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A New Breed of Crisis: War and Warming Collide in Afghanistan

But climate change is a threat multiplier for the Taliban, too. Analysts say water management will be critical to its legitimacy with Afghan citizens, and it is likely to be one of the most important issues in the Taliban’s relations with its neighbors as well.

Already on the Afghan battlefield, as in many battlefields throughout history, water has been an important currency. The Taliban, in their bid for Herat, a strategic city in the west, repeatedly attacked a dam that is critical for drinking water, agriculture and electricity for the people of the region. Likewise, in Kandahar Province in the south, one of the Taliban’s most critical victories was to seize control of a dam that holds water for drinking and irrigation.

Climate change also stands to complicate the Taliban’s ability to fulfill a key promise: the elimination of opium poppy cultivation. Poppies require far less water than, say, wheat or melons, and they are far more profitable. Poppy farming employs an estimated 120,000 Afghans and brings in an estimated $300-400 million a year, according to the United Nations, and has in turn enriched the Taliban.

Areas under poppy cultivation grew sharply in 2020.

Analysts said the Taliban would seek to use a poppy ban to gain legitimacy from foreign powers, like Qatar and China. But it is likely to face pushback from growers who have few alternatives as the rains become less reliable.

“It’s going to be a gigantic political flash point,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, who studies the region at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The last drought, in 2018, left four million Afghans in need of food aid and forced 371,000 people to leave their homes, many of whom haven’t returned.

“The effects of the severe drought are compounded by conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic in a context where half the population were already in need of aid,” the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, Ramiz Alakbarov, said by email from Kabul on Thursday. “With little financial reserves, people are forced to resort to child labor, child marriage, risky irregular migration exposing them to trafficking and other protection risks. Many are taking on catastrophic levels of debt and selling their assets.”

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