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Afghanistan, the badland of international politics, faces its toughest challenge: life and peace. Two decades of war, six months of non-stop bombing and incessant US efforts to establish a friendly government, make this a bitter dream. One-tenth of its population has already perished. One-third has been driven out of the country. As for the rest, their only source of livelihood - an ecology based on land and water - has been severely threatened. Afghanistan wants its life back. Its land, agriculture and water. The rest of the world, through operation Enduring Freedom, curtails that wish. The US-led coalition is pushing for a new government and a new constitution with the carrot: a global aid package of US $4.5 billion. The stick: imposition of a centralised governance system. But the concept of a centralised government is anathema for Afghans. An Afghan's loyalty always remains with the local community chiefs. Afghans have seen too many rulers and too little development. In a month from now, an assembly of tribal chiefs, called the Loya Jirga, will meet to decide the country's future. This is Afghanistan's moment of reckoning

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 31 May 2002

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-- (Credit: Prashant Panjiar / India Today)After 20 years

If the bombs didn't kill, the land will. Afghanistan's natural resources are all but dead

survival is an impossible dream in Afghanistan. Last December, as Afghans looked up to the deceptively beautiful sky for rain, bombs rained from endless streams of b-52 bombers -- each 'smart' bomb costing more than Afghanistan's gdp. On the ground, the situation was no different. In Tora Bora and other mountains -- where usa believed its enemy number one Osama bin Laden was hiding -- most of the country's life-saving traditional water canals known as karez were being flattened. So were Afghanistan's hopes for survival.

"Why did they bomb our water canals," asks Azimullah, 25, a peasant whose village, Agam, overlooks Tora Bora. There is no water in karez. And this is the fourth drought year. Azimullah is now worried about the next wheat crop: "No rains during winter means no wealth in May."

By all probability, Azimullah must have left for a refugee camp, ignorant of us president George W Bush's declaration of a Marshall Plan for his country. The country's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, is hurriedly preparing the country's constitution to make way for a global aid pledge of us $4.5 billion. But aid has never reached Azimullah's village. Refugee camps in Afghanistan's urban areas are teeming with people like Azimullah, carrying the reluctant burden of two decades of war.

Forbidden toll
War has driven Afghanistan's one-third people out of their country. Starting from the proxy war of the superpowers in the 1960s through 1980s, to the brutal internal conflicts in the 1990s, Afghanistan remains a 'great game.' According to the International Committee for Red Cross (icrc), around 1.7 million people have been killed in the last two decades. Around one million people are believed to have moved to remote mountainous areas to escape the war, which has gripped almost the entire country.

The shadow of war has eclipsed the whole country leaving hardly any place to escape. Desperate farmers run to their lands with the smell of rain, only to be blown into pieces by anti-personnel mines. Around 10 million landmines dot Afghanistan -- 45,000 landmines in every 25 sq km -- making it the world's most densely mined area, according to un secretary-general Kofi Annan. And this is a major deterrent for the revival of agriculture and animal husbandry, which accounts for its 95 per cent population's livelihood. "An estimated half a million households are without a male provider," says Anne Bauer, the head of Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao) for Afghanistan. Children are the worst affected. A 1997 survey of 300 children carried out by unicef found that 90 per cent believed that they would die during the conflict. The World Health Organisation says that some five million Afghans are suffering from psychological distress.

Nowhere people
For a country with two-thirds land covered with mountains, precious natural resources like water and agriculture formed the backbone of a fragile economy. "The marathon wars have changed all that. Afghanistan's environment is completely devastated," says N S Jodha, a natural resource management expert with International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (icimod), a Kathmandu-based research organisation studying the Himalayas and Hindukush region. The country's 80 per cent rural population are the worst hit as they depend on agriculture. An estimated 36 per cent of all irrigation systems (according to Afghanistan's former president Burhanubbin Rabbani's speech at the un) were directly affected by war. These figures, however, do not take into account the indirect effects of neglect and abandonment.

"War has swept across Afghanistan like wildfire, leaving broken lives and barren landscapes in its trail. It is a conflict without end, warfare has physically erased many of their country's natural resources," says an icrc's report on Afghanistan published in 1999. As for the remaining two-thirds of the population, Rabbani says, "I am not sure about them. Those who have left the country are lucky."

Indeed. The two-third residents of Afghanistan, if not crippled by the war, are fighting another battle: the fourth consecutive drought. Famine is imminent. The World Bank says that seven million people are vulnerable to famine this year -- more than half the country's population. The deficit of wheat up to next June is around 1.7 million tonnes, according to a November 2001 fao report. Drought has halved the harvest as compared to 1998. "Ninety per cent of people in this region depend on agriculture and have been affected by drought," says Nigel Pont, a programme officer of Mercy Corps, an international aid agency working in Kandhar city. The bombing that began in October 2001 has made sowing difficult for peasants. Relief agencies estimate that 7.5 million people, displaced by war and drought, will need food assistance.

But help is never going to come easy. Post September 11, aid agencies have disappeared due to military intervention. War has driven people into remote areas and ongoing military intervention has kept relief agencies away from them. Life has become a very difficult proposition. "In some remote areas such as Uruzgan province, drought refugees are barely surviving. People are living under bushes with no water. It is an absolute disaster," he says. In Kandahar, villages have been polarised over access to water: poor are those who buy water and rich are those who can dig deep wells to get water.

There was a glimmer of hope this January and April. It rained a bit. But farmers didn't have the seeds to sow. And finding seeds suitable to Afghanistan's climate is an equally daunting job. The country has exhausted all its indigenous varieties. A desperate worldwide search has zeroed on a deep freezer in one of Turkey's agriculture research institutes, which has stored some of them. These need to be cloned. Even fao's emergency appeal of us $39 million for agricultural rehabilitation has a major component on seed procurement and distribution. " fao is focusing on seed production and distribution, better water management, animal production and animal health as priorities," Cyril Ferrand, fao deputy emergency coordinator for Afghanistan. These seeds could well be the starting point to restore the traditional economy of a once-rich country.

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