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A New Dawn for Afghanistan: Transitioning to a Green Economy Amidst War's Economic and Environmental Challenges

Afghanistan, situated in a delicate ecosystem, is increasingly under threat from climate change. The country's food security relies heavily on a river network that is sustained by winter snowfall, but this vital resource is diminishing rapidly.[1] As Afghanistan deals with economic instability and the breakdown of governmental structures, its people are keenly aware that the survival of their capital, Kabul, is closely tied to the availability of water.[2]

This realization underscores the urgent need for sustainable water management practices and climate change adaptation measures to secure Afghanistan's future. A green economy offers a promising path forward, aiming for fair and sustainable prosperity within the limits of our ecosystems. Initiating this transformative journey with those directly affected by mass migration is particularly meaningful.

For many forced to leave their homes, the opportunity to return to farming represents a fresh start amidst uncertainty. This return not only addresses displacement practically but also offers a chance to establish a new social contract with emerging governance structures. By embracing the principles of a green economy, Afghanistan can move towards inclusive growth, empowering communities to responsibly manage their natural resources and fostering resilience, equity, and lasting prosperity. Afghanistan faces significant energy challenges due to a deteriorating infrastructure, heavy reliance on diesel and kerosene, and inadequate power sector policies. In rural areas without access to the electricity grid, traditional biomass remains the primary source for cooking and heating, leading to indoor air pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.

Impact of War on Environment

The environmental devastation wrought upon Afghanistan by the ongoing conflict has been profound, dating back to the 1980s when the Afghan conflict first began.[3] Since then, the country has been engulfed in a relentless series of wars, each leaving its mark on the land and its fragile ecosystems. The bombing campaigns, such as those initiated by the US in 2001 and culminating in the use of the 'mother of all bombs' in 2017, have accelerated this environmental degradation.[4]

One of the most significant impacts has been on the country's soil, which has been contaminated by the use of explosives and heavy military machinery. This contamination not only affects the soil's fertility but also poses serious health risks to the population. The destruction of vital infrastructure, such as irrigation systems and water channels, has further exacerbated water scarcity issues, leading to desertification and loss of arable land.

Moreover, the continuous warfare has resulted in widespread deforestation as trees are felled for fuel and building materials. This loss of vegetation not only contributes to climate change but also leads to soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Afghanistan, once rich in flora and fauna, has seen a significant decline in its natural habitats, putting further pressure on its already vulnerable ecosystems.[5]

The impact of war on Afghanistan's agricultural sector has been profound,[6] with nearly half of the country's agrarian land and its irrigation systems, including the traditional Qanat/Karez system, destroyed.[7] The Qanat/Karez system, an ancient groundwater system crucial for Afghan survival, has been heavily impacted by frequent bombardments and movements of heavy military vehicles, leading to its gradual disappearance.

This destruction has left water supplies contaminated, significantly affecting both the environment and human health.[8] The frequent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosives has further decreased the agricultural and economic value of the soil, resulting in waste or damaged crop qualities.

Regions such as the Shomali plains near Kabul, the fruit orchards of the Central Highlands, and parts of Kandahar and other southern/eastern areas, renowned for their world-class pomegranate and grape production, suffered from deteriorating crop qualities even after the fighting ended. Restoring the nutrient value of the land requires a significant amount of time, effort, and financial resources, proving to be costly for a least developed country like Afghanistan. [9]

Transition to a Green Economy

The concept of a green economy has gained global attention as countries look to adopt development models that prioritize economic, social, and environmental sustainability. This shift recognizes the link between human well-being and environmental health.[10] A green economy aims to achieve sustainable development by promoting low-carbon, resource-efficient, and inclusive practices across sectors. Investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, green infrastructure, and eco-friendly technologies can reduce carbon footprints, create economic opportunities, and enhance social equity.[11]

However, transitioning requires collaboration among governments, businesses, civil society, and communities. Stakeholder engagement and awareness are crucial.
This can be achieved through:
  • Providing information and training programs.
  • Launching media campaigns.
  • Engaging stakeholders in dialogue and consultation.
  • Building capacity through training.
  • Implementing pilot projects.
  • Offering incentives for sustainable practices.
Implementing green economy initiatives programmatically involves a comprehensive strategy tailored to the specific challenges and opportunities in each sector and context. This can include creating policies and regulations that promote sustainability, securing funding for green investments, encouraging innovation and technology development, and fostering partnerships for collaborative efforts. By adopting the principles of green economy and implementing effective awareness-raising and programmatic strategies, countries can work towards a sustainable and prosperous future for everyone.

Afghanistan Pathway Green Transitioning

Transitioning Afghanistan to a greener economy requires significant investment, planning, and global cooperation. This includes harnessing renewable energy sources, reforestation, promoting sustainable agriculture, improving public transport, implementing energy efficiency, seeking international aid, creating green jobs, enforcing environmental regulations, raising public awareness, and integrating climate adaptation measures.[12] These efforts can lead Afghanistan towards a sustainable and resilient future.

The UNEP report highlights the potential of a green economy to drive growth and reduce poverty, especially in developing countries like Afghanistan. It emphasizes that up to 90% of the GDP of impoverished communities relies on nature or natural capital. This underscores the importance of sustainable management of resources for economic development. Transitioning to a green economy, focusing on sustainability and resource efficiency, can open new avenues for inclusive growth. This involves investing in renewable energy, promoting sustainable agriculture and forestry, enhancing ecosystem resilience, and encouraging green innovation.[13]

Afghanistan finds itself at a pivotal moment in its reconstruction efforts, offering a unique opportunity to integrate green principles into its rebuilding endeavors. Key sectors such as agriculture, buildings, energy supply, fisheries, forestry, industry (including energy efficiency), tourism, transport, waste management, and water are identified as central to the creation of a green economy.[14] By strategically channeling resources towards sustainable development pathways, Afghanistan can "build back better" and leapfrog the traditional development curve, aligning with environmental imperatives while fostering economic development, job creation, and equity.[15]

UNEP emphasizes that current global subsidies, amounting to one to two percent of GDP, often support unsustainable resource use, particularly in fossil fuels, agriculture, water, and fisheries.[16] Redirecting these subsidies towards green initiatives can expedite Afghanistan's shift to a greener economy. This reallocation not only helps the environment but also fosters economic resilience, social equity, and ecological sustainability, benefiting not just Afghanistan but the entire planet.

Water is integral to Afghanistan's societal fabric, with deeply ingrained traditions of water management rooted in local wisdom.[17] These practices have sustained for centuries, regulating water resources and bolstering resilience against environmental challenges. As Afghanistan faces its current hurdles, its water management heritage offers a beacon of hope, guiding the nation towards a sustainable future.

Winter snow is vital for Afghanistan's agriculture, acting as a natural reservoir that gradually melts into the summer, providing essential irrigation water. However, rapid melting due to exceptionally hot summers or springs can lead to downstream disasters like floods or a lack of irrigation water. In the lowlands, snow moistens the soil, but rain is needed for rainfed crops to thrive. Global warming intensifies these variations, affecting agricultural productivity and water resources.

Over the past 40 years, Afghanistan has experienced a significant temperature increase. The mean annual temperature rose by 0.6�C from 1960 to 2008, followed by a dramatic 1.2�C increase. This has accelerated glacier and snow melt, resulting in more frequent flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods, and river flooding.[18] Climate change has also doubled the frequency of droughts compared to previous decades, leading to a decline in precipitation in the country's northern and central regions. Afghanistan's glaciers are rapidly melting, with a 14% loss in glacier area between 1990 and 2015. This trend is expected to continue, impacting river flow in the summer.[19]

Changes in precipitation patterns and temperatures have altered river flow in Afghanistan. Research in the Kabul River basin shows more high and low flow days, increasing flood and low flow days during the summer. Similar changes likely occur in other river basins, emphasizing the need for effective water management strategies across sectors throughout the year.[20]

The Present Status of Afghanistan

The effects of climate change transcend borders, impacting every corner of the globe. Afghanistan, despite being a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, is among the top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. The country faces worsening droughts and flash floods, which not only destroy livelihoods but also exacerbate hunger. Afghanistan's exclusion from global climate change talks, including the COP28 summit in Dubai 2023, highlights the severity of its climate change problem.[21]

Afghanistan's average annual temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2010, double the global average, with the southern regions experiencing the largest rise at 2.4 degrees Celsius.[22] Drought affects 25 out of 34 provinces, impacting around 80% of people who rely on agriculture, which contributes over 30% to the GDP.

Changing weather patterns and rising temperatures affect not only rainfall but also the melting of snowpack and glaciers in Afghanistan's mountains, crucial for maintaining river flows and watering fields during spring and summer. Higher temperatures can lead to catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods and impact meltwater flows needed for irrigation.

Afghanistan has lost 14% of its total glacier area between 1990 and 2015, while widespread deforestation has worsened flooding by reducing trees that prevent erosion and hold soil in place. Despite its low emissions, Afghanistan faces profound climate change impacts, highlighting the urgent need for global action to address this crisis.[23]

Climate Change of Afghanistan

Climate change is having a profound impact on Afghanistan, exacerbating a major humanitarian crisis. With 29 million people in need of aid and over 3 million displaced from their homes, droughts and floods are destroying crops, land, and infrastructure, leading to increased pests and diseases.[24] This has fueled hunger, displacement within Afghanistan, and migration to other countries.[25] Additionally, conflicts over water and fertile land are escalating, especially in border regions.

The wider global risks of Afghanistan's climate crisis include potential mass migration to neighboring countries and Europe, according to security experts. There are also concerns about water availability downstream, which could escalate tensions with countries sharing river systems with Afghanistan, such as Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Promoting and supporting sustainability initiatives in developing countries like Afghanistan is crucial, despite their low contribution to global carbon emissions. These efforts can help maintain low per capita carbon emissions while stimulating economic growth. International funding has made renewable energy more accessible, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and alleviating poverty.

Afghanistan, listed as one of the least developed countries, faces severe economic losses due to climate-induced disasters, exacerbated by harsh winters. With only 12% arable land, climate change further challenges agriculture and biodiversity, leading to pollution and health issues. Water scarcity is a significant issue, even in cities like Kabul, due to war, mismanagement, and corruption. [26]

The effects of climate change have destabilized Afghanistan, with 90% of internal conflicts attributed to disputes over limited land and water resources. Decades of conflict have increased poverty, with a significant impact on agricultural output, which accounts for 60% of the country's GDP. Landmines also pose a risk to farmers, hindering agricultural production and economic recovery.[27]

Afghanistan Institutional Framework

In the early 2000s, after establishing the Republic, Afghanistan recognized the need to address climate change and its impacts. [28]However, there was initially little urgency among politicians to prioritize this issue, viewing it as a donor demand or a funding opportunity. Despite the global recognition of the warming trend since the 1930s, concerted efforts to combat it only began in the 1980s, leading to the establishment of institutions like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992.

Afghanistan signed the UNFCCC in 1992 but only ratified it in 2002, a decade marked by war and isolation where climate change was not a prominent concern. With the establishment of the internationally-supported Republic in 2001, Afghanistan started developing environmental institutions and laws. The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) was established in 2005, with Afghanistan's first environmental law enacted in 2007 to define NEPA's role as the country's environmental policy-making and regulatory body.[29]

NEPA's mandate expanded over time, including the establishment of a division dedicated to climate change in 2010. To access funds for climate change projects, NEPA conducted a nationwide assessment and developed a National Adaptation Programme of Action in 2009. The country submitted its first national report to the UNFCCC in 2013, with assistance from the Green Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme, highlighting the lack of institutional arrangements for accessing environmental technologies.[30]

In 2013, Afghanistan ratified the Kyoto Protocol, aligning with the UNFCCC's objective of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. Despite initial delays and challenges, Afghanistan has made significant progress in establishing institutional frameworks and legislation to address climate change, recognizing its importance for sustainable development and environmental protection.[31]

In conclusion, Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture, facing formidable challenges from both the impacts of war and the effects of climate change. The country's fragile ecosystem and reliance on agriculture make it particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation, threatening food security and economic stability. The devastation wrought by decades of conflict has left a profound imprint on Afghanistan's land, water, and biodiversity. From soil contamination to the destruction of vital infrastructure, the environmental toll of war has been immense.

The loss of traditional water management systems like the Qanat/Karez system has further exacerbated water scarcity issues, impacting both the environment and human health. Despite these challenges, Afghanistan has made strides in establishing institutions and laws to address environmental concerns, particularly in the realm of climate change. The establishment of NEPA and the enactment of environmental laws demonstrate a commitment to sustainable development.

Transitioning to a green economy offers a promising pathway forward for Afghanistan, one that prioritizes economic, social, and environmental sustainability. By investing in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and green infrastructure, Afghanistan can not only mitigate the impacts of climate change but also create economic opportunities and enhance social equity. However, achieving this transition will require concerted efforts from governments, businesses, civil society, and communities. Stakeholder engagement, capacity building, and innovative strategies will be essential in driving this transformation.

Thus, Afghanistan has the potential to emerge as a beacon of sustainability in the region, setting an example for other countries facing similar challenges. By embracing the principles of a green economy and implementing effective policies and programs, Afghanistan can secure a sustainable and prosperous future for its people and the planet.

Authors Statements:
The auhothrs hereby declares that this piece of article represents their own scholarly work. The author affirms that the content is original, unpublished, and has not been submitted for publication or posted online elsewhere. Any referenced facts and figures are appropriately cited and believed to be accurate.

  1. Afghanistan: The Alarming Effects of Climate Change | OCHA accessed 29 May 2024.
  2. Ravichandran Moorthy and Sumayya Bibi, Water Security and Cross-Border Water Management in the Kabul River Basin (2023) 15 Sustainability 792.
  3. Nafees Mohammad, Zahidullah and Khan Ghulam, Environmental Degradation Due to War in Afghanistan: A Review (2018).
  4. Dr Ramesh and Sayed Qudrat Hashimy, Impact of War on the Environment: A Critical Study of Afghanistan.
  5. Climate Change & Environmental Degradation: Impacts of War in Afghanistan (29 February 2024) accessed 29 May 2024.
  6. Jennifer Ann Neuhauser, U.s. Military Responsibility for Environmental Cleanup in Contingency Environments (2015) 45 Environmental Law 129.
  7. Climate Change & Environmental Degradation: Impacts of War in Afghanistan.
  8. ibid.
  9. Larry P Goodson, Afghanistans Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban (University of Washington Press 2001) accessed 29 May 2024.
  10. Lavinia Stan and Nadya Nedelsky (eds), Country Studies, Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice (2nd edn, Cambridge University Press 2023) accessed 29 May 2024.
  11. Climate Change & Environmental Degradation: Impacts of War in Afghanistan.
  12. "WeRe in Crisis": The High Price of Deforestation in Afghanistan | Environment | Al Jazeera accessed 29 May 2024.
  13. ibid.
  14. Fayaz Gul Mazloum Yar and Majid Yasouri Yasoori, The Role of Tourism in the Development of Afghanistan (2023) 2 International Journal of Social Health 954.
  15. Afghanistan Would Benefit from Just Transition to Green Economy Workshop Hears | International Labour Organization (14 March 2023) accessed 29 May 2024.
  16. UNAMA, Investing in "green Economy" Can Boost Growth, Reduce Poverty in Afghanistan � UN Report | (UNITED NATIONS ASSISTANCE MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN) accessed 29 May 2024.
  17. Ali Moheqi, Traditional Water Management Systems in Afghanistan; Lessons for the Future (2021).
  18. ibid.
  19. Global Warming and Afghanistan: Drought, Hunger and Thirst Expected to Worsen - Afghanistan Analysts Network - English accessed 29 May 2024.
  20. ibid.
  21. Reuters, Afghanistan Excluded from COP28 as Climate Impacts Hit Home The Hindu (13 December 2023) accessed 29 May 2024.
  22. Afghanistan: Heres Why Climate Change Has Global Repercussions | PreventionWeb (4 December 2023) accessed 29 May 2024.
  23. Shrinking, Thinning, Retreating: Afghan Glaciers under Threat from Climate Change - Afghanistan Analysts Network - English accessed 29 May 2024.
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid.
  26. (PDF) Glaciers in Afghanistan Status and Changes from 1990 to 2015 accessed 29 May 2024.
  27. Climate Change & Environmental Degradation: Impacts of War in Afghanistan.
  28. Jelena Bjelica, The Climate Change Crisis in Afghanistan: The catastrophe worsens - what hope for action? (Afghanistan Analysts Network - English, 6 June 2022) accessed 29 May 2024.
  29. 9486351_Afghanistan-NC2-1-SNC Report_Final_20180801 .Pdf accessed 29 May 2024.
  30. ibid.
  31. What Is the Kyoto Protocol? | UNFCCC accessed 29 May 2024.

Written By:
  1. Qadriya Hashimi CEO, Organisation of Green Future Afghanistan
  2. Hasina Rassuli, Green Economy & Environmental Policy Director, Organisation of Green Future Afghanistan
  3. Nasima Esazada, Conference Organising Secretary and Programme Director, Organisation of Green Future Afghanistan
  4. Beheshta Popal, Research Associate (Volunteer), Organisation of Green Future Afghanistan

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