Afghanistan on the brink of natural disaster

by Francis Caas, Yoko Hagiwara and David Jensen

Plagued by natural disasters and conflicts Afghanistan is prone to natural disasters. Nature’s destructive patterns routinely affect and wreak havoc on the central Asian nation and its people. Earthquakes are frequent in the northern parts of the country and often trigger devastating landslides. Flooding and mudslides are common, particularly in the spring when snow starts melting. Extreme winter conditions and avalanches are also a recurrent feature in the mountainous areas that make up approximately 63% of the country. In the last six years Afghanistan has also been suffering a prolonged drought, which affects over 6 million Afghans mainly in the southern and eastern regions.

Other common hazards include agricultural pests, such as caterpillars and locusts, and dust and sandstorms. All in all it is estimated that natural disasters have killed more than 19,000 people and affected about 7.5 million Afghans since the early 1980s.

While Afghanistan has been adversely affected by natural hazards for centuries, the wars and civil conflicts that have plagued the country for more than 20 years, combined with increased environmental degradation and mismanagement, have heightened its vulnerability to damage wrought by natural hazards.

Far away memories It is diffi cult today to imagine, when looking at Afghanistan’s often arid and barren landscapes, that many of them were once covered by woodland and were home to rich fl ora and fauna. Emperor Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty who captured Kabul in 1504 and had a keen eye for natural beauty, records in his memoirs the rich biodiversity of Afghanistan, home to animals such as cheetahs, tigers and wild asses. Until the middle of the 20th century Afghanistan had much more extensive forest and plant cover than today. This included high-alpine fl ora, montane coniferous and mixed forests, open dry woodlands with juniper, pistachio and almond trees, semi-desert scrub and marshlands. Today most of the country’s forest cover has already disappeared or soon will. This is due to a combination of factors, among them, uncontrolled overgrazing, unsustainable agricultural practices, heavy logging for cooking, building and heating purposes and intensive timber cutting for both commercial reasons and to fund military activities. Armed confl icts have also taken their toll on the country’s forests. Trees have been cut not only for fuel but also to make it harder for competing armies and rebel bands to hide and ambush one another.

When a UNEP team visited Afghanistan in 2002 to conduct a post-confl ict environmental assessment, it was overwhelmed by the level of deforestation it found. Not a single tree was left standing in many areas of the Badghis and Takhar provinces, which boasted complete forest cover only three decades before. At the majority of sites visited, UNEP observed vast expanses of bare or eroding soil where local livelihoods were devastated, and both the frequency and intensity of fl oods were reported to have increased threefold. Local rivers have consequently suffered heavy erosion and expansion. The width of the Cheshmanduzuk River near Qala-i-Nau, for instance, has increased from 50 metres to more than 250 metres, wiping out fertile farmland and villages in the process.

Reducing vulnerability, increasing sustainability While it is not possible to completely prevent or avoid natural disasters, the level of suffering and vulnerability of the affected people can and must be reduced as far as possible. This can be achieved through proper awareness and preparedness of the population and authorities, by setting up early warning instruments, impact mitigation and rapid response mechanisms, and by using local knowledge and management practices to develop mitigation programmes. The severity of certain natural disasters can also be reduced through proper and adequate management of natural resources.

In Afghanistan the rapid loss of forest and plant cover over the last 25 years has accelerated soil erosion and land degradation, creating in turn ideal conditions for landslides, fl ash fl oods and extreme fl ooding events. Landmines have made the situation even worse. We may never know the total number, but Afghanistan is thought to be one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with an estimated 10m to 15m landmines still on the ground. In 2002 the UNEP team had fi rst-hand experience of how fl ooding and landmines can combine to deadly effect. Near the village of Farkhar in Takhar province, a swollen river burst its banks and washed across an active mine fi eld. It swept thousands of mines downstream, creating untold dangers for unsuspecting villagers and laying a swathe of mines across local roads and fi elds, ending barely fi ve metres from a local school.

In its report “Living with Risk”, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) lists economic, social, physical and environmental factors as largely affecting a country’s level of vulnerability to natural disasters. In Afghanistan 23 years of war have also contributed to the near total collapse of local and national government structures in charge of managing natural resources, adding to its already high vulnerability. Before the outbreak of the war, many communities had developed, in collaboration with the authorities, ways and means of allocating resources and ensuring their sustainable use. With the breakdown of government and community structures, Afghanistan’s use of resources spun out of control, leading to a “tragedy of the commons” scenario with widespread environmental degradation and heightened vulnerability to natural hazards. It is consequently crucial to rebuild and reinforce environmental governance structures.

Poverty is the real killer Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the Afghanistan Information Management Service (AIMS), the country’s “high level of poverty, lack of livelihood and income generating opportunities, chronic health problems, and poor state of the infrastructure all add to the burden of natural disasters on the people of Afghanistan”. UNDP, in its report “Reducing Disaster Risk”, states very clearly that death rates are far higher in poor countries than in wealthier nations, even if the incidence and intensity of disaster is equal. “The real killer is poverty not the forces of nature: only 11% of the people exposed to natural hazards live in poor countries, but they account for more than 53% of the total number of recorded deaths”, says the report.

In short, the lack of effective environmental management and the extensive environmental damage and degradation have made Afghanistan and its people extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Afghans are not only helpless when confronted with nature’s hazards. They also have to cope, day after day, with a host of environmental hazards, ranging from polluted streams and disease-laden sewage systems to diesel-fi lled urban air and other environmental hotspots. While natural disasters tend to highlight the plight of the people and bring it to international attention, the environmental problems facing Afghanistan run much deeper and are very closely linked to structural issues, such as poverty, lack of capacity and control over resources. Consequently, while emergency strategies need to be put in place to respond to natural disasters, longer-term environmental restoration and rehabilitation policies also need to be devised to address the country’s environmental woes and put it on a sustainable development path. An important part of this process will be integrating local ecological knowledge and management practices into land-use plans and restoration programmes, and in ensuring active participation of communities in decisions that affect them.

What does the future hold? To ensure on-going reconstruction of the country takes environmental issues into account, UNEP is now in the process of consolidating the environmental management capacity of the Afghan Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment. With $5.4m funding from the European Commission, the government of Finland and the Global Environmental Facility, UNEP will be spending the next three years training ministry staff, providing basic equipment and developing structures and policies for natural resources management, rehabilitation and sustainable use. The pioneering programme1, the fi rst for UNEP, operates an offi ce in Kabul with fi ve international and 10 national staff.

It has high hopes that improved environmental management in Afghanistan will lead not only to sustainable livelihoods, but also to reduced risks from natural disasters. If both goals can be achieved, Afghanistan could become a model of success for other countries to follow.

Francis Caas and Yoko Hagiwara are programme offi cers at UNEP’s Post-Confl ict Assessment Unit in Geneva. David Jensen is Afghanistan Project Coordinator at the same unit.

1. The programme’s latest progress report can be downloaded from http://postconfl

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