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Afghan drought forces shepherds into desperate measures

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Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) (AFP)

Nooruddin watched helplessly as his flock of 100 sheep began to die from hunger and thirst on the dry drought-ravaged hillsides of Balkh province.

Rather than let more of the prized creatures die a slow death on the dry hillsides of Balkh province in the north, he made the decision to slaughter most of the rest.

"I cut their heads off," the 65-year-old herder said, adding that their malnourished frames meant their meat was "useless".

"We fed it to the dogs," Nooruddin told AFP.

He's one of many whose traditional livelihoods -- from farmers to carpet weavers -- are under threat as changing weather patterns wreak havoc.

Experts warn the situation will only get worse, with Afghanistan one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, even though it produces just 0.1 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

For many this latest drought is the worst they can recall.

"I've seen droughts before, but never as severe," said livestock trader Mirza, who like many residents only uses one name.

"A lot of sheep and animals died on the mountains and in the desert," the 45-year-old added.

Mohammed Aref, a 19-year-old shepherd who raises karakul sheep -- famed for their curly-haired lambs' pelts that are turned into traditional hats -- said shepherds sold off their emaciated animals for pittance to butchers.

"A lot of us had a big loss," Aref told AFP from the noisy livestock market outside Mazar-i-Sharif, on a crisp, early winter morning.

"Most of us can't afford to get more (livestock) and now our life is ruined."

- Huge temperature rise -

Aref and other Balkh residents have no notion of climate change as it is understood in places with better access to information and education, but all agreed things were changing.

The last big drought they remembered was about a decade ago. Before that, there hadn't been one for about 50 years, they said.

"We had a drought 12 years ago," recalled 68-year-old Aynoddin, another karakul sheep farmer, "but last year's was the worst".

According to the United Nations Development Programme, about 80 percent of Afghans rely on rain-fed crop and animal farming for their incomes.

Over the next four decades in Afghanistan, scientists predict a decrease in rainfall and a rise in average temperatures of up to 4 degrees Celsius compared to 1999, the UNDP said.

The agency noted droughts could soon be considered the norm, unleashing further desertification and loss of arable land.

Problems are only compounded when rains do eventually come. Last spring, flash floods swept entire villages and fields away.

The UN said in an overview of last year's aid operations that nearly half of all rural residents now face some level of food insecurity in Afghanistan, a country where unemployment and poverty are already major drivers of the war.

While light rains in the autumn eased woes for some, the weather has since dried up again.

Asked if they worried for the coming year, several farmers gave a common Afghan response.

"If there is a drought, God will decide, so I don't worry," Aynoddin said.

- Looming crisis for weavers -

The Global Adaptation Initiative, run by the University of Notre Dame in the US, currently ranks Afghanistan 173 out of the 181 countries it scored in terms of a nation's vulnerability to climate change and its ability to adapt.

The human cost is plain to see at a camp for internally displaced people just outside Mazar-i-Sharif, where rows of white UN tents house hundreds of families and the main source of water is from a large communal tank.

Shamayel, a 35-year-old mother from Faryab province in the northwest, said her family came to the camp to escape conflict and the drought.

She used to weave colourful traditional kilim rugs, but increasing wool prices made it impossible.

Seven kilogrammes of wool previously cost about $19, she said, but the price rose to $31 in the past year or two.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, rising wool costs haven't caused a price jump for Afghan rugs and carpets.

Traders in Mazar complained the ongoing uncertainty and anxiety around delayed election results and talks between the Taliban and the US have essentially frozen the market.

Another former weaver at the camp, Ghulam Sakhi, 50, said he too had been forced to give up his trade when he arrived.

"I want to weave, I miss it," he said, smiling as he described his craft. "Now I feel useless."

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