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In Afghanistan, climate threat looms large amid political turmoil

An Afghan farmer pours wheat grains on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on 1 July 2021. Farmers across the country have been losing most of their crops due to the prolonged drought, with millions facing hunger as international aid continues to be suspended. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/M Sadiq)

As climate talks wrapped up in Glasgow two weeks ago, some countries were conspicuously absent. Afghanistan, one of the worst hit countries by climate change, had no government delegation to represent it in the negotiating room. While the country faces political uncertainty following the Taliban’s power grab in August, rising temperatures and a relentless drought pose perhaps a fiercer contender.

Since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan has become engulfed by political turmoil, a sweeping rollback of liberties and a spiralling humanitarian crisis. Climate change is fanning the flames. Despite its minimal contribution  to global carbon emissions, the landlocked country is among those bearing the brunt. Severe droughts and deadly flash floods have become the norm, hindering water access, killing crops and forcing herders to sell their livestock.

“In the past, we had enough water. Agricultural lands were well irrigated and crops were plentiful,” Mashal Khan, a farmer living in Kapisa province Northeast of Kabul, told Geneva Solutions. 

“Even twenty years ago we used to cultivate rice in our village. You know, in the land where rice is grown, there must always be water. More than ten years ago we had a cultivation that was irrigated only by rain. But today we give money to buy water to irrigate our crops. Most of the orchards dried up, and the arable land became barren due to drought,” he added.

In the province of Herat, one of the worst struck by the drought, farmers say they’ve lost 80 to 90 per cent of their crops, Richard Trenchard, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in Afghanistan, told reporters in Geneva on Friday after getting back from visiting the western province. 

Farmers have little food, are being burdened by “massive debt” and have no seeds to plant for the coming year, he warned. Farmer families from other provinces such as Ghor are also coming into Herat and going to other neighbouring countries like Iran, in search of food security.

With some 70 per cent of Afghans living and working in rural areas and 61 per cent of all households’ income deriving from agriculture, the climate crisis is set to send poverty levels soaring. In the next five months, over half of the country’s population – 22.8 million people – is expected to face acute food insecurity, according to the UN Children’s Fund.

International money stream halted

The suspension from international development assistance following the change of regime has led to the implosion of the country’s economy. Around 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s economy relied on development assistance, with many of the programmes linked to fighting climate change. Without it, Afghans are more vulnerable than ever to climate impacts.

The Afghanistan Emergency Agriculture and Food Supply Project, a $100 million World Bank programme led by the ministry of agriculture that provided around 75 per cent of all seeds to farmers at almost free cost, has been paralysed since August. 

At least 6,000 metric tonnes of seeds, which the ministry would have bought in previous years, were sitting in warehouses instead of going in the ground, Trenchard regretted, adding that some of the seed production companies were now facing bankruptcy.

“We are talking every day to donors trying to help them understand the strategic importance that it's not just me saying ‘I want money’. It is because Afghanistan needs those rural livelihoods not to collapse,” he added, arguing for the FAO’s call for $150m in humanitarian aid.

The Taliban, which has been in a stand-off with countries that had backed the previous government, has also been trying to get them to unblock funding. On Wednesday, the Taliban sent an open letter to the US Congress asking it to call off sanctions and unfreeze Afghan assets to avoid an economic collapse. 

Ahead of the Cop26, the regime urged international donors to restart their climate change projects in Afghanistan and offered to help protect aid groups if they came back to work. 

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban representative posted on Twitter: “Afghanistan has a fragile climate. There is a need for tremendous work. Some climate change projects which have already been approved and were funded by Green Climate Fund, United Nations Development Program and Afghan Aid, should fully resume work.”

Among the programmes halted is a $21.4m rural solar energy project, led by the UN Development Programme and partly funded by the Green Climate Fund.  Only 30 per cent of the country’s population has access to the national electricity grid and most people in rural areas use polluting fuels, like firewood and charcoal, for cooking and heating. The project aimed to install solar mini-grids, bringing energy to remote areas in an eco-friendly manner.

“As a developing country, Afghanistan does not play a significant role in the climate change crisis, but it has been affected by its negative impacts. So, this country has a larger stake in devising ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” Muhammad Dawood Shirzad, assistant professor and head of faculty of the environment at Kabul University, told Geneva Solutions by telephone.

However, the country’s urgent climate problems need to be removed from the political situation to be properly addressed, he adds. “Let's not politicise scientific and environmental issues like climate change, because these issues concern the whole planet and all of humanity. A joint work must be done to prevent and control the crisis,” he added.

Afghanistan holds enormous potential for a low-carbon economy, with its rivers, landscapes and weather conditions making it an ideal candidate for hydropower, solar and wind energy. But faulty efforts to boost climate action in Afghanistan precede the Taliban’s seizure of power.

According to Shirzad, the millions of dollars in financial assistance from the international community have failed to produce a  positive change in the lives of people, especially in rural areas.

“Lack of transparency, inaccuracy in selecting the projects’ implementation areas, exorbitant costs of NGOs and international aid groups such as high administrative costs including the highest salaries, luxury vehicles, high professional security systems, etc., which have been spent a large amount of the projects’ budget, have caused an inconsistent result of the implemented projects in comparison with the money spent,” Shirzad explained.

Afghanistan’s climate action under Taliban rule

Afghanistan’s climate policy is now in the hands of the new Taliban government that has made a point of getting international recognition, and arguing that it wants to contribute to global efforts to counter climate change. But they have yet to lay out a plan.

The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) remains closed since its chief, Ahmad Samim Hoshmand, was forced to flee the country. The NEPA, established in April 2005 by the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, was a landmark step towards protecting its environment. 

Before the takeover, the NEPA planned to table its overdued climate plans at Cop26, Hoshmand told Vox in an interview. Like many other countries, Afghanistan missed the December 2020 deadline to update its so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), as required by the Paris agreement.

Hoshmand, who was going to lead the Afghan delegation in Glasgow, said that the agency had also intended to call for further financial support for water management and smart agriculture. 

The Taliban are currently working on a new strategy for the NEPA and will nominate a new head soon, Shirzad noted. It remains to be seen if updating the country’s climate plans to reduce carbon emissions will be part of that strategy.

Beyond the money, another key issue that has been hindering the implementation of developing programmes is security. Researchers, aid groups and staff working on the field have reportedly been targeted by the Taliban. 

“All the NGOs that used to work with our department in terms of research have shut down in this new regime. Our fellowship programmes with other institutes have also stopped,” Shirzad said. However, he noted that security had improved: “The only positive point is that the security is better now for the researchers.”

Asked about the work of the FAO under Taliban rule, Trenchard said that access was no longer an issue. “The de facto authorities have been very, very clear in guaranteeing our safety and our access as well. In June, July, we were able to work in about 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Now we can work in all 34 provinces,” he told reporters.

“We've been working in Taliban controlled areas for many, many years. They, particularly in my sector of agriculture, understand the rules of the game. They understand the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity,” he added, noting that FAO’s and other UN agencies’ female staff had also been allowed to continue to work.