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Low snow accumulation and dry soil conditions likely to impact 2018 staple production

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Afghanistan
  • February - September 2018
Low snow accumulation and dry soil conditions likely to impact 2018 staple production

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  • Key Messages
  • National Overview
  • Key Messages
    • The weakening of the casual labor market since 2014 has made it more difficult for poor households to earn sufficient income to support dietary needs during the lean season. Furthermore, 2017 rainfed production was poor in some provinces, including in Ghor, Balkh, Jawzjan, Takhar, Badakhshan, Samangan, Herat, Baghlan, and Sar-i-Pul Provinces­­­­­. Poor households affected by poor own production or who were not able to find sufficient employment to support food purchases are likely experiencing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes until local spring labor opportunities facilitate access to income and market purchases of food.

    • The ongoing conflict between various insurgent groups, primarily the Taliban and IS, and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has increased in geographic extent and severity in recent years, with more than 1.1 million people displaced since the beginning of 2016. Beyond displacement, insecurity has continued to disrupt normal livelihoods by limiting access to farms, rangelands, markets, and labor opportunities, and by reducing local economic activity. Although seasonal improvements in access to food and income will occur during the spring and summer months, displacement and reduced non-agricultural labor opportunities are expected to drive Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes throughout much of the country during the scenario period, with many households in Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

    • Snow accumulation and cumulative precipitation were well below average for the season through February 2018, with some basins at or near record low snowpack, with data since 2002. Forecast models indicate a likelihood for below-average precipitation through the end of the season in May 2018, with elevated risk for prolonged periods of dryness. These factors will likely have an adverse impact on staple production in marginal irrigated areas and in many rainfed areas.

    • Due to below-average precipitation and extent of snow coverage, as well as forecasts for above-average temperatures during the spring and summer, rangeland conditions are expected to be poor during the period of analysis through September 2018. This could have an adverse impact on pastoralists and agro-pastoralists, particularly in areas where livestock movements are limited by conflict.

    National Overview

    Current Situation

    Several factors impacting many poor households in 2017 and in recent years led to high assistance needs entering the ongoing 2018 lean season, and limited households’ ability to prepare for mitigating the seasonal decline in access to food and income sources. Conflict, which has hindered rural development for decades, has been particularly severe and widespread since early 2016, with more people displaced that year than at any time since 2002. In total, more than 1,100,000 people have been internally displaced by conflict since early 2016, and many more have had their normal livelihoods disrupted due to security concerns, such as the inability to safely access agricultural fields and rangelands, or to travel for migratory labor opportunities. According to ACLED, which tracks conflict events and fatalities through media reports, more than 53,000 people were killed by conflict in Afghanistan from January 2017 through February 2018. Further displacement is ongoing. According to UNOCHA, as of February 19th a total of 18,500 individuals in 18 of 34 provinces had been displaced by conflict since the beginning of the year.

    As conflict has become more disruptive and widespread, casual non-agricultural labor opportunities in many areas have become scarcer. Although a reduction in casual employment opportunities was already observed in the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) in 2014, the trend has continued over the three years since, likely due in part to the economic impact of the drawdown in ISAF forces since 2014/2015, which has reduced opportunities in areas including the provision of various goods to ISAF forces and civilian workers, opportunities in construction of facilities, and provision of transportation services. Information from the 2017 Seasonal Food Security Assessment (SFSA), conducted between April and June 2017, indicates that 11 percent of the respondents reported a substantial reduction in their income compared to the previous year, while 48 percent experienced some reduction in their incomes. As per SFSA, decreased economic opportunities have led some of the poorest households to increase use of negative livelihood coping strategies, such as withdrawing children from school, selling productive livestock, or even the sale of their land. It is important to note that the reduction in employment opportunities has had implications for urban food security as well as rural. It is common that urban households who experience a deterioration in income opportunities will withdraw children from school, often resulting in child labor in informal or even illicit markets.

    In addition to the ongoing impact of conflict and casual labor market changes on sources of food and income, extended periods of dryness during the spring rainfed season of 2017 led to poor rainfed staple production in many areas. Aggregate rainfed wheat production for 2017 was just 52 percent of the average for 2005 – 2017, according to estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL). Although this brought aggregate national wheat production below the five-year average, strong regional wheat availability and continued imports from Kazakhstan and Pakistan kept wheat prices stable. However, rainfed staple production is a primary livelihood activity for many poor households in affected areas, either on their own land, as sharecroppers in the dekhani system, or as day laborers who are paid either in-kind or in cash. For these households, poor 2017 rainfed production led to a significant reduction in normal sources of food and/or income, leading them to rely on alternative livelihoods options and, in many cases, experience poor food security outcomes.

    The 2017 potato harvest was estimated at 513,194 metric tons (MT). Potatoes brought normal income for producers, particularly in the central highlands, where more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s potatoes are produced. A reduction in cotton prices impacted livelihoods in major cotton-producing districts in Afghanistan, including Marja, Nadali, Ghramsir, and Hazarjuft Districts in Helmand Province, Charbolak and Balkh Districts in Balkh Province, and Baghlan Jadeed and Baghlan Kuna Districts in Baghlan Province. Cotton prices this season were almost 35 percent below the level of the previous year, and were lower than in other recent years, greatly reducing profit margins. However, the normal to slightly above normal yields of other second-season crops last year, including rice and maize, reduced the impact of lower cotton prices, as many poor households that typically rely on labor opportunities in the cotton sector were able to find other local agricultural labor opportunities.

    Horticultural harvests in 2017 had a slightly higher volume as compared to the previous year. Prices for many horticultural products were also higher than last year, leading to a reported increase in household income from horticultural sales.

    The beginning of the 2017/2018 wet season was delayed by as much as two months in some areas, with the first significant precipitation in December rather than by the end of October, as is typical in most of the country. Cumulative precipitation for the season through February was well below average across the country, according to satellite-based estimates as well as qualitative information from different regions of Afghanistan. The poor start to the season delayed planting of winter wheat in some areas, particularly in the north and northeast. In areas where precipitation was too late for germination prior to freezing conditions, some farmers elected to plant their land as spring wheat later in the season.

    Through February, estimates of water storage in snowpack were well below average in almost all basins, with data since 2002. Some basins were at or near their lowest seasonal levels on record. Due to above-average temperatures and limited precipitation during the beginning of the winter season, areas where snow typically affects market access have experienced a slightly later start to the period in which they must rely primarily or exclusively on food stocks. Due to below-average precipitation, winter wheat planting has not been completed, and spring rainfed wheat planting has begun and will continue until mid-March, depending on rainfall. The provincial directorates of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL), as well as some NGOs, have distributed certified, improved seeds and fertilizers to some farmers. Households who do not have access to these inputs are either using their own produced seeds from last year or are purchasing seeds from local markets.

    Irrigation is critical for agricultural production in much of Afghanistan, as rainfall during the growing season is unreliable or insufficient in many areas. Snow runoff from the mountain ranges of central Afghanistan provides over 80 percent of the irrigation water used. The timing and duration of annual snowmelt is a key factor in determining the volume of irrigation water and the length of time it is available, as well as its availability for use in marginal areas that experience below-average rainfall. Below-average availability of irrigation water throughout 2017, and particularly during the September to December winter wheat sowing period, affected the normal planted area of winter crops.

    In most provinces, February through May is considered the peak of the lean season, when poor households have seasonally low income-earning opportunities and depleted household food stocks. Many mixed-farming areas of the north that rely substantially on rainfed production were negatively affected by extended dry spells in 2017, and are facing a high risk of poor agricultural production for 2018 due to the ongoing dry conditions. As of late February, most farmers had not been able to plant rainfed crops due to poor soil moisture conditions.

    For most rural households, stocks of wheat and wheat flour are estimated to be below average due to last year’s below-average harvest, and will likely be depleted by the end of March. The January 2018 terms of trade between casual labor and wheat flour in the eight reference markets monitored by WFP were very near the January average for 2010 – 2017, at 11.7 KG of wheat flour per day of labor (Figure 2). However, limited labor opportunities may adversely affect the ability of poor households to make needed food purchases. Wheat flour prices were lower in January 2018 as compared to the previous year in most reference markets, ranging from a decrease of 4 percent in Faizabad to 20 percent in Maimana. This at least partially reflects recent stability in international wheat prices, particularly in Pakistan and Kazakhstan where Afghanistan sources most of its wheat and wheat flour imports.

    The average January 2018 terms of trade between sheep (one-year-old female) and wheat across the eight reference markets was 10.7 percent above the five-year average, helping households in agro-pastoral livelihood zones as well as Kuchi pastoralists to purchase necessary wheat stocks ahead of the winter.

    Although migration of unemployed youth to neighboring countries (primarily Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey) is a typical livelihood strategy, the reduction in casual labor opportunities within Afghanistan has led to an increase of approximately 21 percent in 2018 compared to last year. However, labor migration to Iran has become less attractive since the sharp depreciation of the Iranian Rial (IRR) against the Afghani (AFN) and other currencies since 2017. Though the labor migration has increased to Iran, the level of remittances from Iran has significantly decreased in comparison to recent years. The reduction in casual labor opportunities has also been a factor driving youths to join the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). Remittances from the Arab Gulf countries, which constitute a significant source of income in southern and southeastern Afghanistan, are continuing at a normal rate.

    Opium production has risen significantly in Afghanistan in recent years. The 2017 Afghanistan Opium Survey indicates a 63 percent increase in area cultivated in 2017 as compared to 2016, with farmgate value estimated at USD 1.4 billion, a 55 percent increase from the previous year.

    Nutritional outcomes in Afghanistan remain poor in many areas, although the government and partners have enhanced prevention and treatment efforts. In various SMART surveys between 2013 and 2018, results in 15 different provinces indicated GAM prevalence above 15 percent (Bamyan, Daykundi, Ghor, Jawzjan, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktya, Panjsher, Parwan, Uruzgan, and Wardak). Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) prevalence was above three percent in 24 different provinces. Annually, about 1.6 million children under five and 443,000 pregnant and lactating women (PLW) require treatment for acute malnutrition. Additionally, the prevalence of both chronic and acute child undernutrition is alarmingly high—ranking among the highest in the world. Malnutrition has long been understood as a geospatial problem in Afghanistan; however, its burden and distribution across sub-provincial zones is not well understood. While decades of limited economic growth have driven acute and chronic undernutrition, conflict further exacerbates the existing underlying conditions causing malnutrition; such as inadequate household food security, poor dietary intake, insufficient health services, lack of proper sanitation facilities and practices, and inadequate maternal and child care.

    Acute malnutrition is a life-threatening condition that requires urgent treatment as SAM children are nine times more likely to die than their healthy peers while children with moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) are three times more likely to die. Undernourished children who survive may become locked in a cycle of recurring illness and faltering growth, with irreversible damage to their development and cognitive abilities.

    The most severe needs are found in areas and provinces experiencing ongoing conflict or hosting large numbers of IDPs and returnees, such as in Torkham (Nangarhar), Spin Boldak (Kandahar), Zaranj (Nimroz), and Islam Qala (Hirat). These areas are simultaneously affected by structural deficits predating the current crisis and include chronic food insecurity, malnutrition, and limited access to safe water and healthcare.

    Currently, out of 1,922 health facilities across the country, only 973 (50 percent) provide services for the management of SAM and 567 (30 percent) for the treatment of MAM, resulting in a significant gap between the extent of the needs of the affected population and the possibility to access both preventative and curative services.

    Access to healthcare for IDPs, returnees, and refugees is of concern, and many returnees and refugees have not been able to access basic essential services. Returnees in Torkham, Spin Boldak, Zaranj, and Islam Qala present with high prevalence of tuberculosis, HIV, and medical complications related to malnutrition and pregnancy. These diseases limit the body’s ability to utilize available nutrients. The situation is further complicated by frequent exchanges of territorial control between the government and armed groups across large parts of the country. Afghanistan’s rapidly changing political, socioeconomic, and insecurity landscape has both direct and indirect implications on nutritional outcomes.

    Children under the age of five and pregnant and lactating women (PLW) continue to endure the most severe nutritional outcomes. An estimated 1.6 million children suffer from acute malnutrition annually, including 546,000 that suffer from severe acute malnutrition, according to the 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview.

    Approximately 46 percent of children and 48 percent of PLW with acute malnutrition live in 120 conflict-affected districts. Poor infant and young child feeding practices and high-levels of micronutrient deficiencies among children and mothers contributes to rapid deterioration of nutritional status among populations affected by natural disasters. Conflict induced IDPs are also at heightened risk of deterioration. Almost 60 percent of children under two years are not fed appropriately, 50.4 percent suffer from Vitamin-A deficiency and 40.4 percent women aged between 15-49 years are affected by iron deficiency anemia.

    The most likely scenario for February to September 2018 is based on the following assumptions:

    • The most likely scenario during the remainder of the rainfed spring wheat planting season and early development (February – April) is for below-average to average cumulative precipitation. There is also an elevated risk for extended periods of dryness, due to anticipated below-average frequency of storms in the region.
    • It is expected that water availability for irrigation purposes will not be sufficient for the normal development of irrigated crops in all areas that typically rely on the availability of water in irrigation channels, and water availability for second season crops is likely to be below average.
    • There is a below-average risk for widespread spring flooding, due to below-average snowpack in almost all basins. However, there remains a risk for flash flooding in localized areas, due to possible heavy rainfall events and rapid snowmelt.
    • Import prices for wheat and wheat flour from Kazakhstan and Pakistan are likely to remain stable during the scenario period, due to stable prices and strong carry-over stocks in both countries. Wheat prices are not expected to increase to a level significantly higher than their current levels.
    • Pakistan is expected to continue exporting wheat flour to Afghanistan throughout the scenario period, with no significant new restrictions on trade.
    • Below-average 2017/2018 precipitation will likely result in below-average pasture and water for animals in most grazing areas, including key rangelands of the north and northeast. This is likely to result in weakened livestock body conditions and productivity as compared to last year, and below-average availability of livestock products for sale and for consumption.
    • During the spring and summer of 2018, conflict incidents are likely to increase. It is assumed that displacement will affect a number of people in a similar range to the number of people displaced in 2016 and 2017, which were two of the years with the greatest number of displacements since 2002. Displacement is likely to occur in many provinces throughout most regions of the country.
    • The government of Pakistan has indicated its intention to oblige the repatriation of many Afghan nationals during 2018. Based on consultations with partner agencies, the analysis assumes that the number of people repatriating from Pakistan is likely to be similar to 2016, when estimates indicated more than 600,000 refugee and undocumented returnees from Pakistan.
    • Demand for agricultural day labor will follow a typical seasonal trend, with peak agricultural labor demand during the wheat harvest in June and during the spring crop harvest in August. Demand will be adversely affected by below-average staple production.
    • Conflicts and civil insecurity will continue in many parts of Afghanistan throughout the scenario period, but conflicts are not expected to significantly alter access or travel to high mountain pasture for normal pastoral and transhumant migrations. More than the ongoing armed conflict, resource-based conflict during migration will be above typical levels.
    • Prices for livestock and livestock products will be below normal seasonal patterns, remaining at seasonally high levels until September, when they will decline with the increase in sales as livestock return from high mountain pastures.
    • Production of first season crops, especially wheat, and second season crops, particularly rice, will be below average in most parts of the country, with rainfed wheat production most likely to experience major impacts on production as compared to normal levels.
    • Migrant laborers from Afghanistan currently living in Pakistan and Iran will continue to find some labor opportunities and provide remittances at seasonally normal times. However, the level of remittances from Iran will be less than average.

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    Low snowpack in most basins of the country is likely to lead to somewhat limited water availability for irrigation in downstream areas. This is likely to reduce yields in some areas under irrigated cultivation, for wheat and other staples. Additionally, some areas were too dry for winter wheat planting prior to the onset of winter, which has likely reduced the overall area dedicated to winter wheat cultivation. It is most likely that irrigated wheat production in 2018 will be below the five-year average. However, strong regional wheat supply and relatively low international prices are likely to drive stability in wheat prices and market availability.

    As below-average precipitation has continued through February and forecasts indicate an increased risk for below-average precipitation during the remainder of the wet season through May, it is most likely that some areas of rainfed staple production will be adversely impacted by insufficient soil moisture or extended periods of dryness during critical stages of crop development. On average, approximately 25 percent of domestic wheat production is produced in rainfed areas, with significant

    year-to-year variation, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent in the record since 2005, according to MAIL production estimates. Although the impact of dryness on rainfed production is unlikely to adversely impact availability or prices in main markets, it is likely to adversely impact own-produced food stocks for households in affected areas, as well as reduce the availability of local agricultural labor opportunities.

    While the ongoing dryness is likely to adversely impact agricultural labor opportunities during the spring and summer, non-agricultural casual labor opportunities are also likely to remain weak, in part due to the expected additional influx of Afghan nationals from Pakistan into the casual labor market, as well as many people internally displaced by conflict. Although available data for major markets indicates stability in wage rates, it is likely that wage rates may decrease below average during the scenario period, due to high supply of laborers. It is also important to note that available data on casual labor wage rates collected by WFP is limited to eight major markets, which may not be adequately representative of labor market dynamics in more rural areas.

    Rangeland vegetative conditions during the 2018 spring and summer (April – September) are expected to be below average in most areas, due to dry conditions entering the 2017/2018 wet season, below-average cumulative 2017/2018 precipitation, and above-average temperatures. This is likely to lead to poor livestock body conditions, and livestock selling prices that are below average and those of the previous year. The availability of dairy products among producing households will likely be well below normal levels.

    Most households who have cultivated this year will have below-average access to food from own production. Furthermore, access to income through seasonal agricultural labor from May through August will likely be below normal. There is a risk that sales of cash crops such as orchard crops, nuts, fruits, and cumin may be adversely affected by dryness. Poor livestock body conditions in some areas may also limit income from livestock sales. Access to milk will likely be below the seasonal norm at least through May, due to poor livestock conditions and the greater need to migrate livestock for grazing.

    Planting for spring, mostly rainfed wheat will begin in March in most areas. Spring wheat planting will continue through mid-April, assuming sufficient precipitation. Although improved seeds have been distributed to some farmers through the provincial offices of the Ministry of Agriculture (PAIL), there remains additional need and demand for improved seeds. Farmers who do not have access to these inputs are either using their own produced seeds from last year or are purchasing seed from the local market.

    Although the weather conditions and below-average seasonal precipitation and snowpack have worsened the outlook for food security outcomes, a temporary, seasonal improvement is anticipated in the coming months, due to the increased availability of agricultural labor opportunities, the availability of milk products following spring livestock births, the resumption of some non-agricultural opportunities in sectors such as construction, and improved market and humanitarian access with snowmelt and warmer temperatures. All these typical livelihood strategies will improve food consumption as households gain income and increase their purchasing power. Also, dietary diversity increases as early vegetables and milk become available. The start of the irrigated grain harvest in May at lower elevations typically leads to a sharp increase in labor demand, and at this point, some households will already start to replenish their stocks for the next season.

    Although seasonal improvements in access to food and income will occur during the spring and summer months, displacement and reduced non-agricultural labor opportunities are expected to drive Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes throughout much of the country during the scenario period, with many households in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). Most areas of the country are expected to remained Stressed (IPC Phase 2) for the entire period through September 2018, except for areas of the central highlands, northeast, north, and northwest, including Badghis Province, where Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are anticipated at least until main season harvests in these areas, mostly between June and September, depending on elevation. Although the classification for many areas is not expected to deteriorate to Crisis (IPC Phase 3), populations facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes are anticipated throughout most of the country, and will remain in need of humanitarian assistance. Food security outcomes following the end of the lean season in March and April will be heavily dependent on seasonal progress toward the 2018 grain harvest.

    Many IDPs, refugees, and other returnees with no or limited cultivation of their own, whether staple or cash crops for sale, are likely to face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes throughout the period, in the absence of assistance. The main viable income source for IDPs and refugees during the scenario period is seasonal agricultural labor on the farms of their host communities during the May to September harvest period.

    Some poor households, as well as many who have been displaced or who have returned from Pakistan or Iran, are benefitting from ongoing cash and food voucher programs implemented by several aid agencies, including various NGOs, WFP, and the Afghan government.


    For further information on specific areas of concern, please click the download button at the top of this page for the full report.

    Figures Seasonal calendar for a typical year

    Figure 1

    Seasonal calendar for a typical year

    Source: FEWS NET

    Accumulated precipitation, October 1, 2017 to February 28, 2018, percent of average (2002-2011)

    Figure 2

    Accumulated precipitation, October 1, 2017 to February 28, 2018, percent of average (2002-2011)

    Source: USGS/FEWS NET

    Casual labor to wheat flour terms of trade, eight market average versus 2010-2017 average

    Figure 3

    Casual labor to wheat flour terms of trade, eight market average versus 2010-2017 average

    Source: Data from WFP

    Casual labor to wheat flour terms of trade (KG/Day), January 2018 versus January 2017 and 2013-2017 January average

    Figure 4

    Casual labor to wheat flour terms of trade (KG/Day), January 2018 versus January 2017 and 2013-2017 January average

    Source: Data from WFP

    To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming eight months. Learn more here.

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