Afghanistan: the desert fairy tale

Afghanistan is known for Terror and Taliban, not disruptive technologies. At least as long as they are not used in drone warfare. Sustainability and the green economy is not what you would expect in one of the most inaccessible areas in the world.

In this not-so-unimportant corner of the World, Solar Power has unnoticed triggered major changes that have an impact on the whole world. This has nothing to do with ecological considerations.

The sun rises over the desert

The first glittering solar panel was sighted in Afghanistan in 2013. The reporter Justin Rowlatt, then BBC correspondent for South Asia, saw the first solar cells from a military helicopter over Helmand in 2016. The pattern on the ground was repeated: a yard, a couple of solar panels, a water reservoir.

The change was already in full swing in 2016. Solar technology had ended the farmers ' dependence on expensive diesel fuel of poor quality with which they had operated their water pumps. The sun had risen over the desert.

The built-up area, 48,000 hectares in 2002, has increased to 157,000 hectares by the end of the American occupation in 2012 and to 344,467 hectares by 2019. The rapid growth is clearly visible on satellite images. The desert has turned green.

The solar-powered opium factory

This is not just good news. Rowlatt’s story calls into question much that we otherwise consider good and desirable.

Afghanistan: The desert fairy tale

Helmand is about the size of Switzerland and one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Above all, the Afghan province, together with the neighboring province of Kandahar, is by far the most productive opium cultivation area in the world.

In the fields not only poppy grows, but it is the most rewarding seed. Farmers in the Region can harvest two to three times a year. In addition to poppies, they also grow grain and vegetables on the newly won arable land. The Region has blossomed. The local markets have grown from a temporary event to a permanent facility, the offer has grown. Solar panels, shows a picture of the “BBC”, Tower meter high.

For 5,000 dollars a farmer in Helmand gets some panels and a pump. He has a well drilled about 100 meters deep and builds a Reservoir. Clearing the unmanaged Land is hard work. Anyone who has done this will build a house and catch up with the family.

At the other end of the world, in England, development is closely monitored. Richard Brittan, a former soldier who specializes in the analysis of satellite images with the company “Alcis”, evaluates what is happening in Afghanistan on his screens. He sees settlements, fields and also the panels and Reservoirs that Rowlatt saw on his helicopter flight. In 2019, he counted more than 67,000 solar panels in the Helmand Valley.

Afghanistan: The desert fairy tale

Between 2002 (dark colors) and 2019 (brighter), the cultivated area in Helmand has increased dramatically.

5,000 dollars is a lot of money in Afghanistan, says scientist David Mansfield, who has been researching opium cultivation in Afghanistan for 25 years. However, the investment pays for itself within a few years, after which water is virtually free for farmers.

From 2018 to 2019, the number of Wells has increased from 50,000 to at least 63,000, Brittan counted in the satellite images. Between 2014 and 2019, an average of 96,000 people moved into the Helmand desert each year.

Corona, the drug and unemployment in England

Dave Higham, who also lives in the UK, is very worried. The former drug addict now helps other people out of addiction. He cannot complain about the lack of support for his program “Pay it Forward”.

Because with population growth at the other end of the world, opium production also grew. The quality of the heroin his clients buy has improved, says Higham. There were no more supply bottlenecks like at the time of his own drug addiction in the 1980s.

Like many contemporaries, Higham became dependent during a recession, and the number of unemployed rose sharply at that time. In a Corona-induced recession, this could happen again and, combined with a wave of high-quality Solar heroin from Afghanistan, trigger a sharp rise in crime, he warns. Most addicts would have to steal to finance their addiction.

The Numbers prove him right. In September 2019, British police seized 1.3 tonnes of Heroin on a container ship, the largest quantity found to date.

Women and girls suffer in the desert

Addicts in all parts of the world are not the only ones for whom the green desert is a curse rather than a blessing. Girls and women in Helmand suffer from poor health care and lack of equal opportunities in the isolated, dangerous and remote desert region.

Except in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and another district, there is no school that teaches girls beyond primary level. People who try to reach the disproportionately large number of the mostly destitute widows in the area through support programs need escort when they go to the villages.

There are attempts to dissuade the farmers in Helmand from opium mining. But it is hard to find a legal product that promises the same revenues. This is even found by the – often bribed – Afghan police. Some projects experiment with pistachios or grapes. But these only grow as long as the water flows. And that is by no means certain.

The groundwater sinks up to three meters per year

The sun over Helmand could quickly sink again. David Mansfield, who published a paper on the development of the Region in April 2020 in cooperation with the thinktank AREU (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit), warns of the incalculable development of uncontrolled water degradation. AREU is funded by various international foundations and the EU.

The groundwater level drops by up to three meters per year. The methods of water management are not effective, even from the open Reservoirs evaporates a lot of water. There is no problem awareness among farmers. The water is increasingly polluted by fertilizers and pesticides. The immigration driven, among other things, by displacement from other areas continues unabated.

When the sun sets again

Nobody knows whether drilling deeper wells is enough. Little is known about the reserves of the water-bearing layer under Helmand. “Maybe this Boom won’t last more than ten years, “AREUs Orzala Nemat, the director, tells the BBC. At worst, 1.5 million people in southwestern Afghanistan could lose their livelihoods.

Some, Nemat thinks, will migrate within Afghanistan, many others will try to emigrate to Europe and America. What she does not say about the BBC, but writes in the preface to Mansfield’s work: the already shaky stability of the Region would be in question. The people of Helmand, for a long time under the auspices of the Taliban, do not think much of the Kabul government. There is great concern that returnees from the desert could agitate against the authorities.