Published August 22, 2011
The problem, Abdul Majid will tell you as he leans his stooped, wasted frame against the trunk of a dying apricot tree in his brother’s yard, is not the Taliban. It’s true, the Taliban have been advancing for months through the ancient cob villages of Balkh province. And yes, they did send their scouts at least twice since June to this very village, whose dehydrated orchards reach out of the alkaline plains like some dusty phantasm, and fired rockets once at a checkpoint near the boy’s high school.
Abdul Majid, silver-bearded and stately in his pewter turban, has seen it all before. “The Soviets came, then the Taliban came, then the Junbish”—an ethnic militia that helped expel the Taliban in 2001—“came.” With the slightest brush of a knobbly farmer’s hand he dismisses the most recent litany of invasions and fratricides that have washed over his 50 acres of grain, almonds, and apricots. The misfortune that worries him lacks the cable-news appeal of America’s war against terror. But for the 20 million rural Afghans, it is far more dramatic: “There is no water,” he says. “We can’t grow anything.”
Ceaseless war has made it difficult to study the effects of climate change in Afghanistan. For decades, barely any meteorological data has been recorded; much of the country is too dangerous to carry out continuous research. But studies that rely on empirical observations and data collected in neighboring Central Asian countries and Pakistan show that cyclical droughts have been scorching Afghanistan with increasing frequency since the early 1960s. Spring rainfall, which nourishes most of the country’s cultivated land, has been steadily decreasing by 2.7 millimeters per month. Drought in Afghanistan “is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than a temporary or cyclical event,” forecast a 2009 report written by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
To put it a different way: In the 1960s and early 1970s, the water that drained from the Hindu Kush’s vertiginous peaks into the turquoise Balkh River in Bamyan and, at the caverns of the Alborz Gorge, streamed into manmade canals that irrigate the loess desert of Balkh province, measured an average of 1,540 million cubic meters per year. By the end of this year, only about 640 million cubic meters of water will have rumbled past the gorge to the bone-dry fields of Bactria—including Abdul Masjid’s. Other people’s fields will get no water at all. They will pulverize into an ocher shroud that hot desert wind will pick up and hang between the land and the sky. Nearly a third of all Afghans, estimates the UN’s World Food Programme, won’t have enough to eat this fall.
(The ramifications of a continuous drought by 2030 are harder to gauge. In the last nineteen years, Afghanistan fought back a Soviet invasion, toppled a Communist government, shuddered under a civil war, survived the Taliban, and is now enduring a U.S.-led occupation and a vicious insurgency. Who, in this repeatedly and ceaselessly brutalized crucible of imperial ambitions, can guess what will happen nineteen years from now? Who can guess what will happen tomorrow? When I bring it up, people just laugh.)
“Every year it has been dryer and dryer,” says Mohammad Amin, an official at the provincial department of water in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh. “It is not just in Afghanistan—it is happening all over the world. There is less water and no rain.” He looks south out the window. The thirsty crags of the Hindu Kush, less than ten miles away, are lost in dust.
Theoretically, even during a water shortage no village irrigation ditches should run dry. But the distribution of water within each irrigation canal system is decided by a generations-old network of elders that is governed by no other authority. Too often, a corrupt elder will reroute water to the highest bidder, cutting off downstream villages, Mohammad Amin says. The punishment is laughable: “We call the guilty parties into this office and have them sign a paper, a promise, that says they won’t do it again.”
Water theft, real and perceived, deepens old wounds in the ethnically volatile northern Afghanistan. Each watershed becomes an ethnic divide. Abdul Majid, a Hazara, says Pashtuns upstream steal the water that should reach Karaghuzhlah. Gulbuddin, the elder of the mainly Pashtun Kampirak, swears it’s the Uzbeks from Nahr-e-Shahi. He talks nostalgically about the Taliban rule, when Kampirak’s irrigation ditches—or so he remembers it—brimmed with water all farming season long.
Two weeks ago, children splashed in muddy dikes of Karaghuzhlah to beat the 120-degree heat. This week, shamal whispered in the dry ditches. Many of Abdul Masjid’s almonds shriveled and dried inside their porous hulls. His wheat harvest, usually abundant enough to sell grain at the bazaar, was so pitiful this year there was not even enough wheat for his family to keep for bread. “Barely enough to sow the fields this winter,” the farmer says.
Cracked earth unscrolls between Karaghuzhlah and Shahraq, a village of melon farms and small brick factories. Dust devils twist from the parched fields to the opal sky like distorted and magnified reflections of the factories’ chimneys. The Taliban have been making rounds at the factories since June, demanding $2,000 donations from the owners. Some of Shahraq’s men have armed themselves to protect their fields. But when I ask them about their life, the first words off their lips are not about the resurgent militia but about what their Kalashnikovs cannot fight back: the creeping, omnivorous drought. “There is no water,” says one anti-Taliban vigilante, Khoda Qul, who farms watermelons, melons, and tomatoes—or farmed, until this year. “It’s been completely dry for two months in the field.”
“There is no water.” A familiar refrain, this time in Kampirak, from a widow whose only source of income is whatever grows on her two acres of land. This year, nothing grew. She does not have the heart to evict the sharecroppers, who also will have nothing to eat this winter.