AFGHANISTAN: Severe Drought Causes Major Decline in 2008/09 Wheat Production
Well-below normal rainfall and winter snowfall across the majority of Afghanistan during late 2007 and early 2008 have led to the worst drought conditions in the past 10 years. Widespread losses of rainfed wheat crops have been observed by international non-governmental organization (NGO) officials across the country’s important northern and western growing regions, while the government of Afghanistan has also reported that irrigated crop yields have fallen significantly this year. Owing to the severity of current conditions and the breadth of areas impacted, wheat production in 2008/09 is forecast by USDA at 1.5 million tons, down 2.3 million or 60 percent from last year.
Wheat harvest activities generally occur between May and September, with the rainfed crop being the earliest to mature. Given the continuing development of the drought, and its intensification in recent months, even later maturing irrigated summer grain crops are potentially in danger. Seasonal rainfall typically falters after April, so only crops with access to adequate irrigation supplies will survive to produce near-normal yields this year. Losses to winter grain production are expected to be substantial enough to have serious ramifications in the domestic food and feed grain market during the 2008/09 marketing year. In recognition of the severity of the grain production shortfall, the government of Afghanistan and the United Nations appealed to the world community to donate $400 million to cover the sizable wheat import and food aid needs of approximately 4.5 million affected Afghans, as well as to prepare for the next winter cropping season beginning in October. Officials from government and private NGO’s are very concerned by the failed 2008/09 wheat harvest and the prospect of severely deficient food grain supplies in many regional markets as the new winter season approaches. Analysts from the Famine Early Warning Network (FEWSNET) indicate that most of the rural population secures food supplies in October and November to last the winter when their villages become largely isolated owing to winter weather and snow. This leaves very little time to acquire and distribute adequate food and feed grains to the most seriously affected regions before much of the country’s mountain roads and passes become impassable for the season.
Over 80 percent of the nation’s annual precipitation falls as snow in the predominant mountain ranges of central Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush Mountains, therefore, are the storehouse for much of the country’s water supply, including the majority of its irrigation reserves. Winter snowfall in Afghanistan is an extremely important resource for agriculture throughout the country, as it underpins the viability of much of the nation’s irrigated crops and therefore the stability of its grain production prospects. Roughly 86 percent of all irrigated land in Afghanistan is supplied with surface water emanating from rivers and streams that originate in the mountains. Approximately 45 percent of Afghanistan’s’ wheat acreage in a normal year is irrigated, with the remaining 55 percent reliant on timely rainfall. Snowmelt in the spring is the major source of irrigation water, with irrigated wheat acreage widely-distributed throughout the country. Rainfed wheat area by comparison is heavily focused in the northern third of the nation, a region that was particularly hard hit this year by extremely low precipitation and high temperatures.
The winter snowpack this year was significantly lighter than normal owing to the prevailing dry weather pattern. Abnormally high early spring temperatures also led to an unusually rapid snowmelt this year, as illustrated in the satellite image comparison above. The timing and duration of annual snowmelt is a key factor in determining the quantity and duration of water availability for irrigation throughout the cultivated areas of Afghanistan. The unusually early snowmelt in 2008 led to stream flows peaking before traditional surface-irrigated crops could take full advantage of them. The rapid snowmelt also severely restricted the duration of time in which farmers would have access to irrigation supplies for both spring and summer grown crops. The main growing period from April to September typically sees little rainfall, with irrigation supplying the vast majority of crop needs. The low volume of snow and the disadvantageous timing of the snowmelt combined to severely limit water resources for the 2008/09 wheat crop. Rainfall conditions in the spring and early summer months were also extremely low, causing both rainfed and irrigated crops to suffer serious water deficiencies and moisture stress. Total rainfall for the 2008/09 growing season was estimated to have averaged less than 25 percent of normal over the vast majority of the country this year, including the entire Hindu Kush Mountain region. Though a few areas in northern, eastern, and southern Afghanistan did receive near-normal rainfall, much of this fell in areas where cultivated crops are not significant, and therefore the benefit was minimal.
The vast majority of the country’s wheat area and production is focused in the northern plains bordering Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This area of the country is broken into three distinct regions, the northeast, north, and west, contributing roughly 70 percent of the country’s total wheat production.
As can be seen by the vegetative index map below, the focus of the drought and subsequent loss of vegetation was extreme in these highly important core-wheat-producing regions this year. The loss of crops and pasture was measured by various remote sensing satellites, while it was quantified by comparing the current growing season with the past ten consecutive seasons, two of which were serious drought years (2000/01 and 2001/02). FEWSNET researchers at the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) reported that the overall vegetation conditions in Afghanistan are the worst in the past ten years, especially in the acutely affected northern grain belt. This implies that grain production will be significantly reduced in any non-irrigated cropping regions.
Based on field reports from Afghanistan, drought conditions were severe enough to cause widespread failure of the rainfed wheat crop in many areas of the country. Rainfed wheat production typically makes up a little over 30 percent of total production.
Even more serious, however, was the severely depleted irrigation resource this spring owing to a much-reduced snowpack. Irrigated wheat acreage was likely reduced in 2008/09 as a consequence, and irrigated crop yields would have been potentially threatened as well. In the United Nations appeal mentioned above, officials from the government of Afghanistan reported that irrigated grain yields had indeed fallen 40 percent in many areas compared to last year. Based on available NASA Modis satellite imagery, USDA was able to verify that widespread crop losses occurred in Afghanistan this season, and that irrigated acreage apparently declined as well.
In the sample images above, highlighting the most important wheat producing region in the country, not only did known rainfed crop areas suffer huge declines in vegetative cover, but also major irrigated zones where crop production is typically stable. The overall picture is one of large regional-scale crop and pasture losses owing to severely deficient moisture availability, whether from rainfall or irrigation supplies.
USDA’s current wheat estimates for Afghanistan acknowledges a much reduced total harvested wheat area, owing largely to the failure of the rainfed wheat crop, but also to reduced irrigated crop acreage. Total wheat area in Afghanistan is forecast by USDA at 1.6 million hectares, down 600,000 hectares or 27 percent from last year.
Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.