Taliban’s opium ban imperiled by climate change as alternative crops struggle

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Two years after the Taliban banned opium, Afghan farmers turning to alternative crops are discovering that many no longer grow easily here because of the impact of climate change, imperiling poppy eradication efforts.

For decades, farmers in southern Afghanistan relied on opium poppies to make a living in their parched desert landscape. Even as prolonged drought dried out rivers and turned fields so salty that they glowed white in the sun, the hardy poppies flourished.

The Taliban ended that after seizing power in Afghanistan three years ago, banning opium on religious grounds. But farmers in the former poppy heartland say they can’t make a living with typical alternatives like wheat and cotton, which have tumbled in price as they’ve flooded the market since the opium ban took effect. Some other field crops and fruits that once grew here — including eggplants, pomegranates and apricots — have become difficult, and in some cases impossible, to cultivate because of the harsh conditions that Afghan researchers attribute to climate change.

The Post’s Rick Noack reports on Afghan farmers’ efforts to shift toward crops other than poppies under a Taliban regime that has banned the flowers. (Video: Joe Snell, Carolyn Van Houten , Rick Noack/The Washington Post)

Some farmers are abandoning their fields. Others are weighing a return to poppy cultivation or are refusing to comply with the ban.

“If they can’t cover their expenses, they’ll go back to growing poppies,” said Shams-u-Rahman Musa, a top agriculture official in Kandahar for the Taliban-run government, adding that the government is aware of farmers’ frustration. “We’re trying our best to find solutions,” he said.

If the Taliban fails to engineer a successful transition from poppies to other crops, the impact could be felt well beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Afghanistan was the world’s largest exporter of opium before the Taliban takeover, according to the United Nations, representing more than 80 percent of global supply before production plummeted last year.

Musa said the government is now trying to identify crops that can grow in dry and salty conditions. While saffron and pistachio are among the most promising alternatives, the choice of variety will be crucial for success. Afghanistan is appealing to other countries to supply modified seeds that are hardy enough to grow here.

A dramatic rise in temperatures

The drop in farming revenue is particularly pronounced in the south of Afghanistan, where about two-thirds of the country’s opium poppies were grown before the ban.

While average annual temperatures in Afghanistan have risen by up to 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past half-century, which is twice the global average increase, the trend has been even more dramatic in the south of the country, where temperatures rose by up to 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit, Afghan officials say.

Many trees in Afghan orchards were once able to resist temporary heat waves thanks to deep roots. But groundwater levels in the Helmand River Basin dropped by an average of 8.5 feet between 2003 and 2021. Many climate models predict worsening conditions over the coming decades. Winter precipitation, which is particularly important for farmers, is set to decline significantly in the south.

In the past, rain leached salt out of fields, but prolonged drought has in recent years driven a surge in soil salinity. “Poppy grows well, but not much else,” said Abdul Jalal, an irrigation official in Kandahar.

The poorest farmers are hit the hardest. Ataullah Noorzai, a 30-year-old villager in Kandahar province, said his soil has become so salty that he can grow only wheat and barley, which are comparatively resistant to salinity. But his revenue from these crops is so meager that he has already borrowed 550 pounds of wheat from a neighbor to sell in the market and must find a way to repay the loan.

Some of his neighbors have been able to bring in fresh water through canals and wash out much of the salt, then plant more-valuable pomegranates, he said. Noorzai said that he couldn’t afford to do this and that his remaining hope — that long periods of extensive rain will eventually wash the salt away — appears increasingly remote.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban government’s chief spokesman, said efforts are underway in all provinces to identify new and higher-value field crops and trees that could bring relief to farmers.

At an experimental farm in Kandahar, the previous, U.S.-backed government years ago started testing the resistance of pomegranate trees to heat. Almost 80 types are now grown between bullet-riddled blast walls.

But to the people who work on this farm, the effort to outmaneuver climate change appears to be an increasingly lost cause. Pomegranate trees are viewed by some government officials as a go-to alternative because the roots are so deep that they don’t easily dry out. But Jalal, the local irrigation official, said he was shocked to see how poorly the trees grow in desert areas with high salinity.

Even some of the researchers’ early successes no longer look promising. Amid prolonged drought over the past years, their peach trees dried out from the inside and had to be cut down, Jalal said, and the experimental grapevines became sunburned.

Farmers’ earnings take a hit

The farmers’ difficulties bode ill for an opium ban that, initially, appeared to be a success. Last year, satellite images showed that opium production had dropped by 99.9 percent in Helmand and by almost 90 percent in Kandahar, once the heartland of cultivation.

But in the provincial capitals of Afghanistan’s south, officials are now concerned about how much wheat and cotton they see coming to market. Even before the current harvest, oversupply of these crops had already begun to push down prices.

While tensions are palpable in the markets of southern Afghanistan, there are some here who benefit. Afghanistan’s exports are booming, boasted cotton trader Abdul Manan at a market in Helmand, flashing a broad smile.

But he was soon drowned out by farmers. “Tell the truth,” they yelled, ignoring a police officer who was assigned to follow a Washington Post team and stood nearby.

“When I grew poppy, it was five times more profitable and it was way easier,” said Haji Wazir, 55, a farmer. “Now, we can’t even cover our costs anymore.”

Signs of discontent with the ban are also mounting elsewhere in the country. Last month, violent clashes broke out between opium-growing villagers and security forces in northeastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban has struggled to assert its power. Poppy cultivation in Badakhshan province declined only by about 56 percent between 2021 and last year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Adding to the frustration and resentment, farmers said, is that wealthy landowners who were able to store poppies before the ban are now able to sell them for export at far higher prices.

Even some Taliban officers assigned to enforcing the opium ban say something is amiss. As Ahmad Jan Frotan went from house to house in central Afghanistan’s Parwan province on a recent afternoon searching for violators of the ban, he “felt pity,” he acknowledged.

“People lack money,” said Frotan, a 28-year-old police officer, who studied agriculture while fighting the Americans. He appealed to the Taliban’s supreme leader to “work for all men and women of Afghanistan.”

Hayatullah Rohani, the head of the narcotics department in Afghanistan’s second-biggest city, Herat, said he hopes industrialization can replace revenue from opium farming.

Herat is an industrial center, and Rohani wants hundreds more factories to be built. “Each of them could employ 500 people” — not only farmers but also former addicts, he said.

Over 10 percent of the population was estimated by Afghan officials to use drugs when the Taliban took power three years ago. While more-recent figures are not available, there appear to be few drug users left on the streets of Kabul, Herat and other cities. Thousands were forced into rehabilitation centers.

At a center in Herat, addicts, who are herded by guards wielding sticks, live in cramped buildings that resemble a prison camp.

Rohani was eager to talk about how the men in the center are taught to repair factory equipment and cellphones, in preparation for the country’s industrialization. But just as anywhere in Afghanistan, money is tight to run a facility, Rohani complained, including for the swimming pool he had hoped to construct to help with addicts’ recovery.

“Unfortunately, the hot season is coming,” he said.

Mirwais Mohammadi contributed.

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