Growing Resilience in Afghanistan’s Disaster-Prone Lands
In Afghanistan, People in Need focuses on supporting agricultural development by promoting the effective and sustainable use of natural resources, introducing new agricultural methods, technologies and nutritious crops and enhancing production through agricultural education.
According to FAO, four out of five people in Afghanistan rely on agriculture for their food and income. However, a crippling combination of decades of conflict, continuous displacement, reoccurring natural disasters, inadequate infrastructure and outdated agricultural practices have made it difficult for many to provide for themselves.
Across the country, the unrelenting exposure to shocks has shattered people’s resilience. Most households can experience multiple and repetitive shocks within just one year. Such shocks can result in families not having enough food, the destruction of their livelihoods and assets and the need to adopt negative, often harmful coping strategies to deal with debt and day-to-day expenses.
Humanitarian and development programming aimed at building resilience in rural, as well as urban, settings is therefore crucial. People in Need believe that by increasing people’s ability to cope with, adapt to, prepare for, and recover from, crises – which, among other things, affect their access to livelihoods and food – a form of sustainable and meaningful support can be offered.
PIN in Samangan Province
PIN currently implements agricultural activities in Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan.
Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan is predominantly inhabited by farmers and is situated close to the main commercial route linking the two Afghan cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul. In recent years, the people of Samangan Province and the surrounding region have faced extreme weather conditions, which have heavily impacted livelihoods and even taken lives.
In early 2017, heavy snowfall and freezing weather killed 27 children under the age of five across remote districts of northern Afghanistan. A large number of avalanche, snowfall and rain-related disasters followed, which affected 22 Afghan provinces (out of 34), including Samangan. Each winter, scores of people are killed, homes are destroyed and vast swathes of arable land are submerged in floodwater.
Enhancing production through agricultural education
To help farmers increase agricultural production and the income they receive, PIN introduces local Afghan farmers to new agricultural methods, seeds and technologies, while supporting their access to markets. When introducing new practices or approaches, an essential component for the sustainability of this support, PIN maintains, is agriculture-orientated education. In 2012, PIN initiated an education-focused project in Samangan Province, working with, and for, the local community. PIN trained lead farmers through a Farmer Field School approach, which involves selecting influential farmers from each community to receive training and maintain a ‘demonstration plot’. These lead farmers are then responsible for supporting and advising farmers in their community. They are instructed by agricultural experts on various topics, including how to look for suitable markets and customers for their produce, improve the distribution and conservation of water, enhance their farming techniques and more. The Farmer Field School approach aims to ensure the continuity, longevity and overall benefits of the project, facilitate the sharing of learning across communities and ultimately strengthen household and community resilience. Since 2008, PIN has provided assistance to more than 23,000 farmers through this approach in eight districts across northern Afghanistan.
Sheer Ahmad from Samangan Province was one of those selected to become a lead farmer in his community. Thirty-year-old Ahmad spent most of his adulthood in Pakistan as a refugee, but had to start again from scratch after his family returned to their native Afghanistan. Ahmad’s family lives on hilly, parched land, which, without hard work and the right skills, is typically unsuitable for growing crops.
Once accepted into the programme, People in Need’s material contribution for Ahmad also arrived. “Sheer received plastic sheeting for storing water, ploughs for digging the garden and making rows and a wheelbarrow for carrying material,” says Pardis Momand, PIN’s field officer. Meanwhile, 30 farmers from his community established a farming group called Gape Mohimi Dega (One More Important Point), to which Ahmad was appointed team leader. Ahmad received various trainings and now educates other group members in methods for planting and growing vegetables. “Other members often visit his garden to learn how to grow new crops and new cultivation techniques,” says Momand. Ahmad plans to cultivate vegetables and trees, using the earnings he makes today to feed his family and buy new seeds to keep the garden going.
“It was really a turning point in my life. Now I can grow crops like pumpkins, tomatoes and okra,” says Ahmad. Looking up at the eroded, dry hills behind his house he says, “The hill was destroyed… but with People in Need’s support we’ll be able to cultivate this land and plant more trees and vegetables there.”
Rehabilitation of forests, fields and grazing land
Whilst the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s forests is the illegal and lucrative timber trade, the harsh winters also drive people to fell trees to keep warm. Such is the scale of deforestation that the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that over the past three decades Afghanistan’s forest cover has halved. The absence of forested land over hillsides has led to floods, widespread soil erosion and reduced water retention in aquifers. This is a key concern for local communities in Samangan Province and has led to efforts being undertaken to reforest and restabilise the hills.
“I remember when the mountains all around were covered with bushes and pistachio forests. Now, however, the mountains are bare; people have turned them into fields and so there’s nothing to stop the flood waters,” says 52-year-old Abdul Hay, a farmer and father of eight. “Fortunately, my house is not threatened by floods. But the Samangan River flows through our village and quite often a flood damages homes and fields. We then try to help those families who have lost all their assets, animals and winter supplies,” he adds.
In addition to learning conservation agriculture methods such as mulching, building terraces, sowing in rows, appropriate crop rotation and minimum-tillage methods, farmers in Samangan are also learning how to establish orchards and restore forests. To encourage forestation, PIN trains selected farmers in how to start tree nurseries. They learn new technical skills such as planting, tree care and grafting. At the same time, they develop knowledge of small-scale business activities and learn how to prepare seedlings that they can sell throughout the area.
“First of all, I’m a farmer. But I manage a forest nursery because it’s become the main source of my family’s income,” explains Abdul Hay. “Additionally, it allows me to offer our people seedlings, help them to protect the soil and, in the future, teach them how to graft apricot, peach, apple or possibly almond trees,” he explains. “I’ve been a farmer since I was a child. My father and I grew things like almonds and pistachios. But I didn’t know the right pruning and grafting techniques or how to prepare seedlings,” he adds.
The newly trained nursery owners produce seedlings primarily for the local market. What’s more, since achieving a sufficient level of production, many have become members of the Aybak Nurseries Association, which provides support and assistance in accessing distant markets. Over the past year alone, Abdul Hay has sold 6,000 seedlings. Not only is this work a good source of income, it also reduces the loss of life and livelihoods due to floods and landslides.
Community-based projects to protect natural resources
Whilst farmers have demonstrated great individual capacity to adopt conservation principles and protect the precious natural resources their harvests rely on, some concerns cannot be mitigated on an individual level. PIN, therefore, works with communities to build larger-scale infrastructure designed to mitigate the impacts of flash floods and protect topsoil from erosion. Examples of such infrastructure projects include building check dams, gabion walls, trenches, and water ponds. Based on the communities’ preferences, PIN has also helped to drill wells and install solar-powered pumps to irrigate orchards.