UNITED NATIONS - The head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Wednesday issued an urgent call to action as opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit a record high this year, rising by 36 per cent, while production is up by almost half since 2012.

The 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey, released in Kabul by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and UNODC, says the area under cultivation rose to 209,000 hectares (ha) from last year’s total of 154,000 ha – higher than the peak of 193,000 had reached in 2007.

Almost 90 percent of opium poppy cultivation this year remained confined to nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including those most affected by the insurgency. Helmand, the principal poppy-producer since 2004 and responsible for nearly half of all cultivation, expanded the area under cultivation by 34 per cent, followed by Kandahar, which saw a 16 per cent rise. In addition, two provinces – Balkh and Faryab - lost their ‘poppy-free’ status, leaving 15 provinces poppy-free this year compared with 17 last year.

Calling the findings “sobering,” UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov stressed that this situation poses a threat to health, stability and development in Afghanistan and beyond.

“What is needed is an integrated, comprehensive response to the drug problem. Counter-narcotics efforts must be an integral part of the security, development and institution-building agenda.”

Farmers may have driven up cultivation by trying to shore up their assets as insurance against an uncertain future resulting from the withdrawal of international troops next year, according to UNODC.“As we approach 2014 and the withdrawal of international forces from the country, the results of the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2013 should be taken for what they are - a warning, and an urgent call to action,” Fedotov said.

The farm-gate value of opium production increased by almost a third to around $950 million, or 4 per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP), in 2013, UNODC noted.

The agency added that, together with profits made by drug traffickers, the total value of the opium economy within Afghanistan was significantly higher, implying that the illicit economy will continue to grow whereas a slowdown of the legal economy is predicted in 2014.

“If the drug problem is not taken more seriously by aid, development and security actors, the virus of opium will further reduce the resistance of its host, already suffering from dangerously low immune levels due to fragmentation, conflict, patronage, corruption, and impunity,” Mr Fedotov said.

AFP adds: Afghan officials blamed insecurity as the main factor behind the surge, which has continued for a third straight year.

“More than half of the opium cultivation takes place in Helmand,” Din Mohammad Mubarez Rashidi, the acting Afghan counter-narcotics minister, told a news conference.

Helmand in the south is one of the most troubled regions in Afghanistan where the Taliban are most active. “Taliban and Al-Qaeda encourage farmers to cultivate and protect their crops,” the minister said. Rashidi, recently appointed by President Hamid Karzai to the post, said he was determined to fight opium cultivation including the “use of force to prevent cultivation”. The report said that in 2013 the area under opium poppy cultivation rose to 209,000 hectares (516,230 acres) from the previous year’s total of 154,000 - higher than the previous peak of 193,000 hectares in 2007.

Opium production reached 5,500 tons, up by almost half from 2012 but lower than the 2007 high of 7,400 tonnes as bad weather in southern Afghanistan affected crops.

Together with profits made by drug traffickers, the total value of the opium economy within Afghanistan was significantly higher, the report said.