforcing the cash-for-work programme. Together with their communities, FAO selects key water infrastructures (protection walls, canals, etc.) to be built or rehabilitated as to make the most out of the scarce water resources available. These activities also provide a lifesaving income for many who have lost their jobs or livelihoods.
Cash-for-work activities generate common goods for the communities as everyone benefits from these infrastructures, not only those workers earning a wage. On the one hand, there is the obvious benefit: the new infrastructure; on the other hand, the money that flows into the community and activates the local economy has great impact. In 2021, we had rehabilitated 80 infrastructures in the western region.
As it happens, with the provision of unconditional cash transfers, this is one of the preferred ways by fellow Afghans to receive relief support. They say they appreciate the freedom it provides to them.
Since I came back to Herat, it has been hectic. In addition to the activities that I have already mentioned, I have also been busy with the monitoring of the animal feed that we are distributing to 25 000 vulnerable families. This means that 175 000 people will have benefitted from this assistance.
At a time when prices continue increasing, providing supplementary feed is vital for many vulnerable people who otherwise could not afford it and be forced to sell their only livelihoods in despair. Each family receives 200 kg of concentrate animal feed, animal health treatment (like deworming to protect to protect animals from internal parasites), and training in sustainable livestock management. The concentrate feed covers the animal feeding needs of an average livestock-owning family for two to three months.
The seeds certification process has also been challenging amid the political transition and economic decline. The Seeds Certification Directorate has not been functioning in a normal way. And it is understandable as the situation is somewhat chaotic: industrial labour has stopped in Herat, cross-border trade with our neighbours in Iran is non-existent, and health facilities are on the brink of collapse. And as our colleagues of the World Food Programme have been warning, the need for immediate food assistance has skyrocketed.
All of this make us work against the clock to ensure a timely delivery against the backdrop of dramatically increased humanitarian needs. The better assistance we provide to farmers and herders, the more chances of ensuring the bedrock of Afghanistan remains as solid as possible. Food production must be sustained for all Afghans to ensure they can provide food their families.