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Food security assessment of high altitude villages of Badakhshan, Afghanistan

By Salim Sumar, Laila Naz Taj and Iqbal Kermali

Dr Salim Sumar heads Focus Humanitarian Assistance Europe Foundation, which is an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network1. Based in London, England, FOCUS Europe has regional responsibilities for communities in Africa, Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe. Salim has worked extensively in humanitarian emergencies, conflicts and international development in Central Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe as well as in academia as Professor of Food, Nutrition & Public Health.

Laila Naz Taj is a researcher at Focus Humanitarian Assistance Europe Foundation. Laila holds an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and has extensive international and field based experience in the developmental sector, research, policy and practice. She has worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan with a variety of international NGOs.

Dr Iqbal Kermali has a strong international background with significant experience in relief, rehabilitation and development programmes, particularly Central Asia. His specialisation includes agriculture development, livelihoods and management of natural resources. He has worked for FAO and the Aga Khan Development Network in Afghanistan. Currently he is the Team Leader and Training Coordinator of the Asian Development Bank-funded Capacity Development for the Western Basins Water Resources Management Project and is based in Herat, Afghanistan.

The authors acknowledge the organization support of Focus Humanitarian Assistance and the Aga Khan Development Network in preparing this article. They wish also to acknowledge the contributions made by the staff of Focus Humanitarian Assistance, Afghanistan, in particular Noor Kashani and Hesamuddin Hashuri.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country that is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, on the extreme northeast by China, on the east and south by Pakistan, and by Iran on the west. The country is divided east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range, rising in the east to heights of 24,500 feet (7,485 m).

In its recent past, Afghanistan has endured decades of political instability, protracted conflict and natural disasters, all of which have contributed to various insecurities in the country. As such, progress with regard to human development has been slow, with life expectancy marginally increased to 44.5 years for men and 44 years for women2. Most other human development indicators also remain unacceptable and are among the worst in the world, including maternal mortality rates (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births) and under 5 mortality rates (199 per 1,000 live births). Based on the broader set of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human development index indicators (health, education, living standards), Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 countries.

Focus assessment team with local community members in Zebak

Almost half of the estimated population of 25 million still live below the poverty line and the nation faces many challenges, particularly with regards to poor nutrition and food insecurity3. Approximately half of Afghan children under 5 years are chronically malnourished and over a third are underweight. In addition, three-quarters of all children under 5 years suffer from critical micronutrient deficiencies, most notably of iron and iodine. These poor nutritional outcomes are closely linked to the state of food security in the country. Food security and its consequences vary considerably across the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, reflecting the diversity of social and economic conditions4.

FOCUS in Afghanistan

Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) has been implementing emergency response and rehabilitation activities in Afghanistan since the 1990s. FOCUS also work in the most remote (high altitude) regions of eastern Afghanistan. As a part of its activities, detailed food security assessments are conducted at regular intervals. This information is shared with its partners including the government and international organisations, especially the World Food Programme (WFP). The assessment described in this article was conducted in Badakhshan, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan with a population of 2 million inhabitants.


The study conducted in 2009/2010 profiles food security in the high altitude regions of Badakhshan province. The province is located in the north-east of the country and has a total area of 44,060 km², most of which is occupied by the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges.

Food production is limited by insufficient arable land, extreme winters, a shorter growing season, poor marketing and lack of inputs.

A team of four trained assessors, accompanied by community volunteers, visited 195 villages over a period of ten months, starting in mid-June, 2009. The team interviewed key informants including members of the village councils, officials of the local and district governments and members of civil society organisations. A semi-structured assessment form was designed, translated into Dari and validated to facilitate use at the field level. The team was also trained in conducting semi-structured interviews and in collecting information from communities. Information collected included data on demographics, livelihoods, state of food security, causes of and any coping/management strategies employed to deal with food insecurity. This information was translated from Dari into English and compiled into a database.

Finally, the information collected for all the villages at district level were consolidated, reviewed and validated by the local representatives and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies working in the area. A copy of the information collected was provided to the respective village leader for future reference.


The assessment focused on 195 villages at high altitudes and examined both agro-ecological (e.g. altitude, wheat yields) and socio-economic factors (e.g. market access, infrastructure, and livelihoods) in relation to food security.

A substantial number of the 195 villages surveyed were found to be food insecure despite various efforts to rehabilitate agricultural systems, improve livelihoods and militate against disasters. These efforts included humanitarian and rural development activities by various UN and other international agencies, such as food for work and fertiliser distribution, since the 1990s.

Overall, results of this study indicated insufficient support, infrastructure and access to markets and frequent shocks from floods, landslides, and droughts. Furthermore, demands on natural resources and recent (sharp) increases in the price of food, fuel and transportation had all contributed to increasing food insecurity and the vulnerability among the rural populations. A recent World Bank survey indicated similar concerns with regards to food insecurity and vulnerability among the population, with 70% of the local population being calorie deficient and 61% considered to be in poverty5.

Despite sharing international borders with Pakistan, Tajikistan and China, international trade links barely exist outside of narcotics. Official trade exists only with Tajikistan across two border posts, both of which are difficult to access (especially in winter). There is no major electricity grid and the first paved main road (linking to neighbouring Takhar) came to the province in 2010. Badakhshan’s inaccessibility and lack of available agricultural land has resulted in a slow and generally underdeveloped local economy.


Badakhshan province is largely mountainous (reaching as far up as 7485 m), allowing for little agriculture except animal husbandry, usually of sheep and goats. The population surveyed is mostly settled in higher altitude areas: 49% at 2,500m to 3,000m range followed by 24% at 2,000m to 2,500m range. Fourteen per cent of the villages are at less than 2,000m while 13% are at more than 3,000m. This is shown in Figure 1 which plots the altitudes of individual villages of the nine districts surveyed.

Villages located above 2,000m (86% of those surveyed) depend mostly on subsistence farming for food and are generally food insecure and characterised by both low food consumption and lack of dietary diversity. These mountainous areas have only one crop per year and there is very little arable land for cultivation. In general, most communities in these areas are geographically isolated because of poor or no roads and they have little or no access to seasonal food markets or health facilities, particularly during winter. The traditional livelihood system in these areas is primarily livestock husbandry.

Overall living conditions

The overall living conditions for each village were assessed by the local village informants using simple and local Dari language terminology (translated into English for analysis). These keywords roughly equated to the village as ‘very poor’, ‘poor’, ‘sufficient’, ‘good’ and ‘very good’. These simple and qualitative scores are therefore based on informant’s perception relative to other villages in the province. Results showed that 102 villages were below normal (poor or very poor), 33 villages were normal (sufficient), and the remaining 60 villages above normal (good or very good). While, the data was encouraging in identifying a significant number of villages above normal, the majority of villages were below normal, indicating a worrying trend. The geo-political instability in the province presents a further risk as in most cases, the local, central and provincial authorities remain weak.


Diversity of income streams outside of the agricultural sector is a key component to ensuring food security. The main sources of on-farm income in the villages were crop production (58%) and livestock (30%), followed by fruit production (7%) and forestry (5%) (see Figure 2).

Only 6.5% of the total population is employed in the off-farm sector. About 52% of off-farm employment is in the work force (labourers), followed by government service mostly in education (28%), military (11%), private service (5%), NGOs (5%), and business/ shopkeepers at (4%).

On average, 11% of the households in the districts assessed receive external support, usually as remittance from family members working in other parts of Afghanistan or in the neighbouring countries. With sufficient infrastructure and investment, it is clear that there exists a vast labour pool which can be channelled into productive industries.

Despite popular belief, there is no significant production of narcotics in the area. However, trade involving external actors is evident along the border with Tajikistan. There is no monetary gain to the villages assessed through narcotics production or through trade. However, narcotics are readily available to the residents and thus represent a large monetary loss to the families whose members are addicts. The overall addiction rate in all the villages assessed was estimated at approximately 4%. This compares to a national figure of 8% of the population aged 15 to 64 years. The lower addiction rates in Badakshan are due primarily to improved security in the region and the population being more aware of the negative impact of consuming and trading in narcotics. There also appears to be a correlation with the geographic areas of production that are mainly in the northern and southern regions of the country6.

Food security conditions

Food secure villages were also scored based on the local knowledge of the informants using local Dari terminology. The informants scored the general food security conditions of their respective villages in the better year, worst year and the previous year (2008). Food secure villages were scored either as normal or borderline.

In an average year7, 99 villages are food secure (17 villages are normal and 82 villages are borderline) and 96 are insecure (of which 39 are very insecure). The number of very food insecure villages in 2008 was 56, i.e. it was a very bad year. The average annual food gap duration in the villages is 58 days, and the average number of households within a village that are food insecure is 80%.

In a bad year, the percentage of food insecure households is higher than 90% in all areas and is 100% in 10 of the 13 districts. In the face of such conditions, families employ various (damaging) coping mechanisms; respondents indicated that they have on different occasions resorted to selling assets, migrating, purchasing food on credit, increasing child labour, and begging.

Overall causes of food insecurity

The villages surveyed identified a number of different causes of food insecurity. In 186 villages, lack of agricultural inputs is the main cause of food insecurity followed by damage from hazards (138), poor markets (133) and lack of employment (118). The effects of natural disasters are exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure and the isolation of villages strung out along high mountain valleys, causing disruption to food production. Transportation to and access to agricultural inputs and products for the isolated and remote villages is always difficult due to lack of formal roads and/or availability of inputs. This is particularly challenging during winter, given the volume of snow or at times of landslides and floods, when assistance is most needed. In addition, lack of capital or unusually high price increases for food results in communities having to cope by borrowing, selling or exchanging other assets to pay debts and/or to get more cash to buy food during shortages or emergencies. Addiction to drugs was also another cause of food insecurity among the communities.

Wheat yields and prices

Wheat is the main staple food for most Afghans. In many villages assessed, there are no local markets and the population depends on markets in the neighbouring big towns to buy this staple. Moreover, availability varies from month to month.

Yield of irrigated wheat is a good indicator of food productivity in these areas. Overall, the 2008 average yield in the villages (742 Kg/ha) was lower compared to 907 Kg/ha in 2007 and 888 Kg/ha in 2006. The 2008 rain-fed wheat yield (408 Kg/ha) was on average 85% of the 2007 yield (481 Kg/ha) and 70% of the 2006 yield (587 Kg/ha).

On average, the rain fed yield was 47% of the irrigated wheat yield in the villages assessed. A similar trend was observed in previous years, with significantly lower yield in rain fed areas (34% in 2006, 47% in 2007 and 45% in 2008). In 2011, the combination of falling yield in both rain-fed and irrigated lands in Badakhshan, coupled with a decrease in the geographical area available for farming, has seen a significant wheat deficit arise (-86,100 metric tons). Wheat prices, in turn, have significantly risen since 2008, with prices of wheat and wheat flour having increased by 79% on the year before. The July 2011 price of all cereals increased by a further 60% above pre-food price crises (Jan- Oct 2007, FEWS, 2011)8.

Focus staff conducting interviews
with community informants

Conclusions and recommendations

The study conclusion reveals a population locked into a cycle of food insecurity with very few avenues of escape. The increased incidence of natural disasters coupled with a dependency on subsistence farming has meant that Badakhshan is a region blighted by poverty and very low living standards.

On the basis of information collected from the food security assessment and from discussions with community leaders, authorities and officials of civil society institutions, a number of inter-linked measures were recommended for responding to the repeated cycles of food crisis among the communities in Badakhshan. These include:

Box 1: Community Development Councils (CDCs)

Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Afghanistan were first established under the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) which is the largest community development programme in the history of Afghanistan. Known in the local Afghan language of Dari as ‘Hanbastagi Milli’ and in Pashtu as ‘Milli Pawastoon’, it is based on the Afghan traditions of ‘Ashar’ – community members working together on a volunteer basis to improve community infrastructure and ‘Jirga’ – councils comprised of respected members of the community; and Islamic values of unity, equity and justice.

The primary role of the CDCs is to serve as a consultative decision-making body that includes men, women, and traditionally marginalised members of the community. It is selected by the community through fair and open elections. Through participation in NSP and other programmes, communities will acquire or strengthen the skills and attitudes necessary to define, manage, and govern their development.

CDC/NSP consists of four core elements:

  1. Community mobilisation – facilitating elections to establish CDCs and helping CDCs identify priority sub-projects, prepare Community Development Plans, and implement approved subprojects.
  2. Building the capacities of CDC and community members (both men and women) in participation, consensus-building, accounting, procurement and contract management, operations and maintenance, and monitoring.
  3. Providing direct block grant transfers to fund subprojects
  4. Linking CDCs to government agencies, NGOs, and donors to improve access to services and resources.

Two types of subprojects may be financed under NSP: public infrastructure (such as water supply and sanitation, irrigation, transport, hospital and school buildings) and human capital development (general education including health and hygiene, child development training, training on birth attendant training and productive skills training, e.g. kitchen gardens, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, food processing, and vocational education.

CDCs are encouraged to link with other programmes and take on additional responsibilities as their capacity evolves (and as allowed under Afghan law). Discussions are currently underway within the Government to identify an appropriate strategy for legally recognizing CDCs as a local government body and establishing mechanisms to link CDCs to district, provincial, and national government bodies.


In addition to the above, four broad recommendations also emerge from the study for Badakhshan:

There needs to be recognition that food programmes do not represent the best method of achieving food security. Income-generating programmes are generally more efficient, such as the National Rural Access Programme (NRAP) formerly called the Afghan National Emergency Employment Programme (NEEP) and micro-finance programmes (see Box 2 for NRAP/ NEEP). Regular wage incomes smooth consumption patterns, therefore also ensuring health and education security. These incomes can also be reinvested back into purchasing agricultural inputs, thereby ensuring a diversity of incomes and food sources within a single household.

Box 2: National Rural Access Programme (NRAP)

The National Rural Access Programme (NRAP), formerly called the National Emergency Employment Programme (NEEP), was launched in 2002. Its aims were to increase access to rural infrastructure for local communities and to provide employment opportunities for rural labours. As a result of a joint assessment of NEEP conducted by the World Bank and the government of Afghanistan in early 2005, the programme was restructured to make a smooth transition to more development-centred assistance in Afghanistan. The renamed ‘National Rural Access Programme (NRAP)’ has a more strategic focus on the provision and support of enhanced livelihoods. The Programme provides for the development of quality rural access infrastructure and capacity to maintain it (enabling rural road access to services such as markets, health care and schools) and in doing so, a mechanism whereby temporary employment will provide a safety net for vulnerable rural people.

NRAP is a joint national priority programme that is executed by Ministry of Public Works (MoPW) and the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation & Development (MRRD). Under the two ministries, UNOPS is responsible for implementation and also provides technical support and capacity development of the ministries.


It is important to appreciate that extreme weather events represent a major threat to food security in Afghanistan, and in particular in mountainous areas of Badakhshan where natural hazards are prevalent.

An approach that not only emphasises food security, but also outlines a path to food sovereignty should be considered. National programmes which engage locally governing CDCs are best situated to tackle this issue successfully.

Ensuring sustainable food production, resolving disputes related to land tenure, and stewardship of natural resources needs to be encouraged. Water conservation, food harvesting techniques based on indigenous knowledge, and low tech construction methods need to be intensified through basic technology transfer and extension work by agricultural aid agencies. Drought-resistant high market value crops should be identified and tested for long-term productivity.

In conclusion, only an integrated (and adaptive) approach will ensure a sustainable food security future in Afghan Badakhshan with improved health outcomes, especially among high altitude vulnerable communities. This is based on the recognition that extreme weather events, disasters, land degradation, lack of investment in infrastructure, poor trade links may all be a consequence and cause of poverty and therefore food insecurity in this province.

For more information, contact: Laila Naz Taj, email: or Salim Sumar, email:

Show footnotes


2Afghanistan Overview, Fighting Hunger Worldwide, World Food Programme, [online] Available at > [Accessed] 10 May 2012

3Summary Evaluation Report Afghanistan, 2010, World Food Programme, [online] Available at > [Accessed] 16 May 2012

4Poverty and Food Security in Afghanistan, 2012, The World Bank Economic Policy & Poverty Sector South Asian Region, [online] Available at > [Accessed] 18 May 2012

5Anon, 2011, Afghanistan, World Bank Provincial Briefs, [online] Available at:< > [Accessed 13 January 2012]

6Drug Use in Afghanistan, Executive Summary, 2009, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, [online], Available at > [Accessed 25 May 2012]

7Average year score is derived from the scores for the better and worst years.

8Anon, 2011, Afghanistan Food Security Outlook, Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS), [online], Available at: 2011_01.pdfm [Accessed 13 January 2012]

9Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, access at:

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Reference this page

Salim Sumar, Laila Naz Taj and Iqbal Kermali (). Food security assessment of high altitude villages of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Field Exchange 44, December 2012. p3.



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