The production of opium — the raw material for heroin and a major source of revenue for the Taliban insurgency — has halved in Afghanistan due to crop infection this year, but prices have tripled, a UN report released on Thursday said. The sharp drop in output is largely due to bad weather and a plant infection hitting the major poppy-crop growing provinces of Helmand and Kandahar particularly hard, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.

“As a result of the damage, yield fell 48 per cent to 29.2 kilograms per hectare, from 56.1 kilograms per hectare compared with the previous year,” it said.

The report said the area of land under poppy cultivation remained stable in 2010 at 123,000 hectares.

Some 98 per cent of the all opium poppy was cultivated in nine provinces in the country’s western and southern regions, it said, adding, “Helmand and Kandahar took the lion’s share with Helmand alone accounting for 53 per cent of total opium cultivation in Afghanistan.” The two provinces, where Taliban are most active, are the focus of a US military surge this year, with the bulk of 30,000 extra US troops moved to Afghanistan this year deployed to Helmand and Kandahar.

“These regions are dominated by insurgency and organized crime networks,” UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov said in a statement.

“This underscores the link between opium poppy cultivation and insecurity in Afghanistan, a trend we have observed since 2007.” Taliban militants are believed to fund their insurgency against the Afghan government and the 150,000 US and NATO troops by collecting tax from opium money.

Fedotov cautioned against “false optimism” because of the drop in production, saying the rising price for opium might make the market again lucrative for growers.

In 2010, the average farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time was recorded at USD 169 per kilogram, a 164-per-cent increase over 2009, when the price was USD 64 per kilogram, the report found.

The rising prices could also prompt former poppy farmers to think twice about having switched to wheat, an important alternative crop in Afghanistan, Fedotov said.

He said also that any meaningful fight against Afghan opium production would also require the international community to curb demand in the region and western countries. “As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch.” Afghanistan supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium.

Thursday’s report said that the forced eradication programme led by the government was at its lowest level this year. Afghan forces eradicated 2,316 hectares of poppy crops, more than half of them in Helmand province.

NATO has also stepped up its targeting of opium convoys and traffickers, arresting dozens of suspects and seizing thousands of tons of the illicit drug.

On Wednesday, Baz Mohammed Ahmadi, the deputy interior minister, said nearly 8 tons of opium, heroin and hashish had been seized by Afghan forces in the past six months.