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  • David Mansfield

When the water runs dry

What will happen to the 1.5 million desert settlers of southwest Afghanistan?

In 2001, following the fall of the Taliban, people started encroaching upon the deserts of south west Afghanistan. Many were fleeing fighting and the efforts by the government and its donors to ban poppy growing.

With generators and water pumps imported from Pakistan and China, farmers began to sink wells deep into the ground and exploit the untapped aquifers far below the surface. They transformed the rocky sand into agricultural land.

At first, life in the desert was hard and it remains particularly difficult for women. Many talk of not being able to attend family funerals. They lament the isolation, the depression, and some even talk of suicide.

Despite these harsh conditions, the desert population continues to grow. By 2019, there were an estimated 1.5 million people, and an additional 300,000 hectares of land that had been transformed, much of it for growing poppy.

It was this illegal poppy that allowed them to dig wells, cultivate more land and build homes.

However, there were signs of growing environmental stress. Salination from evaporated mineral deposits, and the monocropping of poppy, led to falling yields. The cost of production began to exceed the value of the opium crop.

Farmers started experimenting with solar power to pump water. What started as a few isolated cases soon became a deluge. From 14,000 deep wells in 2016, there were more than 67,000 in 2019.

The environmental damage of this is dramatic. It is estimated that, when using diesel, groundwater levels dropped by less than a metre a year. With solar, farmers say it is as much as 3 metres.

The desert settlers are the first to express their fears for the future and many know the risk solar technology poses to their current way of life. With no mechanisms in place to prevent the exploitation of land and water in this increasingly fragile environment, it is just a matter of time before the land returns to desert.

The impact of the water running dry will be significant and felt far beyond southwest Afghanistan.

So, what will those 1.5 Million people do and where will they go?

They could head to the centres of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Kabul but these are overcrowded and there are far fewer jobs than when the economy was more buoyant.

Given their limited prospects in Afghanistan - there is a real risk that many will join those who have made the perilous journey to Europe.

So what can be done?

Firstly, An early warning system is needed to assess the growing threat to desert settlers, and the impact of falling groundwater.

Secondly, consideration should be given to the new lands being brought under formal irrigation and if they could be given to desert settlers.

And thirdly, it is critical that all development programmes are systematically reviewed to ensure their efforts to promote economic growth or counter narcotics are not at the expense of the rural poor.

It is these programmes that have led to the burgeoning desert population and poppy cultivation, something that was entirely foreseeable had anyone carried out the most basic of risk assessments.

The full report and video, commissioned by AREU and funded by The European Union, together with the BBC coverage can be found here.



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