As Drought Increases so does Opium Image courtesy of Bert Kaufmann on Flickr

As Drought Increases so does Opium

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Afghanistan has experienced decades of seemingly endless conflict. Military coups, Russian involvement, and U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban and Al-Qaida, have all contributed to Afghanistan’s unrest. After years of crumbling political structures, the livelihoods of Afghani citizens are facing a new challenge, climate change. Unless action is taken, intrastate conflict combined with the threat of climate change will continue to plunge Afghanistan into instability.

Afghanistan’s arid climate typically receives water from rain and snow during their cooler season which provides essential hydration for crops to grow. However, Afghanistan has reportedly received a 70% precipitation deficit due to 2018’s La Niña effect. This places the country’s agricultural yield below average for the fifth consecutive year, putting roughly 15 million people at risk for food insecurity. The drought conditions were so extreme that more people were displaced from drought than the ongoing conflicts. With hundreds of thousands losing their homes and unable to provide for themselves, residents are forced to look for a lucrative alternative.

Opium is relatively drought tolerant and more valuable than other crops. Farmers can earn approximately 4 times their annual income with opium. Because of long term drought conditions and a weakened political system, farmers could turn to opium to support themselves. However, there are some barriers to the expansion of cultivation. Farmers earn a higher annual income with opium but they must share their earnings with the Taliban in exchange for protection and distribution of product. Deciding to engage in illegal drug cultivation and trade is one thing; supporting the terrorist organization that controls roughly 30% of the nation is another. U.S. officials estimate the Taliban funds 60% of their warfare through Afghanistan’s illicit drug industry. Even though opium cultivation is illegal, the industry constitutes 7% of the nation’s GDP.  Many farmers may not want to support the Taliban but in a country without alternatives, this may be their only option.

So, how can Afghanistan achieve food and human security without contributing to the Taliban and the illegal drug industry?

The Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for Afghanistan was established in 2014 as a country-based pooled fund to help address this crisis. While the CHF has been delivering needed humanitarian assistance, the U.S. has taken their own steps to address the opium problem. For roughly 15 years, the U.S. has contributed $9 billion to counter-narcotic operations in Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghani forces have been working together to eliminate all chains of the opium market including crop lands and labs in addition to helping citizens find alternative income revenues. Largely because of the nation’s weak political system and lucrative earnings from cultivation, opium output continues to skyrocket, and instability persists.

Intrastate armed conflict is the leading cause of Afghanistan’s instability and climate change has exacerbated the problem. Conflict compounded by climate impacts has left millions at risk of food and water insecurity. Afghanistan desperately needs a strong centralized government to combat both instability and climate change. Without intervention, opium will most likely continue to flow from Afghanistan, revenue will continue to flow to the Taliban, and climate change will displace thousands more.