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Country profile - Afghanistan

afghanistan

One hundred and fifty kilometres north of the capital Kabul, the imposing Hindu Kush mountains form a barrier between north and south Afghanistan. With the eastern range gaining heights over seven thousand metres, this mountain range certainly casts its shadow over a country struggling with war, drought, food insecurity, and an economy that relies heavily on opium production.

Afghanistan's landlocked position between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north, China and Pakistan to the east and south, and Iran to the west, has contributed to its long history of conflict. Today, peace and stability remain elusive. Inevitably perhaps given its turbulent history, Afghanistan remains very poor, and its living standards are among the lowest in the world. Up to 80 per cent of the population rely directly or indirectly on agriculture, but land is difficult to cultivate due to land mines and persistent fighting. Drought, and damage to the traditional kareze irrigation system, compound the situation.

Shomali Plain, north of Kabul, with the Hindu Kush mountains in the background (Deran Garabedian)
Shomali Plain, north of Kabul, with the Hindu Kush mountains in the background
Deran Garabedian

Between 1996 and 2001, the Islam extremist group the Taliban controlled most of the country. Although they maintained a level of stability during this period, their strict interpretation of Islam provoked condemnation in some parts of the world. In October 2001 the USA declared their War on Terror, and invaded Afghanistan. Heavy conflict has continued to plague the country, though efforts are being made at reconstruction. Hamid Karzai, who was elected in Afghanistan's first direct presidential election in October 2004, is charged with implementing a new and bold constitution, which includes equality for women.

Fruit and nuts

Women account for most of agricultural production but paradoxically, in a culture where men have traditionally come first, they often suffer from malnutrition. Wheat provides the staple food, and dairy products such as curd and buttermilk are also important, although livestock numbers have dwindled as a result of recent drought. Maize and barley are also commonly grown, for food and fodder, and millets and green peas are cultivated in the higher zones.

Drying raisins in the Shomali plain, north of Kabul (Deran Garabedian)
Drying raisins in the Shomali plain, north of Kabul
Deran Garabedian

Agriculture accounted for 47% of estimated GDP in 2003, with agricultural and horticultural products accounting for roughly 50% of exports. In the 1970s, Afghanistan was one of the world's largest exporters of raisins. With high quality pistachios grown in the north of the country, there is potential to rehabilitate this sector to provide high value crops for smallholders; it is estimated that income from horticultural products is three to seven times higher than from wheat. There are other benefits: intercropping fruit trees with vegetables would optimise scarce water resources; and fresh fruits, nuts and dried fruit provide essential nutrients for women and children. Global market needs for traceability and certification may, however, prove a challenge.

Drought

Afghanistan uses less than one third of its available water resources, yet poor water management combined with recent drought has led to water scarcity. Only an estimated 23 per cent of the population have access to safe drinking water. The drought has contributed to sand dunes encroaching onto agricultural land, exacerbated by the loss of stabilising vegetation, and excessive - and illegal - logging. Most of the people in the eastern provinces depend on the forest for their livelihood, but these are fast disappearing despite the recent ban on logging.

Sugar substitute

"Afghanistan's agriculture, Afghanistan's economy, Afghanistan's way of life, Afghanistan's tradition and culture is being threatened by drugs." Hamid Karzai's words hold some truth, but poor farmers faced with low prices for food crops cannot be blamed for opting for the higher incomes that can be made from growing opium poppies - up to 10 times more than from food crops. Poppies grown in Afghanistan provide almost 90 per cent of the world's heroin, and experts are predicting a record harvest this year. Over half of the country's GDP is linked to opium production, and an estimated 1.7 million farmers are economically dependent on the crop. Alternative opportunities for farmers are needed, and sugar beet may be part of the answer.

Between 1930 and 1979, Afghanistan had a small but thriving sugar industry based around a sugar factory located 250 kilometres northwest of Kabul in Baghlan, which supported thousands of small-scale sugar beet farmers. Today however production of beets has virtually stopped, and the country now imports roughly 300,000 tonnes of sugar a year. An FAO project is planning to rehabilitate the factory and revive the sugar industry, providing an alternative to opium poppy production for at least some farmers. The project will emphasise technical training and assistance in seed bed preparation, and provide loans and machinery.

A stable future?

Poppies grown in Afghanistan provide almost 90 per cent of the world's heroin (© FAO)
Poppies grown in Afghanistan provide almost 90 per cent of the world's heroin
© FAO

Dealing effectively with the poppy problem remains a huge challenge for Karzai's government. Rebuilding war-torn infrastructure is a similarly daunting task. Ongoing conflict meanwhile still poses a threat to existing infrastructure and civil security. To add to the multiple man-made disasters afflicting Afghanistan, natural disasters such as earthquakes and drought are also regular occurrences.

But growing political stability and continued international commitment for reconstruction are positive developments predicted for the future. Education for girls and women is improving, and gender equality is being promoted. For the first time in Afghanistan's history an authority for environmental management has been mandated. Seed improvement and development of agricultural cooperatives are also receiving attention at ministerial level. These endeavours could sow the seeds for a better future for Afghanistan.

Statistical information
  • Capital: Kabul
  • Area: 647,500 sq km
  • Population: 31,056,997 (July 2006 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 2.67% (2006 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 43.34 years
  • Ethnic groups: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%
  • Languages: Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 50%, Pashtu (official) 35%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%, 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%, much bilingualism
  • Inflation: 16.3% (2005 est.)
  • GDP: purchasing power parity $21.5 billion (2004 est.)
  • GDP: per capita: $800 (2004 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 38%, industry: 24%, services: 38%. Note: data exclude opium production (2005 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 12.13%, permanent crops: 0.21%, other: 87.66% (2005)
  • Major industries: small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, cement; handwoven carpets; natural gas, coal, copper
  • Agricultural products: opium, wheat, fruits, nuts; wool, mutton, sheepskins, lambskins
  • Natural resources: natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones
  • Export commodities: opium, fruits and nuts, handwoven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, precious and semi-precious gems
  • Export partners: Pakistan 24%, India 21.3%, US 12.4%, Germany 5.5% (2004)

With contributions from: Deran Thomas Garabedian, OTF Group Afghanistan

Date published: July 2006

 

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