Too early to press drought alarm - experts

KABUL, 18 January 2010 (IRIN) - Afghanistan has had an unusually dry winter, but experts and officials warn that pressing the drought alarm would be premature, and could drive up food prices.

Over the past four weeks there has been little or no snowfall in most parts of the mountainous country where snow traditionally sets in by December, although the winter season is not officially over until March.

“People are increasingly concerned about the risk of drought, as there has been too little rain and snow for some time now. A drought would affect agricultural production, food prices and the availability of drinking water, making life even harder for Afghans already suffering the consequences of this expanding and intensifying conflict [between the Taliban and Afghan and international forces],” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement on 13 January.

Experts and officials are cautious: “It is too early to conclude the possibility of a dryer season as Afghanistan still has a one-and-half-month window for snowfall which provides 80 percent of irrigation water,” Fazal Karim Najimi, director of the Famine Early Warning System, an affiliate of the US Agency for International Development, told IRIN.

Average annual precipitation is 350-400mm, but so far only 150-200mm has been reported, according to the Afghanistan National Meteorological Agency (NMA).

“Precipitation is below normal but it does not necessarily mean there will be no snow and rain in the coming months, and an inevitable drought,” Abdul Qadeer Qadeer, director of the NMA, told IRIN.

Hoarding fears

Premature warnings about drought and food shortages could prompt vendors to hoard food, driving up prices, officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) said.

But some farmers are worried: “If we don’t get rain in the next two months our lives will be devastated,” said Obaidullah, a farmer in Nangarhar Province, eastern Afghanistan.

“It used to rain and snow from December to February but this year there was good precipitation in October and November and it has been unusually warm and dry since December,” said Qadeer of the NMA.

He anticipated snow in Kabul and other parts of the country on 23-24 January. “While our country has been affected by global climate change we have no resources to mitigate the consequences,” he added.

Millions of vulnerable people were pushed into "high risk food insecurity" in 2008 largely due to drought-induced crop failure and a dramatic rise in food prices, according to aid agencies, but in 2009 domestic grain production increased significantly - almost to self-sufficiency level - owing to favourable rainfall.

The country needs over six million tons of grain, mostly wheat, to feed its estimated 27-28 million population, according to MAIL.   

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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