Climate Change & Environmental Degradation: Impacts of War in Afghanistan
Dr Anchita Borthakur, Research Associate, VIF
Introduction

In the beginning of this month (February 2024) a three-day international conference on climate change was organized by the Nangarhar University situated in Jalalabad, the capital city of the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Afghanistan, under the current Taliban regime, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world in terms of climate change, has been kept out of the global climate negotiations since mid-2021. Last year also Afghanistan was absent from the COP28 for the third consecutive time. Therefore, the conference held at Nangarhar under the patronage of the Taliban regime received much media attention in recent days.

According to the Inform Climate Risk Index, Afghanistan was ranked fourth among countries most affected by the impacts of climate change in 2023.[1] In landlocked Afghanistan, the key environmental drivers are: an increase in drought incidence (due to low precipitation and reduced snowfall), frequency of floods (due to heavy and uneven rainfall, which has increased by between 10 percent and 25 percent over the last 30 years, as well as rapidly melting snow), and warmer temperatures that are on average 1.8 degrees Celsius higher than in 1950 and doubled the current global rate.[2] However, decades of conflict and political instability have intensified these problems. An attempt has been made in this article to highlight the impact of war on Afghanistan’s environment.

Impact of War on Afghanistan’s Environment

US was involved in a relentless aerial bombardment campaign that began with ‘daisy cutters’ in the north (to destroy orchards, farms etc.) and ‘bunker busters’ in the east and south of the country (to devastate overland canals, dams and underground water channels) in the autumn of 2001 and culminated with the largest bomb similar to a nuclear weapon ever used, the ‘mother of all bombs’, which detonated in the Achin district of Nangarhar in 2017.[3]Reports suggested that from its first post-9/11 airstrikes aimed at the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001 to its chaotic withdrawal from the country two decades later, the U.S. military dropped over 85,000 bombs on Afghanistan.[4] All these have had an unimaginable environmental ramification for the country and its people. In 2011 itself, former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai criticized the coalition forces for the environmental consequences of the US led war on his country.[5] However, the ecological damage on Afghanistan had already started from the time of the beginning of the Afghan conflict in the 1980s. Since then, the country has witnessed continuous wars that have had adverse impact on its ecosystem and the natural habitats.

Firstly, military hardware used as a part of warfare generates huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions leading to the contamination of the atmosphere. Moreover, the bombardment of essential and industrial infrastructure released toxic chemicals, causing water, air, and soil pollution.[6] The bombs consist of hazardous chemical materials which can contaminate the soil for decades. For instance: explosive ammunitions contain polluting chemicals like depleted uranium, RDX has the potential to damage the environment for the years to come. Therefore, all these can contribute to greater hazard than the actual explosion, whose implications are irreparable.

Toxic Military Burn Pits: A Legacy of War

Open-air burn pits are a method of waste management and disposal often used for military waste management by the US military in many of its overseas combat operations including at Afghanistan since 2001.[7] According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, “in 2011 the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan reached a peak of about 110,000 personnel — NATO forces contributed an additional 20,000 — generating roughly 900,000 pounds of waste each day, the bulk of which was burned without any pollution controls.”[8] It is reported that both the Soviet and US military bases have left behind layers of medical, biological and chemical waste that is likely to never get a full clean up.[9]

The SIGAR report further stated that burning military material can produce toxic smoke contaminated with “particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxins, and irritant gases, which can negatively affect organs and body systems, such as the adrenal glands, lungs, liver, and stomach.”[10] Therefore, continuous exposure to burn pits can cause “serious kidney, cardiopulmonary, gastrointestinal/skin ailments, congenital anomalies and multiple types of cancer”.[11] The “toxicity emanating from these burn pits circulated near and far from the bases, resulting in inescapable disease and infertility across the biological spectrum of organisms from insects to fish, crops, plants, trees, animals, birds and humans.”[12] Thus open air burn pits can have a long lasting implications on the nearby areas whose impacts are not only restricted to humans, but to the entire ecosystem.

Impact of War on the Agricultural Sector

In Afghanistan, war destroyed almost half of the country’s agrarian land and its irrigation system, especially the traditional Qanat/Karez system. Frequent bombardment and movements of heavy military vehicles have had an adverse impact on the Karez system, which is an age-old groundwater system prevalent in the country; but on the verge of disappearance at present. Qanats/Karezs are “underground vertical shafts in a gently sloping tunnel that is built from an upland aquifer to ground level.”[13] It is to be noted that the Karez system is critical for the survival of the Afghan people for hundreds of years. But damage to such infrastructure, often leaves water supplies contaminated, impacting the environment and the human health to a larger extent.[14]

In addition, decades of war have impacted Afghanistan’s agricultural production which stands at half than that of its pre-1979 level. [15] According to OCHA, “In the 1970s, Afghanistan was a leading international supplier of horticultural products; with earnings from the sector accounting for 48% of total export revenues. During this period, annual exports averaged around US$600 million, of which 30% was dried fruits and 70% fresh fruits. This landlocked country in Asia was almost self-sufficient in wheat. But following its invasion by the Soviet Union (1979-1992), and the US-led coalition (2001-2021), not to mention its own civil wars, the agricultural sector has stagnated, as its share of GDP fell from 71% in 1994 to 25% in 2020. During this time, Afghanistan's wheat and seed industry was completely destroyed.”[16] In short, decades of War has caused destruction to crops, the irrigation system and the overall agricultural production, which also resulted in people fleeing the region.

Furthermore, frequent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosives decreases the agricultural/economic value of the soil with the production of waste or damaged crop qualities. For instance, some of the most fertile regions of Afghanistan like the Shomali plains near Kabul, fruit orchards of Central highlands, few areas of the province of Kandahar and other parts of southern/eastern Afghanistan—famous for its world class pomegranate/grapes production and had a vast export market abroad which were razed during war— suffered from deteriorating crop qualities even after the fighting ended. Furthermore, restoration of nutrient value of the land takes a considerable amount of time, along with efforts and financial means. Therefore, these initiatives proved costly for a least developed country like Afghanistan.

Lethal landmines: The Result of Decades Long War

Landmines are worst environmental nightmare which is being created as a result of constant warfare that has been going on in the country since the 1980s. The extensive land mining of mountain passes and valley pasturelands, from the time of the Mujaheddin resistance movement against the Soviet backed Afghan government to until very recently, have made Afghanistan one of the most densely mined countries in the world. Along with the physical damage, the landmines contaminate the soil which can have negative implications on the irrigation/agricultural sector by disrupting the food chain, thus undermining the country’s economy and already depleted resources. In the long run, it can contribute to loss of biodiversity due to leakage of chemical substances into soil and water, thereby contaminating the natural ecosystem. The World Health Organization once estimated that, without mines, agricultural production could increase by 88-200% in different parts of Afghanistan.[17]

Most significantly, clearance of these landmines is extremely expensive, therefore, it is a difficult task to be accomplished in a war-torn/poverty-stricken country like Afghanistan. In addition, the widespread presence of landmines and IEDs on conventional transport routes resulted in militaries fighting under the U.S. coalition banner until mid-2021 to find alternative routes for their tanks and armoured vehicles.[18] As a result, convoys often used to drove across open fields, harming crops and even destroyed the existing infrastructure.[19] Moreover, till date vast amounts of arable land remained abandoned due to the fear of the presence of landmines, leading to the further depletion of resources.

Air Pollution

Pollution and deforestation are another two menace which emerged due to the prevalence of continuous warfare in the country. Until 1980s, Kabul was known for its clean air and breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains.[20]But in recent years, Kabul has become one of the most polluted cities in the world. Along with climatic and geographical factors, war also played an instrumental role in deteriorating Kabul’s air. Frequent use of explosive weapons, military aircrafts and large-scale movement of diesel fueled wheeled vehicles that were operated with vast quantity of fossil fuels which produced severe carbon dioxide emissions, resulted in polluting the air of Kabul at an unprecedented rate. In addition to CO2, military vehicles used in the war zones like Afghanistan also produced thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide which are some of the most important air pollutants.[21] Moreover, the dust and the debris created as a result of the use of explosive weapons have had lasting ramifications for the local populations.[22] Air pollution takes a huge toll on the health of the people causing to thousands of deaths in the country every year.

War Induced Deforestation

Traditionally, Afghanistan’s tribes preserved forests and range resources through division of land use.[23] But as energy supplies were disrupted during the period of conflict, the cutting of forests for fuelwood accelerated which resulted in deforestation.[24] Furthermore, forested areas and farmlands, which were crucial to indigenous ecosystem and habitats, were destroyed and burned down during the decade’s long war. Afghanistan lost over a third of its forests between 1990 and 2005.[25] FAO and UNDP estimated that in the early 1980s the area of forests covered approximately 2.2 million hectares. From that time to 1991, the forest area declined from an already low base of 3.4% to only 2.6% of total land area.[26] It is reported that forests now cover less than two per cent of the country.

A Post-conflict Environmental Assessment report by the UN Environment Programme indicated that in the eastern region, where most of the vegetation occurs, 50-80% of the woodlands were deforested from 1977 to 2002 because of illegal logging.[27] US Aid for International Development (USAID) in 2004 stated that wild pistachio woodlands declined rapidly in the past 30 years, from 40 to 100 trees per hectare to the current estimate of 20 to 40 trees per hectare, primarily due to trees cutting, overgrazing and uncontrolled harvesting.[27]

According to anecdotal evidence, during the Soviet-Afghan War, groups of mujahideen fighters found safe havens in the country’s vast woods which prompted the Soviets to bomb them.[29] Therefore, forests were cleared due to security reasons as well. The Soviet use of napalm in the forests of eastern Afghanistan especially in the province of Paktiya[30] have had catastrophic implications on the region’s ecological landscape leading to deforestation of the entire area. Consequently, deforestation due to intense fighting and displacement contributes to climate change.[31] Moreover, it was witnessed that the warring factions in Afghanistan finance their violent campaigns by smuggling timber to neighboring places since the early 1980s. Across the country, insurgent factions, warlords including the government officials and the local people benefitted from illegal mining, and smuggling, therefore enthusiastically involved in it, which is still an extremely profitable business in the country.[32] All these have led to deforestation of the region which has direct impact on watershed protection, soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity. In addition, poverty, dearth of alternative sources of income, and lack of awareness regarding the environmental damage caused by deforestation, have fueled this illegal trade.[33] It is significant to note that substantial deforestation increases the risk of long-term droughts and frequent floods in a given area. Data suggests that in the last two decades, Afghanistan has experienced more droughts and floods than ever before.[34]

Impact on the Natural Habitat

Furthermore, decades long wars accompanied with drought and deforestation have ruined Afghanistan’s wetlands causing irreparable damage to the natural habitats and the country’s wildlife. The size of animal and birds population also reduced considerably in Afghanistan in recent years. It was reported that in the last few decades, many migratory birds had in fact changed their routes due to frequent bombardment and drone strikes in the country. All these have a negative implications on the country’s natural habitat and its ecosystem. As rightly mentioned by Prof. Hanifi, the 20-year monsoon of bombs in Afghanistan has carried depleted uranium into groundwater systems especially in the east and south, where birth defects among both humans and animals are now possibly endemic. [35] This shows the far reaching consequences of conflict-induced environmental degradation and its effects on the local population.

Conclusion

To conclude, despite one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, Afghanistan is one of the worst sufferers of the looming crisis of climate change. It is projected that the temperatures in Afghanistan would increase by more than the global average[36] and there would be an increase in drought and flood risks[37] in the country by 2030.[38] Therefore, this landlocked country aptly demonstrates how war and climate change are somehow interlinked/interconnected. It was witnessed that the catastrophic ramification of war exacerbated the impacts of climate change in Afghanistan. Afghanistan signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, but has been excluded from international climate related negotiations since the Taliban seized power in mid-August 2021, despite the war-torn country’s desperate climate-related needs.[39]

The release of greenhouse gases and the destruction of ecosystems have ultimately led to fragile countries like Afghanistan face severe food insecurity and competition over scarce resources, particularly water, and thus giving rise to new conflicts in the region.[40] As the impacts of climate change transcends political boundaries, it is high time for the international community not to politicize the issue of climate change and involve Afghanistan’s civil society/ experts in the future climate negotiations, since the crisis in this vulnerable nation can have severe global consequences in the near future.

References

[1] https://data.humdata.org/dataset/2048a947-5714-4220-905b-e662cbcd14c8/resource/ee5ebee2-b0f0-4582-a040-a9e0cb6150d5/download/inform-report-2023.pdf?_gl=1*kcwglm*_ga*OTk5NTI3NTkxLjE3MDI4MTE2MTc.*_ga_E60ZNX2F68*MTcwMjgxMTYxNy4xLjAuMTcwMjgxMTc4Ni42MC4wLjA
[2] https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/climate-change-compounds-longstanding-displacement-afghanistan
[3] https://www.thersa.org/comment/2021/11/what-next-for-afghanistan
[4] https://undark.org/2023/09/25/afghanistan-war-toxic-pollution/
[5] https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=11-P13-00027&segmentID=5
[6] https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/broken-land-environmental-consequences-explosive-weapon-use
[7] https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/16/08/56/cleanup-of-us-military-burn-pits-in-iraq-and-afghanistan
[8] https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/how-americas-war-devastated-afghanistans-environment/
[9] https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/how-americas-war-devastated-afghanistans-environment/
[10] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-forces-are-leaving-a-toxic-environmental-legacy-in-afghanistan/
[11] https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/how-americas-war-devastated-afghanistans-environment/
[12] https://www.saaganthology.com/article/climate-crimes-of-us-imperalism-in-afghanistan
[13] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/water/will-afghanistan-s-centuries-old-karez-system-of-irrigation-survive-the-taliban-78451
[14] https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/broken-land-environmental-consequences-explosive-weapon-use
[15] https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/245541467973233146/pdf/AUS9779-REVISED-WP-PUBLIC-Box391431B-Final-Afghanistan-ASR-web-October-31-2014.pdf
[16] https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/reverberating-effects-explosive-violence-agriculture-afghanistan
[17] https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/81/9/Walsh0903.pdf?ua=1
[18] https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/reverberating-effects-explosive-violence-agriculture-afghanistan
[19] https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/reverberating-effects-explosive-violence-agriculture-afghanistan
[20] https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1755-1315/1199/1/012022/pdf
[21] https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/environment
[22] https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/broken-land-environmental-consequences-explosive-weapon-use
[23] https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/27929/afg-environment-transition.pdf
[24] https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/27929/afg-environment-transition.pdf
[25] https://lobelog.com/can-greening-afghanistan-help-end-the-war/
[26] https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/27929/afg-environment-transition.pdf
[27] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/afghanistan-inching-closer-to-revive-forest-cover/2183048
[28] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/afghanistan-inching-closer-to-revive-forest-cover/2183048
[29] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/7/4/were-in-crisis-the-high-price-of-deforestation-in-afghanistan
[30] https://www.asianstudies.org/interview-shah-mahmoud-hanifi-on-histories-of-afghanistan/
[31] https://carbonliteracy.com/the-climate-impact-of-war/#:~:text=On%20the%20battlefield%2C%20for%20example,displacement%20contributes%20to%20climate%20change.
[32] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-kunar-forest/28775967.html
[33] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/7/4/were-in-crisis-the-high-price-of-deforestation-in-afghanistan
[34] https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/economy-development-environment/droughts-on-the-horizon-can-afghanistan-manage-this-risk/
[35] https://www.thersa.org/comment/2021/11/what-next-for-afghanistan
[36] https://climate-diplomacy.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Climate%20Chang%20in%20Afghanistan.pdf
[37] https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/economy-development-environment/the-climate-change-crisis-in-afghanistan-the-catastrophe-worsens-what-hope-for-action/
[38] https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/economy-development-environment/droughts-on-the-horizon-can-afghanistan-manage-this-risk/
[39] https://www.refugeesinternational.org/perspectives-and-commentaries/in-global-climate-talks-let-afghanistan-in/
[40] https://carbonliteracy.com/the-climate-impact-of-war/

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