Afghanistan is among the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change, including the prolonged drought that has pushed millions of Afghans into food insecurity, compounded by the current political turmoil.
Women and children are the worst affected by climate-related crises – a scenario mirrored in countries around the world. However, climate change has never been high up the political agenda.
But in recent years, a new generation of more climate-conscious Afghans has taken steps further towards understanding its impact on their country, studying environmental subjects, debating climate issues with their peers and campaigning for change.
Raihana Farkhunda, a 20-year-old climate activist from Kabul, used to campaign door-to-door with a group of fellow volunteers.
“We were handing out masks and brochures to people and providing them with information about the causes and negative effects of air pollution and climate change,” she explained, speaking to Geneva Solutions from Kabul. “We would also ask them to use fewer harmful fuels to prevent excessive smoke.”
Farkhunda was Kabul University's newly established environmental faculty when the Taliban seized power in August. She is the only sister of her three brothers, and her mother is a journalist.
Like many other countries, in Afghanistan also most of the parents want their children to study medicine, engineering or law. But why did Raihana decide to study environmental science?
“It was my choice because I felt that Afghanistan needs scientific personnel to work for the environment,” she explained. “Because everyone lives in this environment but no one cares about it. Everyone breathes the air but does not try to keep it clean. Even the industrialised countries around us do not care about air pollution and the health of the population. ”
“When I was admitted to the Faculty of Environment, all my relatives and friends were surprised,” she continued. “I was asked why I chose this profession, what I wanted to do in the future and what environment meant. But I was confident that in the future I could do useful and vital acts for humanity. ”
On top of her studies, Farkhunda was a member of the Green Way Society, which worked to environmental raise awareness and education within the public, from campaigning to holding seminars. Part of their work was conveying environmental messages through paintings on walls around the city of Kabul.
One of the paintings depicted a man using drinking water to wash and clean his yard – a common practice in Kabul – with the words ‘water is not a broom’. Cities across Afghanistan have faced not only a lack of irrigation water but also a lack of drinking water. The Green Way Society has been forced to close now the Taliban have control.
Although Kabul is not an industrial city, the air is full of pollution and harmful gases. According to researchers, the bowl-like structure of the city, which is surrounded by mountains, means that the air is not easily evacuated.
“As well as poor-quality fuel, excessive use of charcoal and smoke from vehicles, suicide attacks and other explosions are obvious factors that have caused air pollution,” said Farkhunda “With each explosion, a large quantity of chemical particles are released into the air, which has dangerous consequences.”
However, there are ways to clean up the city’s air, including providing more support for poorer citizens so they do not have to resort to unhealthy practices to keep warm in the cold winter months, when temperatures can plummet. Small factories should be asked to use filters to purify smoke and to encourage people to avoid vehicles that cause smoke.
“There are solutions to all these problems,” explained Farkhunda. “Once, a citizen of Kabul told me ‘cold weather will kill my children before the polluted air.’ He was right. People are poor, and they cannot use refined fuel. So the majority of people burn coal or all kinds of plastic in the heater to keep warm, especially in the winter. People should be helped to prevent air pollution.”
But despite all the young woman’s accomplishments and all she has achieved, the events of the past few months have thrown her future into disarray. She has been left frustrated, staring down a vague path.
When asked where she thinks she will be in 10 years time, she said: “I cannot reply to this because I have lost all my hope. If you had asked this question four months ago, you might have received a very different answer, because I had significant objectives for self-progress. But now I have no hope for the future. The door of the university is closed to us. We do not have the rights of education and work.”
Four decades of war have had a devastating impact on the psyche of Afghanistan’s young people. But the current turmoil under the Taliban and the drastic humanitarian situation in the country has pushed many young people to the brink of depression.
“I think the world is over,” said Farkhunda with desperation.
“Two weeks ago, I got really sad news,” she added. “A girl who was a close friend of mine and a student of French literature at Kabul University committed suicide.”