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Confronting Afghanistan’s environmental challenges

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By Ambassador Dr. Zia Nezam,-This essay presents in brief the major environmental challenges that threaten the lives and quality of life of the Afghan people, whether rich or poor, powerful or humble.  Several international organizations have meticulously studied and reported on the breadth and seriousness of environmental degradation Afghans face every day, particularly in urban areas. This summary draws on those studies and research with hopes to capture decision-makers’ attention as well as to serve as an aide memoire for focused national action. Decision makers are seen as government officials, business leaders, civil society activists, and motivated individual citizens.  Some environmental problems can and some cannot very well be addressed, while the government and the vast majority of the Afghan people still struggle daily to bring peace and stability to their homeland.

Water scarcity, air and water pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, overgrazing, and desertification present daunting challenges, yet all can be ameliorated, as domestic and international development projects have shown. The current persistent drought and over population – and as always the terrorist violence – compound these challenges. However, the latter two are being addressed.

The three predominant factors leading to the current environmental situation in Afghanistan are its four decades of war and armed conflict, the country-wide drought, and natural resources neglect and mismanagement. Nearly forty years of conflict with all types of weaponry and equipment with their detritus, the destruction of personal and public infrastructure, destroyed cultivated land, deforestation, groundwater pollution, and fires have taken a very heavy toll.  But, actions must be taken now where possible to aid Afghanistan’s post-war recovery.

Besides war damage, the national territory and Afghan citizens suffer from a scarcity of water. Lack of adequate water resources has been an inescapable part of Middle Eastern and Central Asian history. However, Afghanistan with the other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia are becoming increasingly vulnerable because of a persistent, prolonged drought. According to the World Resources Institute, Afghanistan will be among the world’s 33 most water-stressed countries, and its neighbors Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are predicted to fare even worse in the list of 33 than Afghanistan. Global warming and the demands of growing populations will intensify scarcity. While droughts have always occurred in the named regions, climate change and global warming foretell more intense and prolonged droughts. Afghanistan’s drought is threatening the viability of the cattle industry. A greatly reduced stock of meat and milk producers will cause a rise food prices and in turn public discontent as well as endanger public health.  With all the blows to Afghan agriculture, it is understandable how Afghanistan must import food stuffs while an estimated eighty percent of its population are agriculturalists.

Most of Afghanistan’s water resources comes from the snows in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and as one environmental study in 2008 – a decade ago,

“[t]here are also very limited, unequally distributed, and poorly managed natural fresh water resources in Afghanistan.”

The mis-management of natural resources, e.g., water sheds, aquifers, forests, public lands negatively affects the environment. Afghanistan put in place a foundational environmental law in 2007, which also created a national environmental protection agency, “NEPA.”  However, NEPA as yet has not been effective at creating and executing work programs with the admittedly meager budgets it has to work with.  Much more aggressive public awareness campaigns could lay the foundation for environmental projects, which always must have the support of their intended beneficiaries.

Drought leading to over-grazing and desertification, war, over-population, lack of public awareness of good environmental practices, government inaction, etc. must be forcefully tackled.  (Corruption will be treated in a separate essay; although it plays a harmful role in environmental matters.) Afghanistan’s democratically elected government has the inherent powers to do a better job for its people.

The author has seen the deterioration of the environment of his native Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The damage of war, violent power struggles, and/or terrorism over nearly forty years has scarred each Afghan province. For an in-depth understanding of topics I have only briefly touched on, I would urge that readers acquire the 2008 United Nations Environment Program report on Afghanistan’s environment.

I am very proud and honored to have spent my career trying to advance the interests of Afghanistan, at home and abroad.  I believe yet I still pray that we Afghans of good will survive this long, hard night in our national history.  I am not one who nostalgically dreams of some “Golden Era.”  I want an Afghanistan that coalesces to create a renewed nation for all who want peace and strive for prosperity.  I believe the longing for a better future for our children, a future that has sufficient clean water, clean air, productive soil, and more forests, will never be stopped. These things represent the progress and modernization within our Islamic framework that should not be feared, because in the end the struggle for a better life in our homeland, cannot be thwarted.