Chaars is charas—hashish, pressed cannabis resin. Production is booming here in Afghanistan, aggravating a famine brought on by years of drought and war. A healthy field of hemp needs plenty of water. Dope growers in the mountains siphon off the streams that still flow, while hash farmers in the plains dig wells up to 100 meters deep to reach the water table. The combined effect of drought, reduced water from the hills and the cannabis cultivators' new boreholes is catastrophic, says Bertrand Brequeville of French aid group Action Contre la Faim. "It's only the rich drug producers who can afford the pumps to irrigate the land. They pump all day, and all the wells in the villages around them dry up."
Now, as Afghanistan emerges from war, dope farming has never been so good—and the drought never so bad. The Taliban banned hash production, but in the postwar chaos of lawless fiefdoms that dot the land, growers and traders across the country are finding themselves free once again to cultivate and export hashish without fear, and often with warlord protection. Moreover, the international perception that cannabis is a relatively benign drug—prompting some authorities across Europe and Australia to decriminalize its use—has persuaded drug-policing agencies to largely ignore it. So, while opium cultivation is monitored to the acre, neither Interpol, the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention nor the U.S.'s Drug Enforcement Agency can offer even rough estimates for how much hashish Afghanistan produces or what the trade is worth. But around Mazar it's almost impossible to find a field where hemp is not being grown, either openly or poorly hidden behind watermelons or knee-high cotton plants. "Everybody's farming chaars now," says former Taliban fighter Faizullah, 27, watering a verdant six-hectare oasis of hemp surrounded by desert. Cannabis used to be outlawed by the Taliban. "But now," says Faizullah, "it's a free-for-all."
Once grown and pressed, Afghan hash is sold to freelance truck and jeep drivers who take it to Tajikistan or Kabul, where it is resold at four times the price. It's then smuggled via Central Asia or Pakistan to the West, where Afghan hash finds many eager buyers. But as dope smokers celebrate the new "enlightened" view of pot, any thought of the distant, parched land where it is grown has been lost in the haze. Back in the dust-bowl fields around Mazar, the growing foreign demand and new freedom to exploit it translate into a rare chance at riches. While prices are minimal compared with the eventual $3,000 to $8,000 a kilo that Afghan hash fetches in the West, Northern Alliance commander Akbar Khan says farming anything except cannabis makes little sense. "A kilo of wheat sells for 20,000 Afghanis (40¢)," he explains. "But a kilo of chaars will sell for 10 million ($200)."
The choice to grow drugs may be financially astute, but the effect on water supplies is disastrous. There hasn't been significant rain in most of Afghanistan for five years. Action Contre la Faim says even in Kabul only 30% of residents have sufficient water, defined as 15 liters a day for washing, cooking, farming and drinking and less than 250 people per water access point. That figure drops to 10% in large swaths of the north and even zero across the south. With dope growers exacerbating the shortage, centuries-old water holes and underground courses have evaporated. Crops downstream of hemp fields have withered and failed. With nothing to eat or drink and plagued by choking dust, entire villages and towns have emptied. "Whole parts of the country are turning into desert," says Brequeville. "And that's irreversible—there's no way back from the desert."
Tensions over water have even led to murder. Last month, in a village called Shakhshirale close to the Turkmenian border, hash farmers shot dead a man who walked all day to demand two buckets of water. And in Saifudden's village of Dalicharbolak, the men there admit that after 12 people died of malnutrition over the summer, some among them gunned down two cannabis growers who were hoarding water upstream. An hour's drive to the east of Dalicharbolak, a village headman says his is the only settlement out of 38 nearby that has potable water—in effect, a single half-meter-wide well must provide for 60,000 people. The headman claims that anyone is welcome to use his well, but the guards fingering AK-47s and a mounted heavy machine gun around the borehole suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the starkest illustration of what cannabis is doing to Afghanistan is to be found at the village of Deh Naw, half an hour to the north of Mazar along Afghanistan's main north-south highway. Just out of sight of the hash hills upstream, the desert is swallowing Deh Naw whole. Five-meter-high sand dunes have crashed over the village's mud walls like desiccated tidal waves, burying houses, blocking streets and suffocating the vines and the mulberry, fig and pomegranate trees that once blossomed here. The 600 villagers survive by gathering desert thornbushes—used for lighting fires—and trading them for access to fetid water from a ditch half a day's ride away by donkey. Abdul Shakur, 63, says every few weeks a huge sandstorm traps him, his wife and their 11 children inside their hut for days on end. Four months ago, the storm came at night and lasted four days; Shakur and his neighbors dug out a family of five after a dune enveloped their front door and all their windows.
"The storms are terrible," he says. "Even if you have something to eat, you can't open your mouth or it just fills with sand. All you can do is hide and sleep." Shakur has given up blaming anyone for Deh Naw's troubles. He knows the landowners for whom he once worked the fields around Deh Naw are the same people who now deprive that land of water for the sake of greater profits in the hemp-rich hills. But after 23 years watching a succession of conquerors—the Soviets, the Taliban, and now the Northern Alliance and the Americans—come and go, he has learned to focus on survival. "I don't know about governments or armies or landowners or chaars," he says. "All I know is sand, and all I dream of is water."