Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Before the Paris Conference: The state of Afghanistan’s climate and its adaption capability

Thomas Ruttig Ryskeldi Satke 15 min

Climate change is already having a severe impact on Afghans’ daily lives – but this challenge is often over-shadowed by what seem to be more-urgent problems: war and the economic crisis. Therefore, the reports submitted by the Afghan government for the Paris climate conference starting today, 30 November 2015 (and President Ashraf Ghani speaking in the early afternoon) provide a concentrated picture of the challenges arising from this phenomenon. At the same time, there are doubts that Afghanistan’s institutional strength and capacities are sufficient to cope with the evolving impact of climate change. Furthermore, the mid-term growth-based development aims of the government, at least in part, run contrary to the needs for long-term environment protection and climate change adaptation. A primer by AAN’s co-director and senior analyst Thomas Ruttig and guest author Ryskeldi Satke. (*)

Wood market in Waza Dzadran, Paktia province. Deforestation is one of the environmental problems Afghanistan is facing. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2004).

“Afghanistan is ranked among the most vulnerable countries in the world to the adverse impacts of climate change. . . . As a result of climate change, it is anticipated that the incidence of extreme weather events, including heat waves, floods, and droughts will likely increase. . . . Between 1990 and 2000, Afghanistan lost an average of 29,400 hectares of forest per year, at an average annual deforestation rate of 2.25 per cent, which further increased to 2.92% per annum between 2000 to 2005. . . . With these climatic changes the foundation of the country’s economy, stability, and food security is under threat.”

These striking statements are taken from major documents the Afghan government has submitted for the United Nations conference on climate change that will open in Paris today, 30 November 2015 – the twenty-first annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With its 195 signatories, the UNFCCC is the only existing widely legitimate international convention on how to tackle global warming. (1) Every participating country must submit two documents – a so-called Initial National Communication to the UNFCCC, a kind of status report about the national climate situation (Afghanistan’s is here), and the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (Afghanistan’s position paper is here) – in the run-up to the conference.

The gravity of Afghanistan’s situation is made strikingly clear by a short glance at the maps (p 41) in the 2014 synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – ­the most important report on the subject. These maps show that Afghanistan is part of a region that stands out for having the second-highest rate of rising temperatures and is expected to have a net loss of annual precipitation. According to these models, and cited in Afghanistan’s Initial National Communication for Paris, the country’s “mean annual temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 4.0°C by the 2060s, and 2.0 to 6.2 degrees by the 2090s.” As a result, the Afghan reports for Paris warn, by 2060 “large parts of the [country’s] agricultural economy will become marginal without significant investment in water management and irrigation.”

While the Paris conference’s focus on greenhouse gas emissions is rather narrow, the documents submitted by the Afghan government provide valuable insights into the gigantic challenge that the country is facing, but which are usually crowded out by the attention to the war with the Taleban, the political deadlock in the National Unity Government (NUG), the economic crisis and its fallout, and the mass exodus of young Afghans. This challenge is the changing climate that already has started to affect the lives of many Afghans and will continue to do so increasingly drastically in the decades to come, if no measures are taken.

Briefly put, even if Afghanistan had peace and a highly effective government tomorrow, it would still face a daunting task: to adapt to the effects of the worldwide climate change.

Afghan climate change: Lacking data, striking indications

The empirical data on how exactly the climate is changing in Afghanistan is rather scarce, though. The systematic gathering of data and on-the-ground research in the country that boasted of having “the most advanced meteorological monitoring in the region” before 1979 had been disrupted by decades-long wars. Nonetheless, the effects of climate change are clearly visible, both in Afghanistan and in the region.

The strong earthquake in May 2014 that caused a massive landslide burying a newly-built part of the village of Ab-e Barik in Badakhshan’s Argo district and many of its inhabitants clearly showed how a combination of climate change, conflict and weak governance exacerbate the vulnerability of local populations to natural disasters. The landslide was not the first one in the area but official warnings came too late (pointing to weak government oversight and lack of disaster risk reduction); the destroyed part of the village was built on visibly vulnerable hill slopes (a result of the lack of land for construction and of local government neglect); the slopes were additionally prone to landslides because of the destruction of the top soil by ploughing lalmi (rain-fed) land for cultivation (as a result of overall lack of agricultural land, an effect of unchecked population growth and settlement). Lastly, the main road over which relief should have come had been destroyed by previous flooding (lack of government capability to respond and conflict-related underdevelopment of the infrastructure).

The flooding that destroyed the road to Argo was what people called a “100-year-flood.” In its course, over April and May 2014, flash floods that hit 123 districts in 27 of the 34 provinces, washed away roads and crops, killed over 160 people, destroyed 6,800 homes, displaced 16,000 and affected altogether 125,000 people, according to UNOCHA. The rainfalls that caused the devastating floods were two to three times higher than normal annual averages for the area.

Despite the lack of a final assessment of the damage of the two earthquakes of October and November 2015 in Badakhshan (the first one alone affected more than one quarter of all districts in country, killed more than 300 people in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan and destroyed about 7,000 homes), it can be assumed that climate- and conflict-related degradation of the environment exacerbated the damage.

“So far we do know that the climate change impact is observable in the tributaries of the Amu Darya river in the Wakhan corridor,” Professor Benjamin Orlove from the University of California, also a member of the working group advising the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute, based in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, told one of the authors in an interview. He is referring an observable decreased water flow in the Amu Darya and its tributaries, which form much of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A 2011 study found that 76 per cent of the sampled alpine glaciers in the Hindu Raj, a mountain range in Northern Pakistan, and the Wakhan of Afghanistan “have retreated since 1976”; the speed of this retreat was characterised as “rapid.” The melting of Afghan and Pakistani glaciers combined with the heavy rains during the 2014 spring and summer seasons translated into that year’s heavy flooding in Afghanistan.

Orlove also interpreted heat waves in southern Pakistan and India during spring and summer 2015, which together claimed close to 5,000 lives, as a sign of changing climate in the region.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), “more than 6.7 million Afghans have been affected by disasters and extreme weather events such as drought, earthquakes, disease epidemics, sandstorms, and harsh winters” since 1998. The latest poverty status update for Afghanistan, compiled by the government and the World Bank and published in October 2015 (based on the latest available data from the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessments of 2007/08 and 2011/12), reports that

In 2007-08, 36 percent of the population in Afghanistan was poor, that is more than one in every three Afghan person was living on levels of expenditure insufficient to satisfy basic food and non-food needs. Four years later, in 2011-12, the poverty rate in Afghanistan remained substantially unchanged despite massive increase in international spending on military and civilian assistance, and overall strong economic growth and labor market performance. . . .

Another government report stated that a “high proportion of Afghanistan’s 27 million people face chronic and transitory food insecurity.”

A new start for research after 2001

Climate-related research and environment-related institution building in Afghanistan have started to catch up again over the past one and a half decades, both to its former capacity and international standards. Afghanistan joined the UNFCCC in 1992, ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2013 and became a party to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1995 and the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) in 2002. These commitments to address environmental and climate-related issues have also given Afghanistan access to UN funding and technical support.

In 2003, UNEP in cooperation with the then Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment of the Afghanistan Transitional Authority and a broad array of international and Afghan governmental and non-governmental organisations, produced the first “post-conflict environmental assessment” for Afghanistan. With support of the UN and bilateral donors, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) was established in 2005. In the same year, Afghanistan’s first environmental law came into force; its current version is from early 2007. In 2008, under a NEPA lead, the assessment of Afghanistan’s environment was updated in a new report.

Britain’s DFID (Department for International Development) and the government of Estonia funded the Afghanistan Environmental Data Centre (AEDC) operating in beta mode, with support from Kabul University’s Department of Geography and NEPA. Afghanistan’s Environment Strategy is covered under Afghanistan National Development Strategy for the period of 2009 to 2014.

NEFA also is involved in awareness raising and education on environmental issues. On its website, it has an almost 100 page-long document on “Environmental Education in light [sic] of Holy Quran” (in Dari: here). Among its successes is its declaration of a number of protection areas and national parks (see AAN reporting here) and its reported compilation of the first list of protected species in Afghanistan which, however, cannot be found on its own website.

In 2012, NEPA and UNEP launched a climate change initiative – the first of its kind in the country – in four particularly vulnerable provinces, Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamyan and Daikundi. This six million US dollar program was mainly financed by the Global Environment Facility “improved water management and use efficiency; community-based watershed management; improved terracing, agroforestry and agro-silvo pastoral system [ASPS]; climate-related research and early warning systems; improved food security; and rangeland management.” (2)

The hydro-meteorological database is also growing again. Today, the Ministry of Transportation that had set up Afghanistan’s pre-war weather stations – the first ones were installed in selected locations around the country in 1953 (3) – again oversees data collection and monitoring through its Department of Meteorology (maps p 92 here). According to UNEP, in 2014 under Afghan Meteorological Authority (AMA) at least 140 weather stations were operating countrywide. Additionally, a number of Afghan ministries and projects gather climate-related observations.

Furthermore, several international foundations and international and national NGOs, individually or within consortiums, are addressing the issue of climate change, or ecology and environmental protection more broadly, as part of their work plans. Five international and national development agencies – Afghanaid, ActionAid, Concern Worldwide, Save the Children and UNEP – have come together as the Afghanistan Resilience Consortium “to provide a coherent and coordinated response to Afghanistan’s urgent needs and vulnerabilities to natural disasters and climate.” This consortium collaborates with the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, NEPA, the ministries of rural rehabilitation and development and of education as well as provincial, district and community development councils in Badakhshan, Bamyan, Balkh, Ghor, Jawzjan, Samangan, Sar-e Pul and Takhar provinces. The German Heinrich Boell Foundation and Madera, a French NGO operating in Afghanistan since 1988, are working with communities and other stakeholders on natural resource management and in other fields. The Boell foundation  states on its website: “there are already conflicts about the distribution of resources, about fertile lands, grazing grounds and water today. These are likely to increase the more affected Afghanistan will become by the effects of climate change.” Furthermore, the above-mentioned Mountain Societies Research Institute provides research fellowships for Afghans to conduct on-the-ground research on sustainable development in mountain areas.

Large donors like DFID and World Bank are also increasingly incorporating environmental protection as a criterion for their projects and dedicate funding to environmental protection and conservation activities. As Afghanistan has limited funds, it is important that donors mainstream environmental protection as part of their projects.

These examples show that efforts are being undertaken in Afghanistan to start the debate and action on climate change in the country. But environmental awareness is still lacking, both among the population and the authorities. The destruction of the country’s remaining forests continues unabated, because of multiple factors, from the lack of alternative fuels to profit interests of the wood smuggling and land mafias (read examples from the Afghan media from Helmand here and from Badghis here). The government states in its Paris documents:

Between 1990 and 2000, Afghanistan lost an average of 29,400 hectares of forest per year, to an average annual deforestation rate of 2.25%, which further increased to 2.92% per annum between 2000 and 2005. Forest now occupies less than 2% of county’s total area.

The last (big) one standing: cedar tree near Seta Kandao (pass), Paktia. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2006).

Forestry Cover Change Over 30 Years in Afghanistan (Source: Afghanistan Initial National Communication to UNFCCC, p.16)

Forestry Cover Change Over 30 Years in Afghanistan (Source: Afghanistan Initial National Communication to UNFCCC, p.16)

In another example, Hasht-e Sobh, a Kabul-based independent daily, reported about a recent seminar that brought together non-governmental activists and government officials on the subject of protected species. Both sides complained that Afghans would “mercilessly” hunt all birds, including protected ones, during their migration period, and that police reacted with incomprehension when asked to intervene.

The number 1 problem: drought – from frequent to permanent

In its “initial national communication” to the UNFCCC, the Afghan government identified seven sectors that are particularly vulnerable: “water resources is the most vulnerable sector followed by forestry and rangeland, agriculture, health, biodiversity, energy and waste.” In the same document, it cites an EU report according to which, in general, “regular cycles of around 15 years are observed, during which one would expect 2-3 years of drought conditions. In recent years, however, there has been a marked tendency for this drought cycle to occur more frequently than the model predicts, and since 1960, the country has experienced drought in 1963-64, 1966-67, 1970-72 and 1998-2006.” The period from 1998 to 2005/6, the Afghan report further states, “marked the longest and most severe drought in Afghanistan’s known climatic history” but the country “currently [is] in the grips of the most severe drought in living memory” again.

Such a pattern had already been predicted in 2009, by the Stockholm Environmental Institute. In a report also quoted in Afghanistan’s statement to the UNFCCC 2012 meeting  it stated:

The climate models suggest that Afghanistan will be confronted by a range of new and increased climatic hazards. The most likely adverse impacts of climate change in Afghanistan are drought related, including associated dynamics of desertification and land degradation. Drought is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than as a temporary or cyclical event.

According to a 2007 environment assessment by the Asian Development Bank, effects of desertification and drought were particularly observable in the country’s arid north, west and south. This includes the Harirud valley in the western Herat province, the most fertile one in Central Asia, as Daud Saba, Afghanistan’s mining minister and a former governor of that province, told AAN. Similarly, Orlove has already found that climate change will be a cause for internal mass migration in the Central Asian Ferghana valley and may aggravate social tensions within the densely populated area.

Already by late 2000, the penultimate year of the Taleban, Herat had become home to 68,000 IDPs, distributed over six camps, as one of the authors observed then. Most were nomads fleeing a combination of fighting and drought in Badghis (one of the most backward and vulnerable provinces in the country), which had cost them 75 per cent of their harvest and half of their flocks.

In those years, the term Afghan “hunger belt” was coined. It comprised parts of western and large parts of northern Afghanistan, where more than three million people (more than half the population in that region) were dependent on food aid and stretched through the central Hazarajat to parts of southern Afghanistan. During a visit by one of the authors to Kandahar during that period, sheep killed by heat stroke were found along the main road linking the airport with the city. Most of the population of Reg and Shorabak districts, in the very south of the province, was displaced into camps, including to Zhari and Maywand districts of Kandahar, as their herds of camels and other animals had perished due to lack of water. Some were reportedly airlifted out by the Taleban with helicopters after all the animals had died and they were stranded in the middle of the desert (see a contemporary assessment here). The majority of these drought-induced IDPs were never able to return to Reg or Shorabak, because drought conditions there did not improve for more than seven years. Although some IDPs continued to request assistance to facilitate a return, a UNHCR assessment deemed this as unsustainable.

In Badghis, the situation has also not changed fundamentally over the past decade. In 2014, still, a newspaper article put the province in an Afghan “hunger belt” where “grain has become the only currency that matters” in “its fourth year of a drought, which has destroyed the rural economy” and where “people have been reduced to selling their daughters for grain.” And Maslakh, the biggest IDP camp in Herat in 2000 (named after the old slaughterhouse in which it was situated), is also still there, AAN heard from UNHCR Kabul. (The latest figures from 2014 gave 3,648 families, with altogether 17,933 people living there.) The IDPs in Maslakh and those from Reg and Shorabak  likely can be categorised as climate change refugees.

In 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that an estimated three million people have been affected by severe drought in that year throughout 14 provinces of Afghanistan. In 2015, the warmest year ever recorded worldwide, the droughts in Afghanistan remained on the same level as in the previous years, according to UNEP.

How strong are adaptive capacities?

UN conventions on climate change also enable Afghanistan to “identify and communicate urgent and immediate adaptation needs of Afghanistan to the effects of climate change.” Already in 2009, the Afghan authorities calculated that the country’s National Adaptation Plan to climate change would require 10.785 billion US dollars over the next ten years. For the Paris conference, the requirements were increased to 17.405 billion US dollars.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s capacity to adapt to challenges associated with climate change is clearly limited. According to its government’s own assessment, it not only lacks the necessary data basis but also human and institutional capacity and expertise as well as basic environmental awareness, both within its government institutions and among the general population. Under these circumstances, the danger is that funding, such as that being channelled through the UNFCCC, could not be used efficiently or might be diverted into corrupt channels. On the content side, the latest available assessment of the country’s adaptive capacity, published in 2009, concluded that aid for climate-change-related programmes remains marginal due to concentration of “efforts on emergency response together with high-priority development issues that include education, health and basic infrastructure, amongst others” (p 57). Currently, as it does every two years, UNEP is updating its country assessment, due to be released next year.

A strategy dilemma: Development versus environment

NEPA also says in its communication to Paris: “At present, [the Afghan government] does not have a National Strategy on Climate Change including the mitigation strategy.” This was repeated recently by Environment Watch Afghanistan, one of the few local NGOs that focuses on Afghan ecology, in an under-reported press conference – and then promptly denied by a government representative. Indeed, as Afghanistan’s Paris documents state, “the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) with its Vision 2020 aims for environmentally sustainable development” but “does not emphasize ‘climate change.’ . . . [The Afghan government] does not have a national climate change policy or strategy.”

Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s position paper for Paris with its action plan already comes with a price tag of over 17 billion US dollars for the decade between 2020 and 2030 (the period covered by the UNFCCC). It will be presented by President Ashraf Ghani, when he joins almost 150 other world leaders at the Paris conference today (30 November 2015). Since Afghanistan’s contribution to global warming is low, being one of the lowest emitters globally, the expectation is that it may receive pledges against its national position paper, including funds for equipment and required technical resources, the UNEP country director for Afghanistan, Andrew Scanlon, told AAN.

As the energy chapter of the funding-oriented action plan shows, Afghanistan has joined those developing countries and emerging economies (including the so-called BRIC countries Brazil, Russia, India and China) that have pitted their development goals against the struggle to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that industrialised countries’ hydrocarbon-based development over past centuries has given them an advantage and that other countries must be allowed to catch up using the same means. As a result, the Afghan government stated that while, so far, “Afghanistan has very low relative per capita GHG emissions . . . there would be lower costs and a clearer development path for Afghanistan if it pursued development using mainly fossil fuels, as other countries have.” The projections – again in Afghanistan’s Intended National Contribution (p 2) – do not bode well for the country’s environment:

The current growth of transport sector both road and air, will increase demand on diesel and gasoline from 1.2 million tons in 2010 to 12 million tons in 2030, and aviation fuel from 1.0 million tons in 2010 to 22 million tons in 2030. Parallel with the economic development and changing lifestyle of people, waste volume generated in cities is projected to reach 3.1 million tons annually by 2030, compared to 1.4 million tons in 2010. 

But there are ways to at least alleviate the impact of these possible developments on the climate – and both the immense follow-up costs for the Afghan health system and the country’s environment – that could be implemented today. These include a simple change of law, namely an update to the quality standard for car fuel, which is still based on a Soviet standard from the 1970s; a curb on the import of at least the most out-dated second-hand cars; better traffic regulation in Afghanistan’s main cities; or – more long-term – the construction of a stable energy base built on solar and water power and a phase out of diesel generators. Already in 2010, a review of environmental studies had put Kabul among the ten most-polluted cities in the world.

(*) Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer and researcher with news organisations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey, EU and the US. Currently, he is based in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Contact e-mail: rsatke at

(1) The UNFCCC goes back to the so-called ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This convention set out a framework for action aimed at stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The UNFCCC, which entered into force on 21 March 1994, now has a near-universal membership of 195 parties. Annual Conferences of Parties (COP) review the convention’s implementation. At COP3, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, which ran out and was not followed-up at COP15 in Copenhagen. At COP17 in Durban, the Green Climate Fund was created, the basis for the Paris conference, where participants, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

Naomi Klein, meanwhile, one of the most relevant activists worldwide, captured the Paris conference dilemma in one tweet: “response can be ‘historic’, a ‘major step forward’ *and* catastrophically inadequate all at the same time.”

(2) ASPS is a collective name for land-use systems, implying the combination or deliberate association of tree or shrub vegetation with cattle farming in the same site. (See: Ricardo Russo, “Agrosilvopastoral Systems: A Practical Approach toward Sustainable Agriculture”, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 07/1996.

(3) In a contemporary article of 1969, German researcher Hermann Flohn, says, “until 1940, there were only foreign-installed weather stations,” including by the USSR. He also mentions a hydrological yearbook for the Kabul River valley for 1960 to 1964. He lists 14 stations in Afghanistan (p. 210), criticises however that “the precipitation stations . . . all lie in the valleys and basins, [and therefore] cannot be in any way taken as representative of the higher areas.” (Hermann Flohn, “Zum Klima und Wasserhaushalt des Hindukush und der benachbarten Hochgebirge”, Erdkunde  23 (1969), 205-15).


climate change Deforestation environmental protection NEPA Paris climate conference UNFCCC