Over the course of the past few years, political turmoil, international isolation, economic collapse and climate change have really impacted the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan. And this crisis has been felt most as a food crisis.

An alarming 15 million people are currently acutely food insecure in Afghanistan. Acute food insecurity is when a person's inability to consume adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger.

Our Deputy Director for Climate Action, Guru Naik, spoke with us about the ongoing crisis, how Afghanaid has improved the situation for many families by providing large scale support for rural farming communities, as well as what further work needs to be done.

Why have farmers been struggling to meet their food needs over the past few years? What has this got to do with climate change?

“In summer of 2021, there was obviously a huge amount of fear and uncertainty when the international troops withdrew and the Taliban takeover happened. People were worried about retribution, some communities had to leave their homes due to fighting or to move abroad, and a financial and unemployment crisis unfolded which made accessing money very difficult and prices skyrocket. All in all, it was a very unsettling time.

“Around 80% of Afghanistan's population are farmers - they rely on the land for their food and income. So a key thing we saw at that point in time was that this uncertainty or displacement made many of these rural families miss their harvest - they had crops, but they did not reap the benefits of them, leaving families hungry and markets empty. 

“The effects of this then continued through October and November 2021, when they needed to sow the next crop. Having missed their harvest and with no other livelihood opportunities, they had no money to buy seeds, so we saw very high levels of hunger continue right through 2022.

Climate change also played a major part in making this bad situation worse. In Afghanistan, the climate crisis is really a water crisis. What we have seen in the past few years is that the timing and amount of rain and snowfall in Afghanistan is changing. 

"Farmers tend to sow their wheat in the month of November - and they expect the growth to happen immediately after the snowfall of December and January. But these predictable weather patterns that rural families could once rely on have been irregular in recent years, and if the timing of sowing seeds and then irrigating those seeds no longer matches, then we have a problem for large numbers of farmers dependent on rainfall for their crop.

“Between 2021 and 2023, an acute multi-year drought has been felt. It was actually the worst recorded drought in the country in around three decades. So yields were consistently extremely low, meaning families year after year, harvest after harvest, just couldn’t recover from the initial shock in 2021.

“Because of these many overlapping crises, in the last two and a half years more than half the population were classified by the IPC to be acutely food insecure, which was the highest level ever recorded in Afghanistan.”

Has there been another drought in Afghanistan this year?

“Because of El Niño, it was expected that there would be above average precipitation, which would bring some relief to the food security situation in Afghanistan in 2024.

“However, there was again unpredictability with snow and rainfall this year. Most of Afghanistan got around a third less precipitation between October 2023 to late January 2024 than is needed, with areas in northern and eastern Afghanistan recording historically low amounts. This meant that the wheat crop in particular was not growing. So there was a conclusion at that time that it was likely another drought would come. 

“Then the snowfall did happen in February and March, so there was some relief - but not to the extent that people expected, or needed. This is troubling for people who are dependent on surface water for their irrigation needs, as their lands are fed by rain or snowmelt coming from the mountains. If these sources dry up quickly because of the reduction of rain and snowfall, then there is still cause for concern about how successful their harvests will be in the coming months."

You’ve recently visited the work of Afghanaid’s Afghanistan Resilience Consortium (ARC) in Samangan, Takhar and Bamyan. Have people’s situations improved?

Compared to a few years ago, the situation in terms of food security has undoubtedly improved. The fact that famine conditions were avoided in the lean season of 2022-2023 can be linked to the extensive and timely delivery of humanitarian food and agriculture assistance delivered by UN agencies and NGOs like Afghanaid.

“In the areas I have visited recently, you now see lots of crops on the ground again. People are still worried about the unpredictable weather conditions this year and whether it’ll impact their harvest, but you can also see that a good amount of farmers have managed to get back on their feet.

“But it’s not been easy for these families to get to this point - people had to take loans, get help from neighbours, or find other coping mechanisms to stay resilient - and for those who could not, they are still in a bad way. There has been a reduced amount of international aid coming to Afghanistan since 2021, which means the response from the UN and NGOs didn’t have as much coverage at the community level as was really necessary.

“So there’s still 15 million people - over a third of the country - who are in acute or emergency levels of food insecurity. And unless we sort out solutions for their water needs, the changing weather patterns brought by climate change could mean this food crisis in Afghanistan never really goes away.”

What has Afghanaid been doing to help get farmers back on their feet and access water? What further work needs to be done?

“In the first stages of the crisis, we mobilised a large-scale humanitarian relief programme, and last year alone reached 500,000 people with emergency aid. This included things like cash, food, and heating. We’re keeping this large-scale programming going to ensure people can meet their urgent needs.

“We’ve also been providing emergency livelihood inputs. In order to make up for the lack of money people had for seeds, NGOs like Afghanaid as well as UN agencies like FAO have been providing seeds and fertilisers, in particular certified seeds, to farmers to boost farmers’ yields. 

“But if certified seeds are not coupled with good rainfall or good access to groundwater, the yields you can get from them are actually lower as they require more water than your average local seed. So really, in the longer term, it brings us back to the point that the most important thing for us to be doing is improving access to water.

“Afghanaid has been working in this area of climate action for over a decade, and we have continued to launch new adaptation projects since 2021. Our work focuses on improving the availability of water for entire communities, reducing damage caused by climate-related disasters, and bolstering household resilience to climate change through strengthening and diversifying livelihoods. 

The main thing we’ve learnt is that the basic truth of building climate resilience in Afghanistan is, if you’re going to help communities, you need to understand the detail. 

“For instance, whether we are doing work to improve access to surface water or groundwater depends on the geographic area. In areas where there is a lot of perennial streams fed by snowmelt, such as Bamyan province, the focus is on retaining as much of that water as possible, getting water to travel a further distance, and helping more people to be able to access that water. So we work with communities to build things like canals, super passages, and aqueducts. In areas where there is no or little surface water, such as Samangan province, our interventions have been focused on rainwater conservation and improving groundwater. This is about watershed management - it’s about how you recharge the groundwater and help communities to access it. So we work with communities to dig trenches and terraces in hillsides and build check dams and gully plugs.

Gully plugs - stone structures which help to slow the flow of water - on a hillside in Samangan province

“We’ve been in a position to help over 100 communities with this kind of water access programming  since 2018. The knowledge we have gained from working with these resilient villages has spread amongst all of our projects, and other organisations, and ensures we expand on tried and tested community-led work that we’ve learnt will succeed.

“One really promising thing I’ve seen once people are accessing water - and it’s something which the work of the ARC is really promoting - is that people who grow more than two different crops are faring better, and are able to make more money. Basically, they are able to grow wheat in Autumn, which sorts their food needs and provides straw for their animals, and in Spring then if they grow a cash crop - like potatoes, onions, watermelon, cotton, or ferula - they’re enriching their diet but are also able to sell any surplus at the local bazaar. So we’re really encouraging this, and distributing more diverse crops to set families up better for the future. 

“Obviously, though the food security crisis has somewhat improved since 18 months ago, the situation for women is getting a lot worse and they now can’t get a full education, work in certain jobs or move freely. They’re also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So another major part of our climate adaptation programming is working specifically with women to support them to earn incomes through off-farm activities, like tailoring, soap-making, or weaving. These livelihoods are obviously unaffected by things like droughts, so it helps to keep their families fed despite the changing climate, whilst also giving them independence.

“Clearly, there’s a lot of work still to be done to reach many more provinces, districts and communities, but the improvements we’ve been able to make to people’s lives in the current context is really fantastic. We just need to keep pushing for more progress, in both climate action and for women’s freedoms, to put an end to this lingering crisis once and for all.”

Invest in change that lasts

People across Afghanistan require multi-layered support to address the complex challenges they face. You can help us support villages to access water and transform their futures with sustainable, community-driven solutions. How? By joining our monthly giving community.

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