By Abdul Latif Sahak

BALKH, Afghanistan, November 9, 2009 (ENS) – Majid can hardly believe his good fortune. He harvested so much wheat this year that he can feed his family and even sell a few kilos in Mazar-e-Sharif, the economic capital of northern Afghanistan.

Last year, things were different in his home province of Samangan. The wheat harvest failed due to a lack of rain – a catastrophe, since flour is needed to make the staple of Afghan food, nan, or flat bread.

This year things are much different. Farmers in Samangan harvested 140,000 metric tonnes of wheat, a seven-fold increase over the 20,000 tonnes they got last year, says Noor Mohammad, the chief of the agriculture department in Samangan.

“We even have a surplus of 50,000 tonnes,” he said. “We have asked the ministry of agriculture and the World Food Programme to purchase the surplus so people will be able to make a profit.”

The harvest has been plentiful all over northern Afghanistan, which is the main supplier of wheat for the rest of the country. After years of drought brought failed harvests and food crises, in which dozens of people died, this year there was finally good news. It is called rain.

Around 90 percent of the farmland in the north is located in mountainous areas, irrigated by rain in the spring and snow in the winter. Agricultural experts say that with better seeds and a better system of irrigation, Afghanistan should be able to feed itself. However, the agricultural sector has been devastated by years of civil war, and was neglected in the reconstruction phase after the fall of the Taliban.

The long spells of drought in the last few years had a huge impact on the north, with many farmers leaving rural areas for the cities. The ones who stayed behind barely survived, or starved. There are accounts of people trying to sell their children to buy food. The bad wheat harvest in the north also affected the rest of the country.

The resulting high wheat price was a major incentive for farmers to grow more wheat this year, together with the distribution of seeds by aid organisations. And then came the rain, a lot of it. Not all of the effects were positive: there were floods and some people lost their houses, or even their lives.

But the rains brought in the harvest. People now have enough food, and far fewer are leaving for the city.

“Last year I had to keep going back to aid organizations for food,” said Mohammad Rasool, the representative of the Kohistan District Development Council in Sar-e-Pul province. “But this year people don’t ask me for wheat, they ask me for schools, clinics and roads.”

He remembers very well the disastrous situation last year, when there wasn’t enough food in the province. He cited one case where a 16-year-old girl who had a food coupon from the ministry of refugee affairs was forced to have sex with powerful men in return for a 49-kilo sack of wheat.

This year, the wheat harvest in the province has increased by 80 percent compared to last year, says Amanullah Amin, director of the department of agriculture, irrigation and livestock. This has resulted in a sharp decrease in the price: last year a ser (seven kilos) cost 250 afghani (US$5). This year the same amount fetches between 100-120 afghani.

“But at least the farmers have wheat left over to sell,”Amin said.

The overall situation is so favorable that Afghanistan this year will only import 200,000 tonnes of wheat from other countries, says Gholam Mostafa Jawad, deputy minister of commerce. “Last year, we had to buy 1.2 million tonnes of wheat. Now we are purchasing wheat from our own farmers,” he said.

In Balkh province, farmers are optimistic. Apart from the abundance of rain, the campaign against locusts has also helped, says Kateb Shams, the director of the department of agriculture in Balkh. He praises the advantages of growing wheat over other crops, and says it is cheaper to grow it in rain-fed areas, because then the field only needs to be ploughed and seeded once, and there is no need for fertilizer.

The good harvest has had a great impact on people’s lives, say people in Balkh.

Niaz Mir says he doesn’t have any farmland, but that the jobs in harvesting are much better paid than before, because there is more wheat to get from the land. “We can take home seven kilos of wheat for every 21 kilos that we harvested,” he said. “I don’t have to buy any wheat for the coming winter.”

{This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.