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Vicious circle of debt

One of the worst droughts in a decade pushes villagers in the north into the arms of shady businessmen.
31.12.2011  |  Shiberghan
In the northern provinces, large parts of the yield have been destroyed by drought. (Photo: UNHCR)
In the northern provinces, large parts of the yield have been destroyed by drought. (Photo: UNHCR)

Mohammad Asef has just sold his soul and those of his children to the owner of a brick factory in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. The farmer from neighbouring Jawzjan Province had little choice. The drought has destroyed most of his crops, and he had no resources left to feed the ten members of his family.

“I have just borrowed 6,000 dollars to cover the costs of food for the whole year,” he says. It is impossible to repay this amount of money with the work on his fields, even if next year’s harvest will be better. “Me and my children will have to go and make bricks in the burning desert heat next summer,” he says.

Brick factories in Afghanistan are notorious for child-labour. Most of those children, some as young as five years old, are forced by their parents to work off their family’s debt under extremely hard working conditions.

Asef is one of 2.6 million Afghans who have been severely affected by drought and face food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.

What the UN aid agency calls “one of the worst droughts (Afghanistan has experienced) in a decade”, has mainly hit the northern provinces that are considered the breadbasket of the country and where more than 85 per cent of the population depend on agriculture.

250 kilos of wheat instead of 10,000 kilos

Crop failures have been dramatic. In Jawzjan, for instance, less than half of the agricultural land could be cultivated, according to the provincial department of agriculture. In Samangan Province, the Governor speaks of a decrease of up to 90 per cent. Farmers who only have rain-fed fields are even left with no yields at all.

Formers in Sheberghan try to draw attention to their plight. (Photo: Bahadori)

“My wheat has been totally destroyed, because there was no rain in the beginning of the year,” says Niamatullah, a farmer from Jawzjan. Instead of his usual 1,400 kilos of wheat he did not harvest a single kilo. He could only sell the remains of his crops as fodder for animals, which earned him 30,000 afghanis (about 600 dollar) while he invested 80,000 in seeds, fertilizer and wage labour during the sowing season.

Kalamuddin, another farmer in Jawzjan, has harvested 250 kilos of wheat, where last year it was more than 10,000. Like many other families in the area, he has borrowed money to survive and is now trapped in a vicious circle of debt.

Remote villages will be cut off by snow

The World Food Programme has announced a two-month assistance campaign for 1.2 million affected people. The Afghan government has its own relief programme, but assistance is limited.

An example: From 80,000 drought-affected families in the province of Samangan, only 10,000 can be catered for, says Governor Khairullah Anosh. “Aid will be provided to those who have few fields and animals, because others can feed themselves by selling some of their property.” The Governor adds that it will be difficult to support those who live in remote areas of the province that will be blocked by snow.

Many of those have long left their villages for fear of starvation. They are now filling the ranks of the destitute in the cities of the north. They are struggling to feed themselves as prices for staple food have soared. In Sheberghan, for example, a bag of seven kilos of wheat now costs 150 to 160 Afghani (about three dollars), while last year it was only 60 to 70 Afghanis. The same counts for bread, the most important staple food of the poor.

“Many youths went to Pakistan and Iran to look for work,” says Saifullah, a farmer in Sar-e Pul province. The illegal journey is a dangerous venture. Amongst those who migrated is his own son, who left two months ago with four other boys of the village. None of them has been heard of ever since.