Solar panels boost Afghan poppy crop
July 27, 2020 - Afghan opium farmers have turned to solar panels to power irrigation systems and boost productivity in arid parts of the Helmand Valley, despite declines in the amount of land growing poppies.
According to the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office’s (UNODC), almost 80% of all Afghan opium now comes from the south-west of the country, including Helmand. That equates to two-thirds of global supply.
Solar panels are transforming the landscape of southern Afghanistan. Only 12 per cent of the country is suitable for growing permanent crops, mostly in the valleys of the Arghandab and Helmand rivers.
Despite a decline in the area of Afghan opium poppy cultivation, from 263,000 hectares in 2018 to 163,000 hectares in 2019, opium production remained stable at 6,400 tonnes, according to UNODC.
The ability to drill wells and to extract water from them cheaply with solar power has changed crop cultivation. Not only are farmers getting more out of their existing farms, but they are also creating new ones from the former desert.
“They drill down 100 metres or so to the groundwater, put in an electric pump and wire it up to a few panels and bingo, the water starts flowing,” says Richard Brittan, of Alcis, a satellite analysis company.
Afghan farmers began using solar power in 2013. By 2019, there were 67,000 solar arrays in the Helmand valley alone, Brittan told the BBC. Many farms now get two poppy harvests a year.
Installing solar panels and electric pump costs around US$5,000. Once installed, there are virtually no running costs -- the water is free, and the boost to productivity is enormous.
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