The United Nations has launched an ambitious project to assess the damage to Afghanistan's natural environment caused by 20 years of conflict and three years of drought. The results of the survey will be used by the Afghan government to determine spending priorities, as officials grapple with dwindling forests, disappearing rivers, and encroaching desertification. RFE/RL reports the problems are staggering and that any serious effort to improve the environment will depend on cooperation between the central government and regions outside of its control.
Kabul, 13 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), in conjunction with Afghanistan's Transitional Authority, has launched an ambitious project to assess environmental damage caused by 20 years of war and three years of drought.
The national government in Kabul says it is committed to improving the environment, but until now there's been no systematic assessment of the problem. That may change if the UNEP project goes according to plan.
Pekka Haavisto is the task force chairman for UNEP in Kabul: "Afghans have been very unlucky that first, there was this 20- to 30-year period of conflicts and war, and now a very serious period of drought. And these together have been very seriously affecting the Afghan environment."
The list of environmental problems in Afghanistan appears endless.
As one example, Haavisto points to illegal timber cutting during the war years, which reduced the number of trees in the country by 30 percent: "The war period [created conditions that led to] a lot of illegal cuttings, a lot of illegal forest and timber trade from Afghanistan to Pakistan over the border."
Afghanistan's dry climate does not generally support the growth of large forests. Nevertheless, trees have traditionally played the crucial role of anchoring the soil during periods of drought.
Today, much of the country is in a third year without significant rainfall, and wind erosion has blighted large areas of former farmland. Overfarming to feed a hungry population has depleted what arable soil remains.
Riverbeds are dry in much of the county, and the water table has dropped, on average, 6 meters in three years. What rivers still run are awash in untreated waste, although that doesn't stop people from drinking from them.
Moreover, big cities like Kabul are choking in car and truck exhaust, and dust. Drivers keep their headlights on during the day to see the road.
UN and Afghan experts began work on the survey on 10 September and hope to be finished by the end of the year. The assessment will focus on five areas -- urban pollution, deforestation, drought, damage to the country's six national parks, and the special problems of the remote, high-elevation Wakhan corridor that stretches to China. Because of the lack of passable roads in the Wakhan corridor, a team of experts will travel to the area on horseback.
The UNEP effort has the full backing of the Afghan national government, particularly the ministries responsible for irrigation, water resources, and the environment.
The deputy minister of the environment, Pir Mohammed Azizi, says officials hope to use the survey as part of a larger effort to incorporate environmental protection into law. He says he hopes the new Afghan constitution that is being prepared will include a section obligating citizens to protect the natural environment.
"Regarding the environmental issues, what we can do in the [short term], we can [make] the legislation, the development of legislation [and] the constitution, so that it will give us the right [to enforce environmental laws]. And it will stress that every Afghan is responsible to [maintain] the environment, and it will say that every Afghan must play a role in [maintaining] the environment. And, apart from that, we can make a sustainable program for the national resource management."
It's not yet clear how much support the UN survey and subsequent efforts to protect the environment will generate in the vast areas of Afghanistan that remain outside of Kabul's control. These include much of the drought-stricken south and west.
Haavisto acknowledges the reality that rogue commanders may not see protecting the environment as their first priority as they seek to preserve their independence from Kabul.
So can regional leaders be persuaded to adopt measures to protect the environment? Haavisto: "Our first impression is that, in some regions, yes -- [in areas] where they can immediately link it to the livelihood of the people and income of the people. Probably there could be some positive incentives [offered to these leaders to protect] the environment for the people."
Haavisto doesn't elaborate on what he means by "positive incentives."
He says the national government might even use the environmental issue as a way of extending its authority to the regions as officials in Kabul link up with their counterparts outside of the capital.