Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan plunged by an estimated 95 per cent following a drug ban imposed by the de facto authorities in April 2022, according to a new research brief from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
UN officials noted that the near-total contraction of the opiate economy is expected to have far-reaching consequences and highlighted the urgent need for enhanced assistance for rural communities, accompanied by alternative development support to build an opium-free future for the people of Afghanistan.
Opium cultivation fell across all parts of the country, from 233,000 hectares to just 10,800 hectares in 2023. The decrease has led to a corresponding 95 per cent drop in the supply of opium, from 6,200 tons in 2022 to just 333 tons in 2023.
The sharp reduction has had immediate humanitarian consequences for many vulnerable rural communities who relied on income from cultivating opium.
Farmers’ income from selling the 2023 opium harvest to traders fell by more than 92 per cent from an estimated US$1,360 million for the 2022 harvest to US$110 million in 2023.
“This presents a real opportunity to build towards long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally,” said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC.
At the same time, there are important consequences and risks that need to be addressed for an outcome that is ultimately positive and sustainable, especially for the people of Afghanistan.
“Today, Afghanistan’s people need urgent humanitarian assistance to meet their most immediate needs, to absorb the shock of lost income and to save lives,” Waly added.
“And over the coming months, Afghanistan is in dire need of strong investment in sustainable livelihoods, to provide Afghan farmers with opportunities away from opium.”
“Nearly eighty percent of the population depends on agriculture, and Afghanistan already faces acute water scarcity challenges,” said Roza Otunbayeva, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
“Sustainable alternative development efforts must be oriented towards drought-resistant agricultural activities and the effective protection and use of resources,”
Until 2023, the value of Afghanistan’s opiate exports alone has frequently exceeded the value of the country’s legally exported goods and services. The strong contraction of the opiate economy in 2023, which shrank by 90 per cent overall, is expected to affect Afghanistan’s economy on a larger scale.
Many farmers turned to cultivating wheat instead, with an overall increase of 160,000 hectares in cereal cultivation across the Farah, Hilmand, Kandahar, and Nangahar provinces. Though wheat cultivation may alleviate food insecurity to some extent, the crop generates much less income than opium – farmers in the four provinces lost around US$ 1 billion in potential income in 2023 by switching to wheat.
Beyond Afghanistan, less heroin may lead to reduced trafficking and use – or it could spur the emergence of harmful alternatives, such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
Data on seizures indicate that traders are selling off their opium inventories from past record harvests to weather the shortfall in 2023, while heroin processing has decreased. Trafficking in other drugs, namely methamphetamine, has surged in the region.
Though there are high levels of opiate use within Afghanistan, evidence-based treatment options remain limited. The survey noted the need for evidence-based treatment to be integrated in public health measures and assistance, including to prevent people with opiate use disorders turning to potentially even more harmful substances.