By Gracie Pearsall
Millions of farmers and pastoralists in Afghanistan are experiencing the harsh effects of climate change. The Afghanistan Government, the World Food Programme, and the UN Environmental Programme, recently published a report detailing how climate-related drought and flooding have impacted the livelihood and food security of Afghan agriculturalists during the past 30 years. This report looks at the intersection of climate, livelihood, and demographic data to examine the impact of that climate change.
Livelihoods in Afghanistan are primarily agriculture-based, with more than 60% of the population listing agriculture as a source of household income. Thus, the most pressing climate threats that rural Afghanistan citizens face are drought and flooding, which alter the flow of water. The report breaks down drought and flooding into four distinct categories: Rainfall-related drought, snowfall-related drought, rainfall-related flooding, and snowfall-related flooding. Surprisingly, rainfall and snowfall can cause both flooding and drought, because climate change disrupts precipitation patterns.
Spring rainfall in Northern and Central Afghanistan has significantly decreased over the past 30 years, causing more frequent droughts. The regions where rainfall has decreased overlap with regions that depend on agriculture and pastoralism for income and food. The increased drought inhibits farmers’ ability to grow crops and raise livestock, thus increasing food and livelihood insecurity. Central Afghanistan is responsible for growing surplus grain and providing labour opportunities to surrounding communities, but decreased productivity due to drought has decreased food security in the area and throughout the country. In northern Afghanistan, where food security is chronic, many male family members go to Pakistan in the winter to find off-farm employment. Because drought has amplified food and income insecurity caused by drought, labour migration rates have increased over the past 30 years.
One distinct feature of Afghanistan’s agricultural system is its reliance on snow and glacier melt for irrigation flow. Snow-fed river flow is highest in the spring and summer when snow cover melts. However, because of changes in precipitation patterns, the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains, are receiving significantly less snowfall than usual, which reduces spring river flow. The area most vulnerable to this change is the Eastern Basin area surrounding Kabul, which depends on snow-fed rivers for irrigation. Despite this area’s ability to grow cash crops, the area is chronically food insecure, and snowfall related drought further reducing arability and food availability.
While some regions have experienced decreased Spring rainfall, others have witnessed increased heavy rainfall, along with the devastating effects of the subsequent flooding. The mountainous Northeast, the hilly Southeast, and the arid Southwest experience the most flooding. These regions face the greatest risk because they are intensely irrigated by river flow and are sensitive to the effects of flooding that occurs when increased rainfall causes rivers to surge. Flooding has destroyed crops, caused displacement, and destroyed roads, which limits agriculturalists’ access to market.
Excess snowfall in the mountains causes increased flooding in the Spring and Summer when the snow cover melts. Rising temperatures amplify this flooding by causing the snow cover to melt quicker. The excess snowmelt flows into rivers and threatens the communities along rivers and those that use snow-fed rivers for irrigation. The intensively irrigated Southeast region in the Helmand River Basin is most at risk for snow-based flooding. This region primarily grows grains and vegetables, and is chronically food insecure. Communities and farms clustered around rivers in this area have faced growing destruction and displacement as the snow-fed rivers flood in the spring. The flooding is particularly volatile for pastoralists in this area, because the flooding changes the vegetation and grazing patterns of the livestock, thus forcing the livestock into new areas.
Future climate risks
Although this report focuses on how climate change has already impacted rural Afghanistan, the report also briefly touches on the future risks. In general, projections show increased instances of flooding and drought, which will further increase food insecurity, increase rates of seasonal labour migrations, and threaten the livelihood of millions of Afghanistan agriculturalists. However, in the Highlands the future is not so dire because the rising temperatures and increased rainfall could actually extend the growing season. This extension would increase agricultural productivity, but only if agriculturists engage in proper water management and invest in infrastructure.