solar power for opium economy

Here, Cheap Solar Energy Drives the Opium Economy

Renewable energies are a real boon for Afghanistan’s opium farmers, and that too without any government subsidies. This is shown by the latest satellite images. Nevertheless, the farmers are now facing problems.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Thomas Stölzel“. Access the original article here.

When it comes to switching to renewable electricity, ordinary Afghan farmers are way ahead of the highly developed German industry. Cheap solar energy and electric water pumps powered by it have triggered a real boom in agriculture in Afghanistan in recent years – especially in the opium-growing region of Helmand. This is evidenced by the latest satellite images from LiveEO.

Since 2016, farmers have transformed more and more barren desert land into fertile farmland, including for the production of opium poppies, the opium plant. Helmet land is now responsible for more than three-quarters of Afghanistan’s opium cultivation and about two-thirds of the world’s illicit production, according to the United Nations. Opium is the basis for the hard and extremely addictive drug heroin.

The radical Islamic Taliban, who have regained power in the country since the withdrawal of Western troops, only criminalized the cultivation of opium poppies and their trade at the beginning of April. They outlaw the production of drugs primarily for religious reasons. But many farmers depend on the income from the intoxicating plants.

Afghanistan’s Opium Boom Zones

afghanistan opium boom zones
Source: Own research, UN Graphics: Patrick Zeh

According to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Afghan opium economy generated as much as $2.7 billion last year. This corresponds to up to 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Accordingly, some observers have doubts about how seriously the Taliban will ultimately take their ban and how hard they will enforce it.

The boom in recent years has been fueled by the emergence of cheap solar cells, mostly made in China, which power the pumps that irrigate the fields. Satellite images show how countless new farmlands have sprung up west of the small town of Balocan since 2016 – further and further away from the Helmand River, after which the province is named. Previously, the farmland stretched mainly along the banks of the river, as well as its tributaries. According to the UN, opium cultivation is currently particularly pronounced around Balocan, with more than 10,000 hectares.

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Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

On the Musquara tributary in the north of Helmand, lies another hotspot. The pictures show that large areas have been added here as well. According to British socio-economist David Mansfield, who has studied opium cultivation in Afghanistan for the European Union and others, there were about 14,000 solar-powered waterholes in the country in 2016. By 2019, there were already 67,000.

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Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

But technical progress is not without consequences for the farmers. Before the Afghan solar boom, they mostly ran their pumps on diesel generators. Even then, Mansfield says, the groundwater level dropped by one meter a year. Now, farmers and researchers report three meters a year or more. Some of the boreholes now reach down to a depth of 130 meters.

The UN estimates that Afghanistan produced about 6800 tons of opium in 2021. This corresponds to about 320 tons of pure or 650 tons of cut heroin. However, there is currently an oversupply. As a result, the price of opium from farmers recently fell well below $100 per kilo. Accordingly, one hectare yielded an average of 38.5 kilograms of opium in 2021.

solar-powered farms south of balocan
05.04.2022: Multiple solar-powered farms south of Balocan, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

The oversupply is probably also due to the recent significant increase in the number of farms. Observed from space, they always look similar. At virtually every one, a water reservoir can be seen, and several solar panels set up right next to it. The water reservoir supplies the fields.

The current opium ban came just before this year’s spring harvest, according to satellite photos. In mid-April, most of the fields in Helmand were still green. Then, in early May, they appear earth-colored in the images.

Suspected poppy fields near Balocansuspected poppy fields harvesting near balocan
Suspected poppy fields near Balocan, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
02.04.2022 (left picture): Clearly visible here, most fields are well vegetated.
04.05.2022 (right image): In the meantime, harvesting has been done and the soil is now clearly visible.
Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

Opium poppies are much more labor-intensive than other crops, Mansfield says. If a hectare of wheat requires only about 54 person-days of labor, the poppy requires a full 360 days. There are two harvests: A spring crop and a summer crop. The Taliban now want farmers to grow almonds, pomegranates or wheat instead of poppies. According to media reports, some have already switched to such legal alternatives after the spring harvest.

The next few months will show how sustainable this will ultimately be. After all, cultivation was also extremely lucrative for the Taliban – even when they were not in power. They and other non-state actors collected as much as $113 million in opium tax in 2019, for example, and in 2017 it was reportedly as much as $350 million. And Afghan officials were also deeply involved in the opium trade, according to the New York Times. Some had bought expensive villas in Dubai from the proceeds.

In any case, the ban will do little to counteract the falling water table. Agriculture, whether illegal or legal, remains one of the most important sources of income for the country’s population, which simply lacks other industries.

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