Economy & Development

Slippery Slopes: Ecological, social and developmental aspects of the Badakhshan landslide disaster


At the site of the Nowabad (Ab-e Barik) landslide in Badakhshan province. Photo c/o Pajhwok News Agency

A huge double landslide, of possibly unprecedented proportions, destroyed parts of a village in Badakhshan’s Argo district and killed a still unconfirmed number of people on 2 May. AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at the combination of causes of this disaster including the long-term effects of global warming impacting large parts of South Asia, local demographic shifts as well as poverty- and conflict-related factors.

The news has been all over the media for days now: on Friday 2 May, the entire side of a mountain collapsed onto Ab-e Barik in Badakhshan, wiping out a third of the village. The massive landslide buried homes and whole families, including the guests of a wedding. The first relief has arrived from the Afghan government, the UN and NGOs. Government officials have collected money. The US army has flown aid to Faizabad from where it is being transported to the affected region by the Afghan army with lorries. Other countries, including Tajikistan and China, have promised aid or already sent it. Among the first to respond were the residents of surrounding villages who sent food and water to help survivors, according to Tolonews on 4 May – proving both that local solidarity is intact and the desperation of the situation.

The number of victims is not yet confirmed, with reports ranging from 300 to 2,500. The latter figure was given by Badakhshan’s provincial governor Shah Waliullah Adib on 2 May, the day of the catastrophe. According to Adib, the incident occurred while a number of local men were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier, smaller landslide; all were then hit by a second, larger slide. Hundreds of families have most probably lost their main breadwinners. Adib claimed that after the first slide, people were told to evacuate nearby buildings – but this came too late. He stated that more than 300 homes have been buried under rocks and mud, reportedly up to 70 metres deep in places and extending over an area of about five kilometres in length. With no hope of finding all of the victims, the Afghan government has already declared the site a mass grave. The UN believes 4,000 people have also been displaced.

Simultaneous with efforts to help, anger is being expressed in the Afghan media, both ‘traditional’ and social, that “government officials, including a number of President Hamid Karzai’s advisors” have been “posing for pictures over the mass grave” and that officials, travelling with up to 15 body guards, are jamming the already limited transport capacity of the Afghan air force. “Our M17 helicopters have conducted 12 flights from Mazar-e-Sharif and 19 flights from Kabul,” Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi was quoted in Tolonews, and the report adds that this was “for government officials, journalists and aid materials”. One can only hope that this does not reflect the ranking of priorities.

Specialised websites like The Landslide Blog of the American Geophysical Union have picked up footage of the scene and are discussing whether the catastrophe was predictable. Concluding from already available photos, there is what they call a “large, old landslide scar next to the recent one“, indicating that the Ab-e Barik area has experienced similar events in the past. One of the many open questions now is: Why have local authorities allowed, or at least not prevented people from building homes on this site? We also need to know when the destroyed houses were built, a point highlighted to AAN by Ferdinando Rollando, an Italian who has worked on similar, although less catastrophic disasters in his own country’s Alpine region and now runs the international NGO Alpistan, a kind of mountain institute for Afghanistan as exists in many mountainous countries.

The Landslide Blog points out that the incident in Ab-e Barik was not the only significant landslide in Afghanistan in the last few days. Its author cites footage on social media from Rostaq district in neighbouring Takhar province after a recent earthquake, commenting:

That is a truly terrifying site…  if this is an ongoing slide then the level of danger is obviously very high. The village [on that picture] is in effect already lost, being located on a displaced block. [And] I wonder what is downslope.(1)

Anthony Fitzherbert who has worked in the region for more than 47 years and in various capacities, was responsible for projects in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1995 and thereafter until the present time on assignments for different UN agencies and NGOs, confirmed to AAN by email:

I know valleys – not only in Badakhshan but in the Central Mountains [of the Hazarajat] as well – where there are lakes formed by great chunks of mountain falling into the valleys below as the result of earthquakes and floods, in the Saighan Valley in Bamyan for instance. Sometimes within living memory, sometimes a generation or two ago. Sometimes this has caused serious loss of life, previously often unrecorded because of the remoteness of the locations. The same thing happens across the frontier in Tajikistan.

Indeed, there are a few reports about similar looming disasters. Pajhwok Afghan News, for example, reported a 270 metres long and 70 metres wide “crack in a mountain” only two kilometers above Shiwa Lake in Badakhshan’s Shughnan district in 2010, created by a spring in the mountain. It quoted the director of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), Sanaullah Amiri, as raising the fear that the water gathering in the crack might overflow, triggering a flood from Shiwa Lake so that “thousands of families in Afghanistan and Tajikistan will be washed away”. The point where this could happen was expected to be reached in 2014.

And there have been heavy disasters caused by earlier landslides. In 2012, a landslide in Baghlan province, southwest of Badakhshan, killed 71 people. On 7 May 2014, reports came in about a landslide in the Surkhjui area of Bamian’s Fuladi valley, displacing more than 100 families.

Geographical and geological context

The area hit by the most recent landslide is called Nowabad, a part of Ab-e Barik village in Argo district, a remote place in one of the most inaccessible provinces of Afghanistan, Badakhshan, on the southern slopes of the Pamir mountains. It is a four-hour drive from the provincial capital Faizabad. Apart from Khash, which is much smaller though, Argo is the only almost fully Uzbek-inhabited district of Badakhshan. Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimated the district’s population at 76,200 for 2012/13. (A UN provincial profile of 2007 had 105,000, with 90 per cent Uzbeks and 10 per cent Tajiks.) In its isolation, Argo has relatively favourable conditions for traditional livelihoods like agriculture and livestock. Since the 1990s, however, it has become one of the chief opiate production areas in the province. It has some insurgent activity, mainly linked to Hezb-e Islami and probably at least partly related to the drug economy. (But there were also district-level officials linked to Hezb who were aligned with the government.)

Only unpaved roads lead into the area, so relief is difficult to deliver. On top of that, “several parts of the main road were destroyed by recent flooding”, as the local correspondent of Xinhua reported. This links the devastating landslide to the other recent major natural disaster in Afghanistan, the flash floods that washed across nine northern provinces in late April. Hitting predominantly the provinces of Sarepul, Jawzjan, Faryab and Badghis, the floods washed away roads and crops, killed over 160 people, destroyed 1,000 homes, displaced 16,000 and affected a further 50,000 people, 25,000 of them children, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Save the Children (see here and here). These floods were caused by the same sudden, heavy rains that soaked the soil on the hill slopes above Ab-e Barik.

According to specialists analysing the geology of the site (see for example here), the soil in the whole region to which Ab-e Barik belongs is soft loess, a deposit of dust blown in by northern winds from the Central Asia plains and then settled as sediments. When it rains, this dry, compacted soil turns to mud since it is unable to quickly absorb precipitation. This proclivity has not been helped by the destruction of the ground cover by ploughing for lalmi (rain-fed) crops, mainly wheat, says Fitzherbert. A further factor that makes the soil volatile is that the area sits on an active earthquake zone, with quakes creating fissures or loosening whole blocks of soil that then start to move.

Causes: Climate and climate change…

The cause of the Argo disaster seems to be a combination of a number of variables including both periodical and worsening weather patterns, the latter the result of global climatic changes, demographic shifts and specific local poverty- and conflict-related factors.

As to the periodical occurrence of rain, flooding and landslides, Fitzherbert confirms that “historically villages have often being overwhelmed by land slides in this part of Badakhshan in years of exceptional spring rainfall like this year or as the result of earthquakes.” But he adds that “this is a particularly bad one.“ So, is this an unfortunate exception, or does it demonstrate a pattern?

Global warming has lead to an increase of heavy rains across the globe – and simultaneously, to more frequent drought in other areas. “Whereas climate change is a global phenomenon, the effects are local”, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) wrote in a joint National Capacity Needs Self-Assessment, a prerequisite for the international funding of environmental programmes, in 2009. “In Afghanistan, impacts are likely to be particularly severe due to the arid and semi-arid nature of the country and the extreme poverty within which a large proportion of the Afghan population currently lives.“ In general, a separate UNEP report states, “Afghanistan has been identified as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change”. More concretely, this means that “the country is experiencing an increase in the number and intensity of droughts, as well as more frequent flooding events.”.

This reflects long-term phenomena that started more than half a century ago. According to another UNEP report, since 1960, Afghanistan has experienced droughts in 1963-64, 1966-67, 1970-72, 1998-2006 and again in 2008-09 (see also this AAN paper). The UNEP report adds that, based on historical observation, regular [climatic] cycles of around 15 years are observed in general in Afghanistan, during which two to three years of drought conditions could be expected. However, “there has been a marked tendency for this drought cycle to occur more frequently than the model predicts”; the last drought (1998-2006) is described as “the longest and most severe drought in Afghanistan’s known climatic history”. According to UNEP data, rainfall has been dropping by about two per cent per decade since the 1960s while the mean annual temperature has risen by about 0.6°C in the same period. By the end of the 21st century, the average temperature is expected to rise anywhere between 2°C and 6.2°C and rainfall to decrease by as much as 1.6 inches (4.1 centimetres).

At the same time, the glaciers in what is called ‘High Asia’ (also known as Hindu-Kush-Himalaya or HKH region) are melting. Badakhshan belongs to the Upper Amu Darya (Panj) river system that is fed by glaciers in the Pamir, the western-most part of those massifs (see a media report here). According to a presentation by a Tajik scientist, which is undated but contains data up to the year 2000, glaciers on the Afghan side of river Panj have suffered disproportionate shrinkage compared with other areas in this region over the past 50 years, that is, of almost 70 per cent. (In the shorter term, over the past decade, however, scientists have found a “slight mass gain” of glaciers in the western Pamir which makes the loss through glacier melting “two to three times less negative than the global average for glaciers”; see here.)(2)

As one consequence, there has been an increase in the number of landslides in the so-called HKH region that spans the whole of South Asia, from the slopes of the Pamir in the west to the Himalayas that reach to the eastern end of the subcontinent. In 2012, Mriganka Ghattak, a specialist in geological disasters with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC’s) Disaster Management Centre in Delhi, confirmed this particularly for the “northern parts of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and some areas of Bangladesh… where the geological conditions are quite dynamic”. In 2009, nearly 60 per cent of all landslides worldwide happened in South Asia with 280 people killed.

For Afghanistan, these figures seem to have risen dramatically in 2014. Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, stated after the Argo disaster: “There have now been more Afghans killed through natural disasters in the past seven days than all of 2013.”

As Fitzherbert comments, there are sometimes also positive end effects od such disasters when it comes to economic opportunities:

Three years ago I was working in a set of villages on the Rustaq plateau that had been completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1998. … These were Uzbek as well as Farsiwan villages whose ancestors interestingly had settled up on the dry rather waterless Rustaq plateau in the 1890s to – as they explained to me when I asked them what had possessed their ancestors to settle on such a waterless upland – “fled the foot of the Pashtun” (az pa-ye Afghan ferar kardand). It was at the time of King Abdul Rahman’s campaigns against the northern Uzbeks and others and his aggressive settlement of Pashtun tribesman on land in the north often displacing the native Persian-speaking or Uzbek populations. … The social dislocation resulting from the 1998 earthquake and the consequent disbursement of the population had lead to all sorts of interesting side effects, such as these villages establishing satellite settlements down in the Amu Darya flood plane which had increased their economic opportunities.

… demographics and poverty

“Generally, droughts, floods due to untimely and heavy rainfall and rising temperatures present the greatest hazards to … livelihood activities and means of livelihood in Afghanistan”, states the UNEP-NEPA assessment already quoted above. Apart from the big, often absentee landowners, the overwhelming part of the rural population depends on subsistence agriculture. In 2005, the World Bank estimated that 20 per cent of rural Afghans are extremely poor, another 60 per cent vulnerable to extreme poverty, and the balance, 20 per cent, less poor, but still vulnerable to poverty, as quoted in the same assessment.

This situation is exacerbated with Afghanistan’s population growth, which is one of the highest in Asia, within an estimated 1.9 per cent per annum. These figures are estimates since it is unknown how many people live in Afghanistan; figures range from 25.5 million (CSO for 2012/13) to 31.8 (CIA World Factbook estimation for July [sic] 2014), and even these are based on a census from 1979 that, firstly, consisted only of samples, and secondly, was never finalised due to the political upheaval that resulted in the Soviet military invasion later that year.

The only thing that is known for a fact is that the population has greatly increased over the past decades, hence the death toll in disasters like that in Argo is greater than it once would have been. With the expansion in population, the pressure on the available land, both for agriculture and housing, increases as well. Irrigated arable land in Afghanistan is very limited. Of its territory of 652,225 square kilometres, only around 12.1 per cent (7.9 million hectares) can be used for farming, of which less than half is irrigated land. This forces rural people up the hill sides to build their additional housing, so as not to use the scarce and more productive irrigated agricultural land, usually situated in the valley bottoms, in so-called ‘river oases’. Increased population has also compelled those without access to irrigated land to cultivate rangelands, previously used for grazing livestock, for much more uncertain rain-fed crops of wheat. A similar phenomenon can be observed in Afghan cities where those who cannot afford to buy land also inhabit hill slopes.

The growth in population also increases soil erosion. Due to the lack of more ‘modern’ or sustainable alternatives, people in Badakhshan rely on collecting firewood, thereby eradicating wild brushes and the few trees for fuel consumption and further destabilising the hill slopes. Again, in the words of Fitzherbert:

There is not enough irrigated valley land to feed the populations and they have been compelled to move more and more up onto the slopes and plateaux above their villages to cultivate what had originally been pasture land for unreliable rain-fed crops of wheat etc. This has effectively stripped off the natural ground cover and deeper rooted vegetation encouraging erosion and the permeability of these deep profiled loess soils. … It has not only been the destruction of trees and bushes, just the stripping off of the natural cover of grasses and forbs has not helped.

According to a German media report, the need for firewood in Badakhshan has increased in the past years due to the growing prices of oil and cooking gas. This points to a vicious circle of poverty, environmental destruction and disasters that can only partly be termed ‘natural’.

Development and conflict

In Badakhshan, the poverty rate is 61 per cent – with about 900,000 people living on about USD 0.60 a day, according to the World Bank – and two-thirds of the population are malnourished, writes Eltaf Najafizada, the local correspondent of the Bloomberg news agency. Najafizada speaks of a “development gap”.

This gap, again, has various dimensions. One is the rural-urban divide; areas closer to population centres have been more secure than many remote rural areas and more easily accessed by development actors for their projects and monitoring activities. There was also an imbalance in aid distribution between provinces, with the fact that much of the aid was distributed through military structures like the now-defunct PRTs contributing to this imbalance, as this approach often privileged active insurgency areas (to which Badakhshan did not belong) as we have described earlier (for example here; other sources on this here and here). The local PRT was run by Germany, with less money at its disposal than US-led PRTs (although Germany is the third-largest donor for Afghanistan) and with most of its development activity focused on its other, earlier-established PRT in Kunduz.

Finally, after decades of armed conflict, Afghanistan’s weak state is another cause for ‘natural’ disasters. For example, if there is any regulation of building activities in remote areas, there certainly does not seem to be any effective oversight, as exemplified by Nowabad where new buildings were erected on a site vulnerable to landslides.

Regulating or overseeing construction even turns out to be difficult in the capital Kabul. Two days after the Argo landslide, flash floods caused by heavy rainfall washed away houses in two areas, Siabangi and Safa town, in western Kabul. Some of these houses had been erected in the bed of a tributary of the Kabul river which people apparently assumed to be dry. Local inhabitants say that property dealers sold these plots to people who had migrated to Kabul and were consequently unaware of this situation.

The effects of the flooding, which included major Kabul thoroughfares being under water for days due to the inadequate canalisation of even recently constructed roads, caused days of demonstrations against Kabul’s mayor, Muhammad Yunus Nowandesh. He hit back and accused the “land mafia” of instigating the protests. A day later, a flash flood in nine districts of Baghlan province killed eight people, injured six and affected more than 1,200 homes (http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/14767-flash-flood-kills-8-in-baghlan).

Low institutional capacity

Last but not least, Afghanistan’s environment protection-related institutions are extremely weak and there is a lack of relevant policies.(3) NEPA was only established in 2005 and Afghanistan’s first Environmental Law drafted and put into effect the same year. Headed by a member of the former royal family, Prince Mustafa Zaher, the agency presented its first report on the country’s environmental situation in December 2013. It has since made initial steps forward in areas that tend to be more manageable, such as the declaration of National Parks, the legal protection of endangered species, anti-pollution and re-forestation projects. But it has not yet surveyed Badakhshan and officials are now on the way to catch up with the situation there. The Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) is also underfunded, lacks skilled personnel and has so far concentrated its efforts on emergency responses.

UNEP has identified policy priorities that include “developing a national climate change adaptation strategy” and “initiating a national platform on climate change finance, to enable Afghanistan to access global environmental resources and deliver the funds to real projects on the ground in a transparent and practical manner”. So far, such tasks have been overshadowed by war efforts that have been funded much more generously by foreign governments. NEPA’s portion of the Afghan government budget was as low as 0.6 per cent last year (1393, March 2013 – March 2014). With USD 4.9 million (1.6 m of which constitutes the development budget while the remaining 3.3 m are running costs), it saw a slight increase compared with 3.6/1.1 million in 1391.

Along with the presentation of its 2013 report, NEPA officials called on the international community to provide support for Afghanistan to focus more on mitigating climate change. On the other hand, the Afghan Killid media group discovered that NEPA has been “one of the worst performing government departments” when it comes to putting its development budget (of USD 1.4 million last year) in use: the first six months of 2013 was left unspent.(4)

If this performance can be improved and policies and the suggested “real projects” are worked out, Afghanistan should be able to access, for example, the UN Green Climate Fund that, nonetheless, is still “embryonic”. This fund, which is to have USD 100 billion available by 2020, is supposed to be launched later this year although recent preparatory meetings have not made sufficient progress.

Alpistan’s Rollando says that the response to disasters and their consequences of displacement, flight to towns and cities, and secondary effects like “criminality and disease” will cost ten times more than the money spent for precautions in the areas where people currently live. He suggests dedicating “a quarter of the money designed for the ‘New Kabul’ reconstruction scheme to those vulnerable zones” in the north of the country.

 

(1) See Afghanistan disaster list for 2013:

September 2013

September 11: Afghanistan flood landslide

Flood and landslide in Afghanistan claimed the lives of four people and left 20 others missing.

August 2013

August 5: Afghanistan Flood

Heavy rains and flooding claimed the lives of 69 people over the weekend, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said today.

July 2013

July 17: Floods in Laghman

Flooding in Laghman province injured at least two people, the Natural Disaster Management Committee said today.

May 2013

May 13: Floods in Khost, Afghanistan

Recent floods in the southeast Khost province have claimed the lives of two people.

April 2013

April 27: Seasonal flooding in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province claims 1

Seasonal flooding in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province has killed a child and damaged around 50 houses.

April 25: Kandahar hailstorm claims lives

Huge hailstorm with rock-sized hailstones have claimed the lives of three Afghans.

April 24: Earthquake near Kabul, Afghanistan

Earthquake near Kabul, Afghanistan has claimed 23 lives.

April 24: Flooding in Balkh, Afghanistan

Flooding in Balkh, Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 13 people including two children.

April 13: Flash floods in Faryab region of Afghanistan

Flash floods in Faryab region of Afghanistan have claimed the lives of seven people.

April 10: Flooding in Helmand, Afghanistan

Flooding in Helmand region of Afghanistan has damaged several houses and caused huge financial losses.

(2) According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, glaciers of higher elevation (4-7,000 meters) “have not responded to recent climate warming in the same way as glaciers that extend to lower elevations, simply because glaciers at higher elevations remain below freezing during much of the year”. The Afghan-Badakhshani parts of the Pamir are lower the further south they are situated. However, the Panel’s latest report does make any indication of trends in the western Pamir.

(3) The Afghan government’s environmental strategy for 2008-13 here.

(4) According to the same Killid report, NEPA officials said the Ministry of Finance (MoF) did not release the money. In defence, the MoF says the NEPA projects were unacceptable.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development