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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

War's Toll on Afghanistan's Environment

Air Date: Week of

Afghanistan's stunning mountain landscapes support vibrant cultures amidst the scars of war (Credit: Andrew Scanlon).

Behind the casualties and monetary costs of the war in Afghanistan are drastic environmental consequences. While coalition forces prepare to pull out, the nation is trying to tackle problems like pollution, water distribution, and deforestation. Host Bruce Gellerman investigates. Photo: Afghanistan's stunning mountain landscapes support vibrant cultures amidst the scars of war (Andrew Scanlon).


GELLERMAN: Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a speech and
made two surprising statements


GELLERMAN: He confirmed for the first time that the US was talking with the Taliban. That announcement made headlines, but largely overlooked was something else the Afghan president said. Karzai condemned coalition forces for the environmental consequences war has had on his country.


GELLERMAN: Every time their planes fly, he said, they make smoke. When they drop bombs, they have chemical materials in them. Karzai also accused coalition forces of polluting Afghanistan with nuclear components, an apparent reference to depleted plutonium used in munitions and armor. “Our people are killed,” said Karzai, “but also our environment is damaged.” Back in 2005 Karzai established Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, but it’s still a work in progress. Ghulam Malikyar is a senior advisor to the NEPA. The phone lines to Afghanistan are poor, so we voiced over what he said:

MALIKYAR (with voice over): The environment is not a priority for the government. It’s not even included in the national strategy. Now the Afghan Environmental Protection Agency is trying to convince the government to consider the environment a vital asset. I expect that President Karzai’s support will bring good changes for environmental protection in this country.

GELLERMAN: As the US begins pulling out of Afghanistan, it leaves behind 30 million people, devastated by 30 years of war. This vast country, landlocked, with soaring mountains, is the sixth poorest in the world - the average life expectancy - just 44 years. Andrew Scanlon with the United Nation Environmental Program says dealing with the consequences of war will take generations and require sensitivity to the country’s diverse tribal cultures.

SCANLON: It’s a complex place, and it’s a place full of local stories. So everywhere you hear one story and it may be very different in Kunduz than it would be in Helmand or in Kabul. The tendency being to take one story that you’ve heard and assume that that’s the national story. And that’s not the case a lot of the time. All the local stories do not make up a national story. They’re very unique.

GELLERMAN: We reached Andrew Scanlon in Bamyan Province, where the Taliban blew up two ancient statues of the Buddha. But it's war’s effect on Afghanistan’s ancient network of water canals called the karez system that’s of more immediate concern to Afghans. Zahid Hamdard, a senior government environmental official, says the karez system has been critical for Afghan survival for three thousand years. The tunnels are dug are just beneath the ground.

HAMDARD (with voice over): When there are movements of military vehicles or bombs dropped, these systems are completely damaged. In my recent experiences with the Ministry of Rural Development, most of the community needs are repairs to the irrigation systems, Karez maintenance.

GELLERMAN: Physical damage to the karez water system isn’t the only problem. Afghanistan actually has plenty of water, but Andrew Scanlon says 3 decades of war have disrupted the traditional method of allocating it. That’s a job usually done by the Lord of the Water.

SCANLON: You have a wonderful level of management at the village level run by a guy called the Mirab, the Lord of the Water, and this would be a guy in every village, whose role has been passed on by his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, going back for hundreds if not thousands of years

GELLERMAN: In the 1980’s Soviet occupiers centralized Afghanistan’s water distribution system, undermining the Lords of the Water. What’s needed today, says Scanlon, is a return to decentralized, community management - especially in farmlands that depend on irrigation. 60 percent of Afghans make their living from agriculture - it accounts for half the nation’s GDP – not including the opium crop, but war has taken its toll. For example, In Kandahar, once the Taliban capital, Zahid Hamdard says fighting has laid waste green valleys of red pomegranates.

HAMDARD (with voice over): The clearing of Kandahar district was strategically important, but it came at the cost of some of the pomegranate orchards and those have definitely contributed to the bad environmental quality. And the same has happened in Helmand, which has been one of the agricultural producers of the country. It was damaged because of the stronger presence of the insurgents or anti-government elements.

GELLERMAN: The Afghan government lacks the resources and reach to control much of the land. A powerful ‘timber mafia’ has taken over much of the valuable forest – in 30 years, 60 percent of the deciduous trees have been cut down. Half of Afghanistan’s pistachio trees, once so abundant, are gone. So too are almond and juniper trees, long term food sources sacrificed for fuel. Environmental advisor Ghulam Malikyar:

MALIKYAR (with voice over): War has brought poverty. Poverty is one of the main sources of environmental degradation because people are forced to use different sources of energy. And the same with natural resources – they use it up for energy, for livelihood.

GELLERMAN: The Pentagon spends about 200 million dollars a month to fuel the Afghan war. Zahid Hamdard says now burnt hulks of oil tankers litter mountain passes.

HAMDARD (with voice over): Wherever you travel on the highways you see these oil tankers that have been set on fire. This can cause the toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife from these fires by insurgents.

GELLERMAN: Afghanistan was once an important stop on the flyway for migratory birds, but deforestation, drought and 30 years of war have ruined wetlands. Today it’s estimated that the number of birds migrating over Afghanistan is down 85 percent. The fighting has also led to a mass migration of people from rural areas to cities. The population of Kabul has doubled in less than a decade. And today air pollution in the capital kills more civilians a year than combat nationwide. Again, government official Zahid Hamdard.

The signs of war are everywhere in Kabul (Credit: Andrew Scanlon).

HAMDARD (with voice over): More than 3000 people die from air pollution in Kabul - it definitely is a concern right now.

GELLERMAN: Is that because people are coming into Kabul to escape the fighting? And, therefore, they pollute the air more?

HAMDARD (with voice over): Partly that reason, but also since it is one of the main cities, it is an economic hub with lots of industrial and business activities, and also because of the strong presence of international organizations.

GELLERMAN: For the past decade, the US led coalition has tried to create a civil society in Afghanistan - and today the nation has tough environmental laws and standards. But enforcement is weak. Still, Andrew Scanlon of the UN environmental program is optimistic. For example, he says the new Green Club of Afghanistan has thousands of members.

SCANLON: There’s light at the end of the tunnel – it’s a pretty long tunnel – but I think one of the reasons I’m hopeful is because of the people that are here on the ground. They’re so strong, they’re so tough. And it’s still an incredibly beautiful, natural, mountainous, alpine, Himalayan place.

GELLERMAN: Even three decades of war can’t change that.



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