Climate change threatens Afghanistan's pomegranate produce

Pomegranate Afghan
27 July, 2021
As Afghanistan has lurched from conflict to conflict, one institution has stood strong: pomegranates, perhaps the country's most delicious export. However, climate change threatens this rare bright spot in the struggling Afghan economy.

The last few months have brought little good news for Afghanistan, a country that has lurched from one conflict to another for over four decades. As the Taliban captures more territory from Afghanistan’s beleaguered military by the day, the United States is completing the final phase of a withdrawal from the country first announced in April. Meanwhile, militias are once again proliferating in Afghanistan, increasing fears that the warlords who levelled the Afghan capital of Kabul in the 1990s are preparing to make a comeback as soon as the United States leaves.

Given all these concerning developments, the future of Afghanistan’s pomegranates may seem tangential to the fate of the country as a whole. In reality, however, this so-called “superfood” will play a significant role in the direction of the Afghan economy. In a nation where agriculture employs 44 percent of the labour force and generates income for 60 percent of households, pomegranates serve as one of the most lucrative crops and perhaps the most famous.

Having cultivated pomegranates for centuries, many Afghans see the pomegranate as a national symbol. Amid the rise and fall of empires, foreign incursions, revolutions, and civil wars, Afghanistan never stopped growing pomegranates

Having cultivated pomegranates for centuries, many Afghans see the pomegranate as a national symbol. Amid the rise and fall of empires, foreign incursions, revolutions, and civil wars, Afghanistan never stopped growing pomegranates.

In 2006, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that then Afghan President Hamid Karzai called his country’s pomegranates the best in the world. A decline in production would deal a devastating blow to the economy and morale of a nation just beginning to wrestle with the consequences of the United States’ departure.

Pomegranate Afghan
Pomegranate Afghan
Pomegranate Afghan
Climate change represents just the latest threat to pomegranates and their Afghan farmers [Getty]

The greatest threat to Afghanistan’s pomegranates may come not from the battlefield but from climate change and the environmental issues that have received little attention during the country’s ongoing conflict. In particular, Afghan experts have highlighted the risks of desertification, which hinders the growth of crops such as pomegranates. As far back as 2006, over three-quarters of Afghanistan’s north, south, and west suffered from desertification.

The situation in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, shows the gravity of the problem. Notorious as the birthplace of the Taliban, Kandahar has a much older reputation as the source of Afghanistan’s best pomegranates. In 2008, researchers from the University of California, Davis, estimated that Kandahar Province grew about 20,000 metric tons of pomegranates every year, compared to California’s 17,000 metric tons a year. Because of desertification, though, many of Kandahar’s farmers have had to abandon their crops.

While Kandahar has become Afghanistan’s best-known producer of pomegranates, plenty of other spots in the country grow them. As part of the United States’ efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after 2001, the US Agency for International Development funded the Commercial Horticulture and Agriculture Marketing Programme, or CHAMP, whose “farm-to-market guide” says that the country produces 79 varieties of pomegranate in provinces such as Balkh, Helmand, and Zabul.

Climate change represents just the latest threat to pomegranates and their Afghan farmers, who have had to adapt to the evolving circumstances of a war without end.

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Battles between the Taliban and Afghan security forces have prevented farmers from harvesting their pomegranates, and farmers allege that the Taliban has chased him out of their orchards to dig trenches and plant mines there. At least one anecdote suggests that Afghan soldiers have also built outposts in orchards, placing major military targets right next to farmers’ vulnerable pomegranates.

Last October, the Taliban launched an offensive centred on Arghandab District in Kandahar Province, destroying an untold number of pomegranates in one of Afghanistan’s top-producing municipalities. The offensive also led to the deaths of several farmers, the result of mines that the Taliban had deployed in Arghandab District’s orchards during the operation.

As Afghanistan’s conflict accumulates headlines, climate change has escalated its quiet war on Afghan agriculture. The CHAMP pamphlet remarks that “Afghanistan is the cradle of world pomegranate production, with a long and ancient history in international exports.” Unless the international community acts fast, however, that history may be coming to an end.

Droughts are likely to be the norm by 2030, leading to land degradation and desertification... Since 1978, the arable area has declined by about 60%, leaving only 12% of the land now suitable for farming

The United Nations Development Program observed in 2016, “All but three of the past 11 years have seen floods or droughts, including the country’s most severe drought ever, which lasted from 1998 to 2006.” The UN added that “droughts are likely to be the norm by 2030, leading to land degradation and desertification,” and that, “since 1978, the arable area has declined by about 60 percent, leaving only 12 percent of the land now suitable for farming.”

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In light of these mounting challenges, any effort to rescue Afghanistan’s pomegranates will require buy-in from the country’s stakeholders as well as the international community. Despite the enmity between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s struggling government, both sides in the current conflict recognize the importance of keeping the country’s faltering economy afloat.

The United States has already dedicated funds to supporting agriculture in Afghanistan, including an ill-fated campaign to convince Afghan farmers to abandon the cultivation of opium in favour of pomegranates. Though that initiative fizzled, it offers a framework for projects to insulate Afghan farmers and their pomegranates from the effects of climate change. Integrating Afghan powerbrokers into these programmes will increase their likelihood of success.

No shortage of analysts and policymakers are asking what the future holds for Afghanistan, a question often repeated by Afghans themselves. Whatever becomes of the country’s conflict, pomegranates will only survive if Afghanistan takes steps to shield them from climate change.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.