Thursday, January 06, 2011

Ask a Geographer in Afghanistan: Sustainable Practices in Afghanistan?

In between longer blog posts I plan to answer questions I receive about geography and Afghanistan.  If you have a question you want asked feel free to comment, e-mail at catholicgauze [at] gmail [dot] com, or contact me via Twitter.

The first question I received comes from Dr. Robert Brinkmann.  He asks via Twitter "how about some things we look at as sustainable practices here: energy, buying local, organic food etc. Interesting comparison"

Short Answer: No

Long Answer:  Afghanistan has been in a state of war since 1979.  As such much of Afghanistan's development has been set back decades if not more.  People survive with what they can, not caring one iota if it is sustainable or not.  In much of the Pasthun Belt (eastern and southern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border) there are whole districts that lack electricity.  Some people use generators for short bursts of power at night but these people are in the minority.  Most cooking is done via charcoal with gas being available at a somewhat high cost to urban dwellers.  There have been some efforts to get rural people solar cookers but this is done because of limited energy, not because it is a green practice.

Buying local is not really an option.  Most people get food staples like rice and naan bread from the bazaars (if they are not farmers themselves).  Meat is available but it is not a daily dish.  Because much of Afghanistan is about to experience the fifth year in a row of drought shipping in food staples is a must.  USAID grain shipments and rice from Pakistan and India is feeding much of the country.  Much of this is handed out by the government but the transit mafia has a large black market share of anything that is shipped to Afghanistan.  Any potential inquiry by me into the transit mafia has been met with strong words advising me to change the line of questioning.

As for organic, from the short time I have talked to farmers I am sure they would use any sort of fertilizer that could give them enough crops to feed their families.

Coming up next:  Smeeko's question on what Afghans want


data diplomacy said...

Here is my Afghan agriculture in a nutshell

Aid programs in post conflict countries suffer from an immediate gratification requirement. Essentially donor governments and implementing organizations need to be able to show that they have done something. this usually manifests as commodity transfers rather than longer term interventions that change practice, governance and accountability.

As far as green practices in agriculture I would add the following to the post.

fertilizer: cheapest and easiest is urea. However Urea, when combined with diesel fuel creates a very powerful explosive. Distributing large amounts of ready made explosive ingredients is not very sound in the middle of a hot insurgency.

Drought has been going on for at least the last 10 years. Lack of water has been compounded by severe overgrazing and rampant deforestation.

Deforestation is a result of rural dependency on wood fuel and extensive timber poaching by into Pakistan. Efforts at reforestation and water control were stymied by Aid funding classifications. Here is the reasoning. Given a protracted crisis like a drought one would be expected to undertake disaster mitigation efforts. These normally, given Afghanistan's mountainous terrain,comprised building check dams and tree plantings to reinforce slopes and and promote water retention. Unfortunately such programs were deemed agricultural in nature and therfore not suitable programming during a crisis. Another factor undermining this was failure to provide for the medium term maintenance, that is cash to pay workers until the local economy could revive and support communal labor levy's(very much like the traditional irrigation districts).

Wildcat borehole drill rigs also seriously depleted ground water. these undermined traditional irrigation systems such as the centuries old Karez .

buying locally can only work if one is able to raise cash by selling ones surplus. Selling surplus means farm-to-market roads that do not exist or are too risky to travel (bandits, mines, extortion)

Overgrazing is a result of drought reduced forage and traditional laws that favor pastoral rights over sedentary cultivation. These are largely ethnicity based and largely support migratory Pashtun economic interests over local landholders.

Probably the biggest barrier to more effective agriculture is the agricultural debt issue. most farmers are in serious debt. The dept holders, frequently the warlords or other, grow the debt through control of inputs and access to markets. They also demand high value cultivation such as Opium. for many years specialists have insisted that no meaningful change could be achieved in improving food security, boosting agricultral production and opium eradication without solving the debt issue. Such a strategy would entail cash to liquidate the debts, a legal structure to prevent further racketeering and the creation of a crop insurance/agricultural loan structure to provide safe and legitimate support.

Of course all of this presumes that the farmer would earn enough from their crops which requires all of the previously mentioned inputs.

Catholicgauze said...

Data Diplomacy,

Awesome. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I really appreciate your response. I think that as we work on sustainability in the US under the three E's of environment, equity, and economic development, we consider the impact of our non-local purchasing on other nations. For example, while I would hate to see offshore drilling going on in Florida where I live, we are importing much of our energy from Appalachia (Mountain top mining) and Venezuela (largely an enemy of our country without strong environmental regulation). One can clearly see the impact of our purchasing within those locations.

In addition, I think it is interesting to point out that buying locally may be really a luxury. I wonder if the current focus on buying local in the western world will have any real impact. The New Yorker recently had an article that largely demonstrated energy savings and efficiency just makes room for more energy use in other sectors. Is this what we will see as we continue with modern sustainability efforts? Are we just making room for more growth?
Bob Brinkmann