ARGHANDAB, AFGHANISTAN (AP)--A popular Afghan ballad sings of Arghandab's orchards, a cool, quiet retreat that "I can't forget even if I try."

This spring, Afghans will have to try hard to remember the green of Arghandab, amid the caked and cracked earth, the empty streams, the lifeless trees.

Rain briefly spattered the dust, in southern Afghanistan recently, but the sun soon returned, the wind blew all the harder and winter drew to its close the fourth annual "wet" season with scant precipitation here at the epicenter of the most extensive drought in the world.

Some rain and snow may have helped other regions, but in the south less than a half inch of rain fell in the "rainy" month of February, reported UN agronomist Mohammad Morad, in nearby Kandahar.

"It's very bad," he said.

"Half of them have left already," district chief Haji Naik Nazar said of Arghandab's people. "They have gone to different countries--Iran, Pakistan, America.

"The ones still here have mostly abandoned their farms. They are trying to work as day laborers or cleaners or drivers or selling small things," he said.

Most of the orchards--Arghandab's apples and peaches and pomegranates--"are dead," he said.

In this Afghan dust bowl, desperation forms a line each morning, in the district office courtyard, as people arrive from villages as far as five miles away, by foot, by donkey, pushing wheelbarrows, to pump water from the only well in the area that still has any.

Shallow household wells, of the bucket variety, went dry long ago. The Afghan Red Crescent Society and other aid organizations are working to install deeper pump wells, one to every village, but the program--at $500 a pump--takes time.

"Many villages still are without hand pumps," said Abdul Latif of Kandahar's Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross.

Scenes similar to those in Arghandab are playing out in villages across Afghanistan, in the worst drought to parch this luckless land in a half century, a natural disaster that greatly complicates efforts to restore normal economic life after 23 years of war.

Millions of Afghans displaced by fighting and the collapse of agriculture depend on international food aid to survive. But the impact of the drought, affecting 60 million people, in six southern and central Asian nations, reaches far beyond day-to-day needs.

In this traditional fruit-growing belt, for example, farmers have had to rip out half the grape vines in their vineyards--some vines 80 years old or more--to try to help the others cling to life with water rationed from scattered deep wells.

About half the fruit trees across southern Afghanistan also have been lost, said Morad, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization office, in Kandahar.

In the case of pomegranate, apricot and some others, "it would take 20 to 30 years to bring orchards back to full fruit-bearing stage," he said.

The drought threatens to end the ageless lifestyle of the Kochis, a nomadic people who traditionally grazed flocks of sheep across the semi-deserts of the south, where the sparse vegetation now has all but disappeared. Like many Afghans, the Kochis have sold or slaughtered their livestock for cash or food, or watched them die of disease and hunger. Families' flocks of hundreds have dwindled to a few.

"In all my life, I have never seen Kochis begging on the roadside, but now they are doing it," said M. Arif Salemi, 58, the FAO animal health officer, in Kandahar.

Dry-land wheat--wheat fed by rain, not irrigation--has disappeared completely from the six southern provinces, said the FAO's Morad. In the Arghandab district, 10% of the cultivable land is in irrigated wheat, and the rest is unplanted, parched and caked--or in poppy.

Some farmers are substituting the opium flower for wheat. Technically banned, poppy is much more profitable and a more efficient user of pumped-in water. "I have two jirib of poppy," said Arghandab peasant Mohammad Gul, 25.

A jirib is a 48- by 48-yard plot. "I haven't planted anything in my other six jirib. There is not enough water."

Little of anything will be planted this spring, Morad said.

"There is hardly any runoff from the mountains. The rivers are dry. The summer will be dry. Only those with wells will plant," he said.

Climatologists suspect relatively high sea temperatures, in the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans, have indirectly caused the drought, by keeping winter storms from moving through this region. Rainfall has been less than 55% of average since the 1998-99 winter.

A reversal--a true winter rainy season--is overdue, the scientists say. "I hope so, next year," Morad said. "But there is no guarantee."

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