Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis A lingering drought in Afghanistan has led to the smallest wheat harvest in the country in years. The diminished crop has thrown farmers and residents into a food crisis. Many point to the government for not coming to the farmers' aid fast enough.
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Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis

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Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis

Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis

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: the smallest wheat harvest in years. Thanks to a long drought, millions of Afghans are now in danger of going hungry. The U.S. has donated 50,000 tons of wheat to try to forestall the crisis, but experts warn it's not enough. They say the Afghan government and international donors need to start paying more attention to the country's farmers. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently paid a visit to one parched village.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The only thing growing in this village in northern Kunduz province is frustration. Farmers here complain the drought has left them without enough wheat to eat, let alone sell this winter. This is the worst drought anybody can remember, and looking at all the brown fields, it's very easy to see why they're distressed. This field here was a wheat field, but there wasn't enough rain and there wasn't enough water in the canal, so they tried planting okra and melons. But those didn't take, either. So now it's just mounds of dirt that stretch for acres. Mohammad Yusuf heads an informal farmers' cooperative in this village called Beggars' Gathering. He takes his anger out on dried okra stems sticking out of the dirt by snapping them in half.

MOHAMMAD YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Yusuf says rain touched their fields maybe twice this year. He says other than providing some seed, his government has done nothing to help. Abdul Aziz Nikzad is the agricultural director here in Kunduz province. He says he sympathizes with Yusuf.

ABDUL AZIZ NIKZAD: FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN

SARHADDI NELSON: The director says his province used to be called the weed warehouse of Afghanistan, but not anymore. He blames the drought. He also blames the government in Kabul for not acting more quickly to help farmers. He says the various ministries don't trust one another, like when his superiors at the Agriculture Ministry told him to rent tankers to help get water to dying livestock. He says five months later, the Finance Ministry has yet to give him the money to pay for the tankers.

AZIZ NIKZAD: (Through Translator) The ministries with money act like warlords guarding their personal coffers. There's so much red tape and micromanaging, there's little I can do to help the farmers.

SARHADDI NELSON: Nikzad is still waiting to hear whether they will give him money to dig the three wells he needs to keep his 250-acre government farm alive. He says he has to dig those wells by next month, or he'll miss the deadline for planting next season's wheat.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

SARHADDI NELSON: For now, the only water at the farm is pumped through a four- inch fire hose donated by the French. The water comes from the farm's lone well.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SARHADDI NELSON: A farm worker uses the water to plant a small field of almond, apricot and other saplings. It's the only field in sight where anything is growing. Tekeste Ghebray Tekie is the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization representative based in Kabul. He says of the billions of foreign dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan, only a few hundred million have gone to improving agriculture. But he adds the drought and soaring wheat prices served as a wake up call about the dangers of ignoring agriculture in a country where 80 percent of the population is dependent on farming.

TEKESTE GHEBRAY TEKIE: I call it a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it brought attention to agriculture. For another, farmers may switch from poppy to growing crops or wheat. So maybe there's an opportunity there from the crisis.

SARHADDI NELSON: Many here say that wheat at this stage is becoming more lucrative than opium poppy, and the key is to help poppy farmers make the switch. Still, there are a lot of questions about what Afghan agriculture should look like. U.S. officials are interested in seeing farmers focus more on cash crops like fruit and nuts that grow better here and will boost the economy. Loren Stoddard is director of alternative development and agriculture at the U.S. agency for International Development in Kabul.

LOREN STODDARD: You grow a little wheat. You eat it. and then you grow tree fruits and other kinds of things, and you sell those for cash. And that's kind of the relationship. So wheat's important to people, but it's really not anything that's going to generate revenues, jobs really - economic progress.

SARHADDI NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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