ccurate monitoring of opium poppy production in Afghanistan – responsible for 90% of the world’s supply of the illegal crop – has become increasingly difficult with rising security concerns, but remote sensing survey techniques developed by Cranfield University have proved critical in providing accurate information to inform UK and international policy and counter-narcotics actions in Afghanistan.

As a lead nation on counter-narcotics policy formulation and providing support to the Government of Afghanistan, the UK has a particular interest in opium poppy control in Afghanistan, which is said to supply almost all heroin consumption in the UK.

In 2003, it was identified that the quantitative information about the trends and production of opium gathered annually by both the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the US Government were different and often contradictory. Cranfield University was tasked by the UK Government with undertaking an independent review of the survey techniques employed at the time. From 2005 to 2009 this included conducting full scale poppy cultivation surveys in key provinces to study differences in their approaches. This research was used to promote technical discussions between survey teams and recommend changes to survey methodologies.  From 2007 this included remote sensing based verification of the success of poppy eradication schemes undertaken as part of the Government of Afghanistan’s National Drug Control Strategy.

Cranfield initially employed aerial remote sensing techniques using high resolution digital imagery to map poppy and cereal fields and measure the extent of eradicated poppy fields. However, on-going security issues prevented flying over key areas where poppy fields were planted. Cranfield therefore evolved alternative methods using high resolution satellite imagery integrated with medium resolution imagery from the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) satellites and streamlined their methods based on the timing of poppy flowering to optimise imagery acquisition. Resulting reports were available much earlier than in previous years, and were much more detailed at district level, providing invaluable data for policy development and targeted action.

In 2009, Cranfield’s research identified a 37% reduction in poppy cultivation where wheat seed and fertiliser were distributed by provincial authorities in the central areas of Helmand province. Outside these areas poppy cultivation in Helmand increased by eight percent.  These figures were cited by major counter-narcotics stakeholders including the UK Prime Minister, US Department of State and the executive director of the UNODC.

The University has continued working with the UNODC in developing survey methodology, capacity building and mentoring Afghan nationals to enable them to undertake key remote sensing techniques themselves.