In 2008, drought struck Afghanistan and nearly destroyed the country’s winter grain crop. Combined with trade disruptions and transport-corridor conflicts, the poor harvest caused local grain prices to skyrocket. Authorities worried that 2009 would repeat the difficulties of 2008, and dry weather lasting from late 2008 through early 2009 increased concern. Beginning in March 2009, however, rain began to fall. Afghanistan’s rainfall and subsequent crop growth left the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service projecting a 2009-2010 wheat crop exceeding the 2008-2009 crop by 127 percent.
This image shows vegetation conditions in northern Afghanistan from April 23 to May 8, 2009, measured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Green shows where vegetation growth during that period was above the average for 2000–2008. Reddish-brown indicates below-average growth. Blue indicates water, and gray indicates no data due to snow and/or ice cover—common in the high mountains that dominate the country’s terrain.
Afghanistan’s dry climate and rugged topography restrict its arable land. The country’s most important food crop—wheat—is grown mostly in the northern part of the country, at the foothills of the rugged central mountains. The majority of agricultural land in Afghanistan’s leading wheat-producing region (roughly centered in this image), is rainfed, and 75 percent of the wheat crop depends on rain falling at the right time. In spring 2009, rainfed wheat was more lush than average. Good growing conditions also occurred in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
The beneficial rains and resulting bumper wheat harvest were expected to increase Afghanistan’s food security, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The beneficial rains did have a downside, however. The number of Afghanistan households affected by flash floods in spring 2009 increased. Some of this flooding, however, resulted from rapid snowmelt rather than rain.
In Afghanistan, non-irrigated wheat accounts for a larger percentage of agricultural land, but irrigated wheat accounts for a larger share of total production. According to the Foreign Agricultural Service, a bumper crop usually results from increased yield in rainfed growing areas, rather than irrigated growing areas. That doesn’t mean that irrigated areas are not sensitive to the weather. Like it does in the American West, water for irrigation in Afghanistan comes from the spring and summer melting of the mountain snow pack. Low winter snowfall or rapid spring melt can reduce the availability of water for irrigated crops.
One of the worst droughts in the past decade settled heavily over the Fertile Crescent region of Iraq and Syria in the winter of 2007-2008. Under normal conditions, winter rain and rivers flowing from the mountains of Turkey sustain the rich agricultural land that has fed humanity from the dawn of civilization. But little to no rain fell between October and December during the crucial planting period, and sparse rain fell in the months that followed, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).