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From emergency food aid to sustainable food security: 10 years of agricultural recovery in Afghanistan

By François Grunewald

François Grunewald is an agricultural engineer specialising in the rural economy. He has worked in the field of crisis and post crisis operations since 1979 with NGOs, ICRC and UN agencies. His more recent postings have taken him to Cambodia, Tchetchenia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique, Former-Yugoslavia and North Korea. He currently chairs the URD Group (an inter-agency research body) and is Associate Professor at Paris XII university in charge of a masters degree on humanitarian affairs.

Afghanistan is a country of breathtaking beauty inhabited by poets and warriors. Over the past 10 years I have been lucky enough to regularly work in the food security and agricultural recovery sector of Afghanistan.

The current agricultural and food security situation in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in the years of war which have stricken the country over the last two decades. While civil war has continued to rage around Kabul, many other areas have gone through periods of calm since 1989. This had enabled Afghan farmers to recover at least partially. However, the international embargo after the Taliban take-over considerably limited opportunities for further improvement. In addition the drought that has since affected various Afghan provinces, has reduced the area cultivated, the yield, and consequently the availability of seeds. This is expected to have an impact on both the 2002 spring planting season and the subsequent autumnal harvest. It has also resulted in large scale de-stocking of livestock and devastating effects on perennial crops, which play a critical role in food security during winter. Both losses represent an important de-capitalisation which must be energetically tackled.

Agricultural evaluation in central Asia

The events of September 11th marked a new era for the country. Within a few weeks the situation in Afghanistan changed dramatically. Mazar-I-Sharif fell into the hands of the Northern Alliance, followed by Herat and Kabul a day later. As military events rapidly unfolded the mood changed within NGOs and UN agencies. Instead of preparing for a protracted refugee operation, many moved back to the offices they had evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the 11th of September 2001. Following a decade of indifference, if not disdain, the international community flooded Afghanistan with a flurry of missions and initiatives. Observers could not help but be aware of intense inter-agency competition for funding and limelight. This posed a risk to years of patiently accumulated knowledge and experience as new 'actors' jostled for 'humanitarian space' without the experience or knowledge to mount effective or appropriate interventions. Many of these new agencies could so easily fall into a number of traps in the months ahead. The article below highlights where some of the dangers lie and what this implies for planning and intervention.

The Crisis of the Uprooted people in Afghanistan

The years of war against the Soviet invasion drove around 6 million refugees from Afghanistan to Iran (2.3 Million) and Pakistan (3.6 Million). While a small part of the Afghan population is nomadic (mainly the Kushi tribes which have been estimated at 300.000 to 500.000), most of the other tribes are closely linked to their home territory. Here, water rights and land rights are deeply ingrained in people's consciousness. People only abandon traditional territory under dramatic circumstances. These years of exile have profoundly affected the social fabric of the country and brought about dissension between the "Peshawar Shura" (the co-ordinators of the Afghanistan Resistance in Pakistan) and the Commanders of the Interior.

The end of the war and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops resulted in the launch of Operation Salam with more than 2.4 million refugees being repatriated from Pakistan and 0.9 million from Iran. In large parts of the devastated country, agricultural rehabilitation and support to the much needed social services were the focus of many NGO and UN programmes, for both returnees and the local population. But power sharing between the Resistance from Pakistan, the Resistance from the Interior and the Usbek groups who until late in the war were allies of the pro-soviet Kabul Regime, was difficult. Inter ethnic tension heightened between the Pachtoun tribes, the mainly Farsi speaking Tajiks, the Hazara (Shi'ite), and the Usbek. For the first time ever Kabul was heavily shelled. With the civil war reaching new levels, repatriation came to a halt while internal displacements skyrocketed. Kabul became the scene of a great deal of internal movement, e.g. population transfer from one side of Kabul to another depending on the level of intensity of the fighting. Many areas outside the Kabul plain remained nevertheless quiet and enjoyed various types of rehabilitation and development projects.

With the rise of the Taliban movement, the net balance of displacement reversed, with more refugees appearing in Pakistan, Iran and even Tajikistan, than returnees coming back to Afghanistan. War north of Kabul as well is in the lower Hindukush resulted in the displacement of between 600,000 and 1,500,000 people. Meanwhile a flow of refugees from Mazar-ISharif and Hazarajan continued to cross the Iran border.

Linking agricultural recovery and mine awareness

However, until September 11th, large parts of the country remained calm. This enabled the UNHCR to assist the voluntary repatriation of thousands of Afghan refugees and permitted many others to go back home on their own. The remaining refugee caseload stayed away worried by both the security situation and the economic situation inside Afghanistan. After September 11th and ensuing events many of these people are now returning home. However, drought induced displacements continue in the most affected areas with hundreds of thousands of new IDPs adding to the suffering in the country, such as in the western foothills of Hindu Hush.

The irrigation systems in Afghanistan comprise:

  • Traditional diversion canals on river courses, the latter being fed mainly by melting water in distant mountains.
  • Modern irrigation schemes based on large scale diversion canals and primary distribution canals. Initiated in the early sixties, these systems have been constrained by difficulties related to water distribution, infrastructure maintenance and soil management. Erosion of canals, decreasing motivation of farmers confronted with weak secondary and tertiary distribution networks and soil degradation have been frequent problems.
  • Karezes are water collection systems through underground canals in the alluviatic substratum. These ancient systems require much maintenance which was often lacking during the anti-soviet war. A lot of rehabilitation took place during the period of relative peace which has prevailed since then.
  • Simple wells and bore-holes: The multiplication of these bore-holes in certain areas in the South appears to have led to an accelerated depletion of the underground water reserves.
  • Outside this irrigated sector exists a complex rain-fed agricultural sector, based on cereal, legumes and perennial crop production.

Fighting food insecurity in a complex environment

Afghan agricultural systems are extremely diverse. They range from arid pastoral systems and localised food production areas where irrigation is vital, to sub-mountainous systems where rain-fed cereal and legume production neighbour fruit tree production and altitude adapted animal rearing. The topology also affects agricultural practices, e.g. large valleys where agriculture is only constrained by the availability of water, narrow riverine zones where the slopes limit the arable land, immense quasi flat arid steppes, etc. No one technical package will serve all agricultural systems. It is therefore important to understand the resilience and vulnerability associated with different agro-ecosystems.

An important element of this diversity is access to irrigation, which is mainly a product of topology.

The rain-fed cereal production sector in Afghanistan has received very little attention in the past. There has been minimal research into this sector so that there is little understanding of the agricultural systems in this harsh and hazardous environment.

Farm sizes and land tenure systems are equally diverse. The hilly areas of Afghanistan are dominated by small landowners. These represent an important group of very small and land-less farmers who complement their production capacity through sharecropping arrangements that can take many different forms.

The social aspects of the Afghan systems of production are very seldom mentioned in NGO and UN reports related to food security and food crisis. This is a significant omission as the "semi-feudal" nature of agrarian society functions on the basis of inequitable distribution of wealth between those who control access to land and water and those who have to pay (in kind, by labour or in cash). This is a crucial element to consider in planning agricultural interventions. The different actors, e.g. sharecroppers, Khan (big landlord with local political power), Malek (village headman), and Mirab and Wakils (water managers) exist in a delicate equilibrium. Engaging and influencing this precarious equilibrium is risky. The first large-scale attempt to introduce some equality into these systems (The Taraki Agrarian Reform), targeted the unequal production relationships. This led to the 1978 rural insurgency and resulted ultimately in the Soviet invasion.

Urban versus rural

Rural areas produce, urban centres consume. The key to this relationship is the purchasing power of the urban population, which is currently very heterogeneous. Urban poverty is currently widely spread and many Afghan urban centres shelter huge numbers of rural displaced who have little, if any, access to job opportunities.

The overall approach to food security

In my view the key strategy for Afghanistan should now be based on one over-arching objective: establishing sustainable livelihoods in an uncertain, hazardous and diversified environment where food insecurity has been the norm over the last two to three decades. This will only be achieved through multi-sectoral intervention.

For a pro-poor strategy: Limitations of current approach

The current approach for promoting food security in Afghanistan being employed by many agencies is predominantly one that focuses on the "most promising areas". The assumption has been that the international community would get "better value for money" by investing in these zones, where irrigation is available and intensification of the production systems are possible. This view can be challenged on both practical and ethical grounds:

These observations support a strategy that includes the poorer areas of the country.


Responding to the Emergency

An appreciation of the complexities and the challenges of Afghanistan is critical in formulating a response to the current emergency. Based on the outlined experiences and observations, recommendations for activities and response time frame are summarised in the table.

Level Actions


First level of urgency Respond to the prevailing "seed insecurity" For the coming spring planting season
  Reinforce the soil preparation capacity by bringing in tractor spare parts For spring 2002
  Address risks threatening livestock survival in certain parts of the country as a result of the drought As soon as possible
Second level of urgency Save as much of the locally produced planting material in order to ensure the highest possible level of seed availability. Protect the endangered bio-diversity and the availability of local seeds For the 2002 Autumn cropping season
  Strengthen the existing Seed Multiplication Programme of the PEACE project For 2002 onwards
  Facilitate the return of refugees and IDPs through the distribution of basic agro-kits. Support of mini-projects for receiving communities in order to enhance their capacity to absorb returnees. Co-ordination with UNHCR is essential Spring 2002
  Create a mechanism of credit for fodder procurement in order to avoid further selling of animals by livestock owners Winter-spring 2002
  Create jobs in the cities and towns, to encourage economic activity and create a demand for local production Spring 2002 onwards


Better knowledge for enhanced planning and monitoring

The international community is currently confronted with a food security information problem in Afghanistan. Information is sketchy, with comprehensive reports available in some operational areas and a total absence of information in others. There is a wealth of data available for certain sectors such as nutrition, e.g. nutrition surveys, but little in depth knowledge on livelihood systems, especially among the agencies new to Afghanistan. To inform adequately the planning, monitoring and evaluation of the humanitarian response to the food and agricultural crisis in Afghanistan and in the interests of transparency and accountability, it is essential that "a nation-wide coordinated" food security information system is established. This should become an essential part of the international community's effort towards co-ordination and accountability and pave the way for a national system of food security information that can later be transferred to the government.

For further information contact François Grunewald at:

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Reference this page

From emergency food aid to sustainable food security: 10 years of agricultural recovery in Afghanistan. Field Exchange 15, April 2002. p6.



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