Afghanistan will face a serious environmental crisis, which will have grave consequences for millions of its estimated 27 million population, if the government and international aid organisations continue ignoring the country’s degrading environment, experts warn.
“More than 80 percent of [Afghanistan’s] land could be subject to soil erosion… soil fertility is declining, salinisation is on the increase, water tables have dramatically fallen, de-vegetation is extensive and soil erosion by water and wind is widespread,” said a recent report – called Sustainable Land Management 2007 – by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MoAF).
Abdul Rahman Hotaky, chairman of the Afghan Organisation for Human Rights and Environmental Protection (AOHREP), said there many reasons why the future of the country’s environment was grim: more than 26 years of armed conflict, population displacement and extended drought; the misuse of natural resources; the lack of a law enforcement authority; and the lack of appropriate policies for the environment.
“In the last two decades, we have lost over 70 percent of our forests throughout the country,” Hotaky told IRIN on 29 July in the capital, Kabul.
Extensive deforestation has has multiple social, environmental and economic implications for million of Afghans, Hotaky added.
One of the immediately visible humanitarian implications of deforestation is the country’s increasingly vulnerability to various natural disasters, specialists say.
“Recently, we witnessed increasing numbers of floods, avalanches and landslides as a result of deforestation,” said Hazrat Hussain Khaurin, the director of the forests and rangeland department in the food and agriculture ministry.
According to government statistics, until the early 1980s, about 19,000sqkm of Afghanistan’s 652,225sqkm territory was covered by forests, which were a sustainable source of income for the government and its citizens.
Because of the many years of war since then, Afghanistan now faces the complete eradication of its forests, Khaurin said.
While agriculture and animal husbandry constitute the backbone of Afghanistan’s underdeveloped economy, up to 50 percent of its farmlands have not been cultivated for the last two decades due to various natural and human factors, indicated the Sustainable Land Management 2007 report.
Afghanistan’s geomorphology has historically comprised highlands, rugged terrains and flatlands, and partly arid deserts. However, the deserts have been rapidly expanding in southern, eastern and northern regions of the country.
“Neither the government nor impoverished Afghan farmers have the basic technology or required resources to resist widening desertification,” said Khaurin. “Thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been covered by moving sands in seven southern and southwestern provinces,” he added.
Bushes and other plants that once created natural buffers against sand movement and flash floods flows have been used as fuel by local residents for many years.
Many Afghans refugees who return to their rural communities from neighbouring countries find it impossible to cultivate infertile and arid land with very little irrigation and farming facilities.
“Desertification has exacerbated already widespread poverty among many Afghan farmers who seem hapless to tackle problems created by this natural crisis,” said Hotaky of the human rights and environment protection body.
Against a rapidly increasing population, which requires food, fuel and shelter, among other things, the volume of Afghanistan’s agricultural produce has decreased by 50 percent decrease over the past few years, the food and agriculture ministry said.
Lack of attention
For decades, Afghan governments who have came to power have concentrated on winning wars, ensuring stability and solving political dilemmas while paying little attention to a degrading environment, specialists say.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in a study found that Afghanistan’s long-term environmental degradation is caused, in part, by a complete collapse of local and national forms of governance.
Should Afghanistan fail to address its environmental problems within its reconstruction period, it will face “a future without water, forests, wildlife and clean air”, according to UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment for Afghanistan.