Environmental challenges and crisis in Afghanistan
Sep 14, 2010

Environmental challenges and crisis in Afghanistan

Previous Afghanistan posts:
1) Afghanistan: A comprehensive overview of the war, its background, and its future
2) Malthusian Afghanistan: The relationship between population pressures, poverty and violence

In this post I wish to narrow the focus in Afghanistan to the issue of the environment and how it has shaped its history, influences its current problems and has reached a crisis point that is being only further exacerbated today. I consider the challenges Afghanistan's geography places on its people but also the way the management and attention to the environment by its people (and others, like us) have turned these natural disadvantages into a crisis that led and leads today to the problems we see in Afghanistan. While in my Malthusian Afghanistan post I talked about the relationship between population pressures, poverty and violence that led to the circumstances of war described in my first Afghanistan post, here I investigate the basic environmental realities and their (mis)management that has led to the population pressures, poverty and hence violence in the current war.

Firstly, we note the contradiction of a largely agrarian society with a high population (see previous article) and yet a geography seemingly stacked against such a society. From  a geographical standpoint, Afghanistan is largely a high elevation, mountainous and completely landlocked region. There are a couple different consequences of this. It makes trade both within Afghanistan and outside of it difficult as it is highly constrained in certain regions which increases pressures on the economy and poverty. Additionally, it results in a fairly low growing season compared to many other regions around the world (although comparable to places like Mongolia which has a far lower population density). The combination of high altitude but reasonable low latitude makes temperature variations relatively high and in fact the place on the earth with the highest average daily temperature variation is in Afghanistan. Most of the civilization is instead on the various plateaued regions which tend to be fairly dry, with a reasonable amount of deserts. The result of all this is that cultivated land forms a mere 6% of the total, with two thirds of this land requiring active irrigation, despite 80% of the population relying on agriculture.

Secondly, we have the issue of deforestation. Currently a depressing 1.3% of Afghanistan is forested. Much of Afghanistan has been largely deforested for centuries, but the rate at which the remainder is disappearing is alarming as some 90% of it has been deforested since 1989. There are both natural and human factors for this. Naturally, as a result of a short growing season and low watershed, average annual tree growth is considerably smaller than most other countries in the region. However the major human factors dominate, namely deforestation to acquire more agricultural land, for fuel supplies, through war (both for fuel and to eliminate enemy hide outs...done extensively during the war against the soviets) and through a significant sometimes black market timber trade with Pakistan. The first two of these are directly related to population increases.

Many of the other issues are related to difficulties in Afghanistan's natural geography being augmented by deforestation such as aridity, top soil erosion, low air quality and loss of arable habitat. A big factor is with regards to water. Afghanistan actually doesn't have a natural water issue in that should it have sufficient levels of forests and good water management it would be fine. Unfortunately, estimates indicate some 15% of the land would need to be forested (compare to 1.3% above) to have appropriate water levels to maintain the current population. The Kabul river sometimes even runs dry in drought years now.  In addition because investment in irrigation infrastructure (of which underground tunnels are often required given the conditions) has been so low, much of the region is desperately short on water and water management quite poor in general. This is why droughts from say 1997-2002 can be so devastating because their isn't the appropriate infrastructure either natural in forests or manmade. When rains do come, because of the lack of forest cover it results in massive erosion.

The social consequences of these environmental concerns are enormous. Because there is so little ability of Afghanistan to naturally absorb the massive increase in an agrarian population, and because there is no man made assistance to this we result in a very large number of people out of work and out of food. A large number of people flood the horrible conditions of rural life to the barely superior conditions of urban life, many join the Taliban. Acidification, soil erosion and the general loss of habitat reduces the ability for people to both farm and herd in many regions. Poverty becomes endemic, and violence shortly afterwards. One large issue is with regards to the spread of Opium production. There are of course many social pressures (such as the price it fetches and its support by local warlords who use it to fund themselves), but there are also environmental ones. Because it requires low amounts of water relative to other crops and has a shorter growing cycle (so multiple crops of it can be planted in the single short growing season) it is surprisingly well suited to the Afghanistan environment. Thus this large social issue - the consequences of which I have detailed in previous articles - is influenced by the natural environmental issues.

So the question becomes, how should we as international stewards of Afghanistan (rightly or wrongly) use this knowledge to the benefit of Afghans? Firstly, we should simply shift strategy to focus much more on it. Some 25x the number of deaths in Afghanistan are due to starvation and poverty than due to military conflict, yet less than 1% of the US budget in Afghanistan is focused on anything to do with these issues.  There are many specific ways one can deal with these issues, especially with the level of budget and technological development of the internationals in Afghanistan. Things like focusing on water management and irrigation or focusing on increased transportation links that allow for better growing but time sensitive (hence needing quick transport) crops, decreasing the need for wood fuel because of availability and accessibility of other kinds of fuel and the providing of superior seeds. There is a lot that can be done, a lot that should be done but to do any of it we need to identify environmental development as at least a high priority of the international campaign.

Some references:

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