Beads of sweat run down through the wrinkles of Khialy Gul’s forehead. He is harvesting his wheat field today in Nawju village in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan.
“We received this support when we were in need,” emphasises the Afghan farmer, as he wipes off the sweat of the afternoon and takes a rest to talk about this season’s harvest. Khialy Gul has been a farmer for almost all of his life and is no stranger to the hours of manual labour needed just to produce food for himself and his family.
After over forty years of conflict, times are definitely not easy for farmers across Afghanistan. Food insecurity looms in the country’s rural areas, affecting one in three Afghans overall. Lives and livelihoods here are all too reliant on humanitarian assistance.
Many farmers cannot access their fields without putting their lives in danger. Even if they could, most don’t have the basic agricultural inputs needed, such as certified seeds, either because they can’t afford it or because good quality, certified seeds are simply not available in the local market.
“I was not able to buy seeds. I used to take loans from one season to another,” says Khialy Gul. “Besides, whenever we buy seeds from the [local] market, the problem is that the plants grow short and tall in a mixed and unreliable way.”
The winter wheat season was coming up, and it was important that the farmers make their harvest. Wheat is a staple food here in Afghanistan, with half of one’s daily calories typically coming from this crop alone.
With project funding from Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) supported 37 200 smallholder farmers including Khialy Gul across 16 provinces of Afghanistan with an emergency wheat cultivation package made up of high-quality, certified wheat seeds and fertilisers.
The assistance allowed Khialy Gul to cultivate two jeribs of land (0.4 hectares). “Certified seeds are really good and produce a rich yield: clean and pure wheat. We have not threshed yet, but it seems that the yield will be twice the past harvest,” says Khialy Gul while pointing to the golden wheat field.
Covid taking much of the aid money
“Local seed varieties produce 400-450kg of wheat grain per jerib on average, while the certified seeds yield 650-700kg per jerib on average. That’s around a 60 percent increase,” explains Khushal Asifi, FAO’s Regional coordinator for the eastern region of Afghanistan. This improvement in wheat production can alleviate the notable domestic wheat deficit expected (around 2 million metric tonnes in 2021).
With the world turning its attention to Covid-induced emergencies and issues, operations in many countries like Afghanistan have felt the impact of underfunded projects, while simultaneously needing additional funding to address their own pandemic-related challenges.
“The UN Humanitarian funding, CERF, covered large under-funded gaps in the beginning of the pandemic and played a catalytic role in attracting and enabling further funding from various donors, thus enabling and sustaining a fast, needs-based and time-critical humanitarian response,” says Fabrizio Cesaretti, head of the emergency and resilience unit in charge of FAO’s Covid-19 response in Afghanistan.
The CERF funding also went toward the Covid-19 response in the country, helping ensure Covid-safe functioning of key agriculture and livestock markets.
“We also received training on Covid-19. We have been told not to go much to the market, not to get close to anyone and not to chat a lot with anyone or hug. When you get away from people, use hand sanitiser, or wash your hands with soap. And wear a facemask,” explains Khialy Gul.
Together with Action Aid, Norwegian Afghanistan Committee and Rural Rehabilitation Association for Afghanistan, FAO provided the needed agricultural inputs to Khialy Gul coupled with specific training on practices to improve wheat productivity, for instance, row spacing cultivation that uses fewer seeds strategically placed at a distance from one another. “This technique has helped us use seeds more efficiently. We used to sprinkle [broadcast] the seeds, and that was more expensive,” he says.
So much depends on this harvest
A good wheat season is even more important because as the lean season hits, and La Niña arrives, the effects of drought will be felt across the country. “This time-critical and season-sensitive assistance has greatly contributed to enhancing the coping capacities of vulnerable smallholders like Khialy Gul,” explains Kaustubh Devale, FAO’s international disaster risk management officer in Afghanistan. “It has also helped reduce the risk of these smallholder farmers being forced to resort to distress sales of productive assets.”
Farmers were also supported with cash transfers to cover their most immediate needs. “We have used the cash for buying basic stationary for our children who go to school,” says Khialy Gul.
“Our expectation was to cover family expenses for at least four or five months… Right now, it seems that this will be enough to cover our expenses for a longer period.”
But today, the harvest still needs to be finished. The sun will set soon.