The Climate Change Crisis in Afghanistan: The catastrophe worsens – what hope for action?

The earth has only one atmosphere, and the effects of climate change transcend political boundaries. Afghanistan is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, but among the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change. The harm is already evident in the increased frequency of droughts, which are causing hunger and distress, and unfortunately, it is now clear that 2022 will be yet another year of drought in most parts of the country. AAN guest author Mohammad Assem Mayar*, a water resource management expert, looks at how the climate crisis is already affecting Afghanistan and at the likely projections for the future. He considers what the Republic did – or did not do – to reduce the harmful effects of global warming and finally discusses how climate change could be tackled under Taleban rule, now that Afghanistan is poorer, more isolated and subject to sanctions.

Looking to the skies for rain and snow

Every year, in winter and spring, Afghans look to the sky to see if snow and rain will fall that year. This last winter began well with higher than average snowfall in the end of December and early January.[1] After that, February and March were drier than average; only in the second week of March was there rainfall.

Winter snow is crucial for agriculture in Afghanistan: in the highlands, the snow acts as a reservoir, melting into the summer season and providing water for irrigation – although if the summer or spring is too hot, fast melting can cause disaster downstream, a lack of irrigation water into the summer or even worse, flooding. In the lowlands, snow moistens the soil, but not enough for rainfed crops to flourish. There, it is spring rain which is needed for rainfed agriculture to yield.

The good snowfall in the end of December 2021 and early January 2022 created hope in the hearts of farmers, and in provinces such as Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar and Balkh, they sowed their rain-fed lands, even the steep, high slopes of hills inaccessible to tractors. Since then, hopes have faded; the growth of wheat cultivated in rainfed areas has been weak and may not yield a harvest this year. Those with livestock are also concerned. At the beginning of April, herders in Dasht-e Gabar in the west of Baghlan-e Jadid district of Baghlan province told a colleague:

The grass is stressed because of the sun and the weather being hotter than in the past. Grass, which previously had grown to above a half-metre at this time of the year is now only about 10 cm high and turning black in the sunshine. Herders are very worried about the situation – if it doesn’t rain in the coming days, we’ll have to sell our cattle.[2]

Those with access to water from snowmelt are faring better in the north of Afghanistan. However, in the south, the situation is already dire: irrigation water is looking scarce. According to discussions with local people in Jaghatu district of Wardak province and Kandahar city, multiple wells have dried up and people are now lacking drinking water. On 5 April 2022, the Taleban announced they would release Dahla reservoir’s water for twenty-two days to enable farmers irrigate pomegranate orchards, but then stopped the water early. The Dahla reservoir in Kandahar, like the Kajaki in Helmand, did not fill fully. In a normal year, at this time, these dams would be overflowing. Recently, Azadi Radio reported that a person was killed in a water dispute between two villages in the Chak district of Wardak province. Such cases are expected across the country in the future if climate change-induced droughts are not handled.

The Taleban government has not yet declared a drought, and may yet do so this month, as the Republic did. However, it is now evident that in most of Afghanistan, 1401/2022 is another drought year. Moreover, Afghans are learning that what is ‘normal’ in their climate and weather patterns has changed, and changed for the worst.

The upward trend in temperatures is not easily discernible to the general public, unlike the changes in rain and snow fall, but they are evident in the long-term data records. The consequences of higher temperatures are serious, as global warming affects the water cycle, intensifies extreme events such as floods, droughts, glacier melt and storms, and is leading to a rise in sea levels.[3] The earth only has one atmosphere and global warming harm transcends political boundaries.

The release of large amounts of greenhouse gases[4] into the earth’s atmosphere that began with the industrial revolution is the primary cause of the ongoing climate crisis. Developed countries still play the major role in the production of these gases, while poorer countries, smaller emitters of greenhouse gases per head of population, are among the most vulnerable to climate change owing to their dependency on natural resources and their limited capacity to cope with climate variability and extremes. Afghanistan is in the latter category. It is one of the lowest contributors of greenhouse gases (179th out of 209 countries), but is in the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change (see the graphic illustrating this here).

The very specific driver of the recent droughts is the varying temperature of water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the so-called El Nino (warmer than usual) and La Nina (cooler than usual) effects, which plays a significant role in the world’s weather conditions. Variation from year to year is natural, but global warming is making these variations more frequent and more intense, with consequences for many countries, including Afghanistan.

2018 was a severe drought year in Afghanistan because there was a La Nina in the Pacific. The following year was extremely wet and good for farmers in Afghanistan, although with flooding, owing to El Nino in the Pacific. Subsequently, 2020 was a normal year for precipitation in Afghanistan, while 2021 again saw an extreme drought due to the reoccurrence of the La Nina. La Nina is still affecting the Pacific Ocean, and together with the fact that cumulative precipitation over the past six months of the current ‘water year’, which runs from October to September (map is available here), is up to 45 per cent less than average, meaning that Afghanistan’s drought is continuing. Drought and flood extremes in four out of five years show the change in the water cycle in Afghanistan. The increased frequency of these extreme conditions in the last five years are a result of climate change.

The effect of climate change on Afghanistan up to now: from temperature to river flow 

Comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of climate change and its projections for the future for Afghanistan was carried out by NEPA with the technical support of UNEP and WFP in 2016, and are available here and here. These analyses highlighted that:

  • Temperatures have been increasing across the country over the past thirty years. According to this UNEP report from 2016, Afghanistan’s mean annual temperature, which had risen by 0.6°C from 1960 to 2008, had since increased significantly and dramatically, by a further 1.2°C. This shift has intensified glacier and snow melt and led to an increase in the number of flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods and river flooding.
  • Climate change has doubled the number of droughts compared to the previous decades. Statistically, this affects the long-term average of precipitation and indeed, analyses by WFP, UNEP and NEPA showed a decline in annual precipitation in most of the country’s north and centre.
  • Afghanistan’s glaciers are melting. Over 14 per cent of the total area of glaciers in Afghanistan’s highlands was lost between 1990 and 2015, researchers found. This pace of decline is expected to continue. (For more details about Afghanistan’s melting glaciers, please read AAN’s report here). Glaciers and snow melt provide base flow to the rivers in the summer and their early melting or decline affect river flow in the summer.
  • The shifts in precipitation pattern and temperature have also affected patterns of river flow. For example, the author’s research findings reported that river flow in the Kabul River basin has changed slightly with an increase in the number of high and low flow days. This means that flood days, as well as low flow or dry days during the summer season have both increased, with obvious repercussions for water management and the utilisation of water in agriculture and other sectors along the year. It is assumed there have been similar changes in Afghanistan’s other river basins.

Projections for future climate change in Afghanistan

Projections for the climate are made using Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios, which vary as to the level of greenhouse gases emitted globally up to the end of the 21st century.[5] Four RCP scenarios were used for climate modelling in the period up to the fifth global assessment report in 2014.[6] Since then, new RCPs have been adopted, but as analysis for Afghanistan using the new climate scenarios has yet to be carried out, the older scenarios are cited in this report. All of the scenarios foresee Afghanistan getting hotter and receiving less precipitation, but to a greater or lesser extent. It is worth stressing that the failure of the world to start seriously to tackle greenhouse gas emissions means that models based on the newer RCP scenarios show even more severe harm to the climate, globally.

Projection of mean annual temperature for Afghanistan for a base period (grey: 1975-2005) and a scenario period (2006-2100) showing the effect on temperature of relatively limited greenhouse gas emissions (green, RCP 4.5, emissions peaking in 2040 and then declining) and uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions (red, RCP 8.5). The spread of the models are depicted as transparent areas and the means as lines. Both trends are statistically significant and depicted as a dashed line. The magnitudes of the trends are plotted in their relative colours. Source: UNEP and NEPA

Modelling of what would happen to Afghanistan’s climate was carried out by WFP, UNEP and NEPA in 2015. The projections using what they called a “moderate” scenario, (RCP 4.5) would see greenhouse gas emission peaking in 2040 (see their report here) included:

  • Temperatures in Afghanistan would increase by more than the global average and there would be further melting of glaciers and snow cover, a shift in precipitation from snow to rainfall and a rise in demand for water for crops, with plants possibly requiring extra irrigation.
  • There would be an increase in drought and flood risks. Local droughts would become the norm by 2030, while floods would be a secondary risk.
  • Snowfall would diminish in the central highlands, potentially leading to reduced spring and summer flows in the Helmand, Harirud-Murghab and Northern River basins, while spring rainfall would decrease across most of the country.
  • In the northeast and small pockets of the south and east, along the border with Iran, there might be a five per cent or more increase in ‘heavy precipitation events’ that can lead to flash floods. However, these potentially devastating events might actually decrease across most of the south and other parts of the north.
  • In the medium-term, the frequency of snowmelt-related floods in spring might increase simply due to accelerated melting associated with higher spring temperatures.

Assessing how the effects of climate change would translate into economic impacts is complicated, although some attempts have been made, for example by the World Economic Forum estimated that climate change could wipe off up to 18 per cent of GDP from the world-wide economy by 2050. However, in developing countries, such as Afghanistan, which are more dependent on agriculture and water resources, the losses from climate change will be more severe than the worldwide average and will directly threaten their food security as well as resilience to natural disasters.

What could be done to help Afghans cope with the looming climate crisis

Attempts to limit the impact of climate change can generally be divided into two categories: climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. Mitigation is adapting the economy to reduce greenhouse emissions and is less of a priority for Afghanistan, given it is such a low emitter of greenhouse gases, just 0.19 per cent of the global total. However, adaptation is crucial and urgent. Afghanistan is in the top ten of countries which will be harmed by climate change, which means it is imperative to adapt the economy, agriculture, water management, energy and environment to reduce the harm, and strengthen communities’ resilience as quickly as possible.

Tackling climate change requires multi-dimensional actions, including: institutional development (administrative frameworks, strategy, policy, planning, and procedures), legalisation, capacity development and investment on physical infrastructures. Therefore, best practice is to design and implement a comprehensive programme which includes all the affected sectors.

However, in the meantime, implementing local and small-scale adaptation measures can also help to reduce the effects of climate change. For example, rainwater could be harvested by constructing small ponds and dams, storing the water for later use, and playing a vital role in reducing flood risk. Constructing such harvesting structures would be useful nationwide, but especially so in the catchment of karezs. A karez, also known as a qanat, is an ancient irrigation system, with long horizontal tunnels and vertical wells, that taps into the groundwater table in the hillsides, using gravity, rather than any external power. It is the only water resource in many remote areas in the south of Afghanistan.  Many karezs are reported to be dry, but small investments could replenish this ancient sustainable water resource. In the winter, when there is less work, people could build small ponds and water barriers in the valleys of their villages using stones and local materials, enabling karezs to operate longer and avoiding them from drying up. Such voluntary, communal work, known as hashar, is familiar to most Afghans.

On a bigger scale, the glaciers in the highlands, which are so crucial for providing meltwater for agriculture, but which are thinning and shrinking, could be compensated for by creating new artificial glaciers. These are developed by slowing down the flow of water during the cold season so that it freezes, enabling additional water to be stored and released more gradually. A detailed article by the author about the feasibility of artificial glaciers in Afghanistan is available here in Pashto and a more explanation in English can be read here.

Furthermore, as climate change affects snow accumulation and melting process, mountain snow now plays less role as a natural reservoir of water for the summer season. Thus, the assessment of what and where reservoirs are needed, conducted during Daud Khan’s regime in the 1970s to determine the country’s hydropower and irrigation potential, is out of date. It did not recommend dams in the highlands; a new assessment is required, which would recommend additional reservoir sites for regulating water to meet the new demand. This would help to better implement any drought risk management strategy and would play a considerable role in mitigating the risk of floods.

Avoiding water losses in any irrigation system helps to ensure a greater area can be irrigated. Investment in the rehabilitation of intakes, canals and water conveyance structures is required. New irrigation technology, such as drip or sprinkler irrigation, although expensive to implement, enables farmers to use water effectively and expand their area of cultivation. A policy of subsidisation could help farmers switch from the less effective furrow irrigation method, where small channels are dug to carry water to crops, to the much more effective drip irrigation method. Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Uzbekistan, have already implemented such policies, waiving farmers adopting such new technology, from taxation for several years.

Reforestation is another adaptation measure that reduces the harm of climate change. Local people can avoid deforestation and work toward expanding the forest cover. Applying drip irrigation technology could easily help expand forests on the hillsides, particularly in the major cities, and would also improve air quality and help to reduce ‘heat islands’ which boost temperatures in the summer months. Forestation also improves the stability of the hillsides, helping prevent landslides and also reduces the risk of flooding by slowing water flow.

As to reducing Afghanistan’s own greenhouse gas emissions, there could be a wider adoption of solar, wind and other renewable energies. Afghanistan has a high potential for solar energy across the country and for wind energy in its western provinces. A policy for prioritising and utilising solar energy by government, in the private sector, by international organisations and wealthier Afghans who use generators when mains electricity fails, could considerably reduce carbon emissions. In rural areas, small ‘discretised’ grids could be established using renewables to provide electricity for homes. This technology has been used, but for extracting groundwater, which is unsustainable and should be avoided. To make groundwater extraction using solar energy sustainable, farmers would have to make sure the aquifers were recharged with an equivalent amount of rainwater.

Tackling climate change in Afghanistan during the Republic

Under the Republic, combatting climate change focused on two types of activities: (1) developing institutions, passing legalisation and formulating policies and strategies; and (2) efforts to secure finance to pay for tackling climate change. Each of these activities is discussed separately below.

What will become clear is how, despite 15 years of efforts, the Republic carried out very little climate change adaptation despite resources, including technical support, being relatively plentiful. The opportunity for adaptation, which Afghans need so urgently, may already have been lost, or at the very least delayed. Since August 2021 and the capture of Afghanistan by the Taleban, the country has again become isolated, far poorer, with deep cuts to development aid, and UN and US sanctions applied suddenly not to an armed opposition group, but to the government and therefore the whole country. Finding ways to help Afghanistan cope with the already devastating effects of climate change has become far, far more difficult.

Institutional development and legislation

Afghanistan had to establish various standard mechanisms and laws as a precondition for getting the help it needed – both technical expertise and funding – to first analyse the likely effects of climate change and then try to mitigate the harm. Such a pathway was deemed necessary in the early 2000s after the Republic was established. However, it should be stressed that it was taken with little urgency by the politicians of the Republic, who seemed to view global warming primarily as yet another demand of the donors that needed paying lip service to, or a new opportunity to gain funds.

Although the global warming trend has been identified since the 1930s, it was not until the 1980s that thoughts about combatting it began and, globally, institutions and platforms to address climate change began to be established. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by 154 states at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992. The convention entered into force with a secretariat headquartered in Bonn on 21 March 1994. The first annual United Nations climate change conference (COP1) was held in Berlin in 1995.

Afghanistan signed this framework convention in 1992, but ratified it only in 2002. That decade was one in which war and isolation meant climate change and its harmful consequences were rarely spoken about in Afghanistan. With the establishment of the internationally-backed Republic at the end of 2001, environmental institutions and laws were gradually established. NEPA was established in April 2005. Afghanistan’s first environmental law was promulgated in early 2007. That law defined NEPA’s function, power and position as Afghanistan’s environmental policy-making and regulatory institution. NEPA’s mandate and institutional structure gradually evolved and in 2010 a division devoted to climate change was established, as one of the six key divisions.

To obtain funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects, NEPA prepared a nationwide assessment and other documentation for tackling climate change. It developed a National Adaptation Programme of Action in 2009, following consideration of a wide variety of potential adaptation measures across all sectors. Afghanistan submitted its first national report to the UN framework convention on climate change in 2013 with help from the Green Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nation’s Environment Programme.[7] (By comparison, Afghanistan’s northern neighbour, Tajikistan, submitted its initial communication in 2002). The first report said that “Afghanistan does not have the institutional arrangement to provide information and know-how on the environmental sound technologies to get easy access by private companies and individuals.”

In 2013, Afghanistan ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which serves to implement the UN framework convention on climate change UN framework convention on climate change objective of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in order to stop dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate.

In 2016, NEPA with the technical support of UNEP and WFP and the financial support of GEF completed a comprehensive analysis of already observed climate change in Afghanistan and projections for the future. In the same year, with the technical support of the United Nation’s Development Programme (UNDP), NEPA developed a Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan for Afghanistan (ACCSAP). Following this research and analysis, in 2017, Afghanistan was able to submit its second national communication; it aimed at providing updated information on the country’s steps towards the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It included a greenhouse gas inventory, a list of sources of emissions, quantified using standardised methods, and the systematic collection and analysis of national climate data. There was also information on how national strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation were being developed and the strengthening of the National Climate Change Committee as the lead inter-ministerial coordination mechanism on climate change. (For more information about the climate change and governance in Afghanistan please read here).

Climate change affects a wide range of sectors and this was reflected in the National Adaptation Programme of Action and Initial National Communication as: i) agriculture; ii) biodiversity and ecosystems; iii) infrastructure and energy; iv) forestry and rangelands; v) natural disasters; and vi) water. It was recognised that climate change would need to be incorporated into the legislative frameworks, sectoral policies and strategies of the ministries of agriculture, energy and water, rural development, public health, urban development and mining, as well as NEPA and the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority. The Ministry of Agriculture, with the support of FAO developed a drought risk management strategy that took climate change into account. Other ministries, including energy and water, had yet to finalise their policies and strategies when the Republic fell and have not done so since.

After fifteen years of institution-building, law-making and fact-finding, a generous conclusion would be that the former Afghan republic had been on the path to incorporating efforts to mitigate the harm of climate change into its policies and strategies. A less generous assessment would be to point to how little it actually achieved. As to the Taleban, on the first day of the COP26 international conference in Glasgow in November 2021, senior Taleban official in Doha, Suhail Shahin, called for the resumption of climate change-related projects which had “already been approved and were funded by Green Climate Fund, UNDP, Afghan Aid” (see his tweets here). Since then, to the best knowledge of this author, climate change risks have not been discussed in any of numerous discussions conducted between the Taleban and representatives of the donor countries in Doha. However, the Taleban have spoken about the need for better water management, which is one of the key components of climate change adaptation.

Efforts to secure financing to tackle the climate crisis

Despite all the documentation and information on funding needs, which are detailed below, the Republic itself did not allocate any specific budget for responding to climate change. The Ministry of Finance in its national budget narrative for the year 2021/1400 claimed that risks due to climate change were not measurable. Thus, it recommended all sectors to finance the consequences of climate change from their available financial resources. The same text was copy-pasted in multiple years’ budgets with no addition or further details, suggesting how little importance was attached to climate change. The one partial exception was the Ministry of Energy and Water which constructed some check dams, small structures built across waterways to store water and reduce erosion, prior to the collapse of the Republic, which could be seen as an action to mitigate the harm of climate change.

Instead, with regard to climate change caused largely by developed-country gas emissions, major efforts focused on securing international financing for addressing the effects of the climate crisis. According to Afghanistan’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)[8] submitted to the UN framework convention on climate change in 2015, the Republic estimated that it would need more than one billion USD per year from donors during the following decade to “overcome the existing gaps and barriers toward sufficiently addressing its climate change adaptation needs.” The government planned to allocate 70 per cent of the 10.7 billion USD expected as financial support for climate change adaptation (until 2030) to watershed management and the expansion of irrigated agriculture. Furthermore, it said that 6.6 billion USD would be needed to reduce greenhouse gases emission in order to meet 2030 goals.[9]

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has funded most of the climate change-related projects in Afghanistan after 2002. Since the establishment of NEPA, GEF funded various projects through third-party implementers, such as UNDP and UNEP. GEF also funded several projects regarding climate adaptation under the framework of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock and other ministries. Third-party implementers (UNEP, UNDP) also secured funds from GEF’s Least Developed Countries Fund programme, established in 2001 in recognition that delays in addressing adaptation needs could increase vulnerability or costs in the future. Those funds supported the preparation of Afghanistan’s National Communications to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the National Adaptation Programme of Action and the execution of three full-size climate change adaptation projects (LDCF-1 from 2013-2016 , LDCF-2 from 2014-2019, and LDCF-3, undated in literature).

More funds became available to developing countries to promote low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways after the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up in 2011 under the UN framework convention on climate change. Afghanistan, however, has not yet received funds from the GCF directly as the government administrations tackling climate change (ministries of energy and water, agriculture, irrigation and livestock, rural rehabilitation and development, and NEPA) still lack the capacity (this was even before the Taleban takeover). NEPA established an inter-ministerial board to facilitate development of proposals to the GCF in 2016, but has yet to be accredited for applying for funds.

During COP21 in 2015, a new international climate agreement (the Paris Agreement), applicable to all countries, was signed, aiming to keep global warming at between 1.5°C and 2°C, in accordance with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The agreement said that 100 billion US Dollars in public and private resources will need to be raised each year from 2020 onwards to finance projects that enable countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change (rise in sea level, droughts, etc) or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This funding will gradually increase and some developing countries will also be able to become donors, on a voluntary basis, to help the poorest countries.

Afghanistan does not have an accredited national implementing entity for applying directly to the GEF or GCF for funds. Besides, owing to the low-institutional capacity, even under the Republic, the government could not directly secure the required funds. Therefore agencies like the Asian Development Bank, UNDP, UNEP, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the WFP, and the World Bank, which are all accredited for securing this funding, are brokering the process.[10]

The Adaptation Fund is another funding agency that finances adaptation projects and programmes aimed at reducing the adverse effects of climate change on communities, countries, and sectors. The UNDP, on behalf of Afghanistan, submitted a proposal in 2019 to the Adaptation Fund for 9.4 million USD grant in order to rehabilitate karezs. This project was planned to be jointly implemented by UNDP and Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development before the Taleban takeover. Furthermore, the International Fund for Agriculture Development also supported projects under the ministry of agriculture, and of rural development in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan gained the approval for a 17.2 million USD grant of GCF and 4.2 million co-financing of other organizations through UNDP in August 2020 to initiate renewable energy in rural areas of Afghanistan. As of January 2021, 4 million USD of the total 21.4 million USD earmarked for the project had been disbursed, but, since the Taleban takeover, the programme has been suspended.

Under the Republic, considerable technical support and resources were also available to Afghanistan, including the Climate Technology Centre and Network hosted by UNEP which aims to enhance the transfer of climate smart technologies in order to promote adaptive capacity and climate change mitigation efforts in developing countries.[11]

Recent research found that only six per cent of nations had managed to obtain climate change-related funds through their national institutions. Others relied on international bodies to broker the process. According to Carbon Brief, Afghanistan has been among the countries which did not receive funding directly from the UN’s Green Climate Fund. This was the case before and after the fall of the Republic. “Unfortunately, most climate vulnerable, least-developed and developing countries have found it a bit difficult to access,” Dr Emmanuel Tachie-Obeng of the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, told Carbon Brief in January 2022.

After the Taleban takeover

The rupture between Afghanistan and its erstwhile donors and the international system in general, that followed the Taleban’s takeover on 15 August 2021 has hit many activities aimed at mitigating the harm of climate change. The Taleban government has not been recognised by any state, meaning Afghanistan had no delegates at COP26 in Glasgow – although some climate activists tried to independently represent Afghanistan in COP26, they were unable to secure visas. However, the repercussions go much further than this.

The significance of UN sanctions, which targeted named individuals in the Taleban and the Haqqani network, and US sanctions, which targeted the group as a whole expanded suddenly when the Taleban were no longer an armed opposition group but the government of Afghanistan. Programmes which built up government agencies or worked through them were suspended, as was development aid. UN Security Council Resolution 2615 issued in December 2021, provided a more permissive environment, making humanitarian and basic human needs aid much easier to implement, while the US Treasury’s General license 20 (GL-20), issued in late February 2022, loosened up that country’s sanctions “for commercial and financial transactions in Afghanistan, including with its governing institutions” said the press release. The aim, it said, was to ensure US sanctions “do not prevent or inhibit transactions and activities needed to provide aid to and support the basic human needs of the people of Afghanistan and underscores the United States’ commitment to working with the private sector, international partners and allies, and international organizations to support the people of Afghanistan.”

However, the August 2021 rupture also meant that donors have been more careful about funding anything that involves the Taleban administration. Some climate change mitigation measures such as flood protection or drought resilience are classed as humanitarian. However, the major climate crisis programmes that had already been agreed or that were in the pipeline have been suspended. They include:

  • Funding for significant drought prevention and water management projects such as the 222.50 million USD World Bank project to develop early warning and response systems, the Asian Development Bank’s Arghandab Integrated Water Resources Development project and the Afghanistan Drought Early Warning Decision Support Tool, which was in a test phase.
  • The 21.4 million USD project for initiating renewable energy in rural areas of Afghanistan implemented by UNDP and the Ministry of rural development has also been halted and faces an uncertain future.
  • The karez rehabilitation project funded by the International Fund for Agriculture Development and implemented by UNDP and MRRD has been suspended.
  • A 9.9 million USD-funded irrigation project implemented by FAO and the Ministry of Energy and Water and funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency was suspended.
  • Without the now-suspended technical assistance of UNEP and other supporting agencies, NEPA on behalf of Afghanistan will not be able to submit the next national communication reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This will also suspend understanding of the climate change effect and monitoring of any progress achieved.[12]

It should be noted that most funding sources would anyway have demanded a full re-appraisal of a programme if the main executing agency had changed as it is the case after the Taleban takeover, ie even in the absence of sanctions.

What can be done to tackle the climate crisis in Afghanistan now?

The potential actions to help Afghans adapt to the looming ravages of climate change are already known. They include: schemes to harvest rainwater, including from small check dams to much larger reservoirs; rehabilitating karezes; changing from furrow to drip irrigation and tillage adaptation; projects that replenish groundwater to support water extraction during drought; introducing crops and trees that require less water; seeding and improving rangeland; constructing artificial glaciers to reduce the variability of meltwater flow and improve water storage; stopping deforestation and; supporting Afghan technical and scientific capacity. They range from community-level projects to major engineering works to social and educational action.

Many questions could be asked about why more was not done during the Republic when funds and technical expert help was plentiful. Now, following the Taleban takeover, far less support is on offer. Some small-scale, community-level improvements are being carried out via UN agencies and NGOs, including aspects even of some of the GEF-funded programmes, especially following the UN resolution of December 2021 and US Treasury waiver of February 2022 eased restrictions. Finding even small ways through the political impasse is still tricky. Generally, work that does not involve the Taleban government and is not aimed at building up government capabilities is the simplest to continue, or to begin. Nationwide, the work going ahead on climate change adaptation is patchy and absolutely inadequate to the scale or urgency of the crisis. Whatever activities are going on could be described, at best, as pathways to be expanded when and if the political situation improves. Adaptation at scale, though, needs government.

It should be significant that adaptation to climate change is not controversial for the Taleban, nor for donors, nor the wider population. Unlike, for example, education, there is the potential for a broad consensus that action is necessary and urgent. Afghanistan also has a strong tradition of communal work so there are grassroots structures and traditions to draw on. Given the political impasse, however, for more donor-funded programmes to get approval, the Taleban would need to accept that state involvement is currently anathema to donors, so if they want climate change adaptations to go ahead, even thought they are the ‘de facto authorities’, they could not expect too much involvement in programmes. For a group determined to emphasise its sovereignty in the land, this is difficult.

And/or, donors would need to reconsider their absolute ban on working with the Taleban government. For example, there could be some re-engagement with those parts of the administration where there are still competent and experienced, politically neutral, technical staff, such as in the Ministry of Rural Development, with possibly a step-by-step engagement that involved monitoring while those ministries proved their bona fides and capability. The donor decision to implement aid programmes via UN agencies without recourse to the Afghan state necessarily diminishes the slowly built-up capacity of Afghan state agencies such as NEPA and ministries such as agriculture, energy and water and rural development. Also, while UN agencies might be the safe choice of donors, reluctant to sustain the Taleban in power, they are exorbitantly expensive, less efficient and tend to know the country less well than Afghanistan’s own civil society. However, working at anything scaled-up needs some state involvement.

The Earth’s climate crisis has been caused by developed countries. The Paris Climate Agreement recognises this and requires them to compensate poor countries for the effects of climate change through sponsoring adaptation initiatives. That agreement recognises that countries like Afghanistan are suffering out of all proportion to the contribution they have made to damaging the planet’s atmosphere and climate. For Afghans, it is additionally unfair that the change of government means programmes backed by global funds are largely blocked when the climate emergency is already hitting the country hard, causing hunger and distress. The need for adaptation is urgent, yet the political impasse over aid and recognition looks to be enduring, and consequently also, the block on most aspects of the major, globally-funded, already-agreed programmes. However, unlike all the other causes of crises facing Afghanistan, the climate change emergency will continue to worsen, regardless of whatever and whenever a political settlement eventually materialises.

* Dr Mohammad Assem Mayar is a water resource management expert and former lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University in Kabul, Afghanistan. This year, he completed his doctorate at the Institute for Modelling Hydraulics and Environmental Systems at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. He tweets via @assemmayar1.

References

References
1 The cause was what is called a Madden–Julian Oscillation event in December 2021.  This is an eastward moving disturbance of clouds, rainfall, winds and pressure that traverses the planet in the tropics and returns to its initial starting point after an average of 30 to 60 days. According to one study, it can result in a 23% increase in daily precipitation relative to the mean in Afghanistan.
2 A recent follow-up call to Baghlan indicates that rainfed agriculture failed. A Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) map backs this up and also shows the failure of rainfed crops in Kunduz. Crops in Badghis, Faryab and Jawzjan provinces are faring better than last year.
3 The continuous movement of water in atmosphere (from vapour to liquid and solid phases) is called the water cycle. Water exists in the atmosphere as cloud vapours, and precipitate as rain and snow. Consequently, water flows on the earth before evaporating back into the atmosphere.
4 Gases that are emitted from the earth into the atmosphere and trap heat resulting in global temperature rises. Carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons are examples of greenhouse gases.
5 RCP pathways are adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to help modellers work out different climate futures, all of which are considered possible, but vary according to the volume of greenhouse gases emitted in the years to come. RCPs are labelled after their ‘radiative forcing value’, ie the size of the energy imbalance in the atmosphere – more incoming energy from sunlight than the earth radiates to space – as measured in watts per square metre, so RCP2.6 is a scenario with an imbalance of 2.6 W/m2, RCP4.5 an imbalance of 4.5 W/m2, and so on.
6 The four scenarios assume that: greenhouse gas emissions peak between 2010-2020 and then decline (RCP2.6); greenhouse gas emissions peak around 2040 and then decline (RCP4.5); greenhouse gas emissions peak around 2080 and then decline (RCP6) and; greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century (RCP8.5).
7 The regular reports, called National Communication are a requirement made by the fund called Green Climate Facility from all parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
8 The INDC represents a country’s steps to decrease national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
9 As one example of climate change mitigation during the years of the Republic, under the Montreal Protocol, which sets binding progressive phase-out obligations for developed and developing countries for all the major ozone-depleting substances, including chlorofluorocarbons, halons and less damaging transitional chemicals such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). Afghanistan is committed to reducing its use of HCFCs, chemicals that are used in refrigeration and air conditions that destroy ozone layer and contribute to climate change, by 35 per cent of by 2020 and 67.5 per cent by 2025. To achieve this milestone, the Afghan republic’s cabinet in 2018 banned imports of HCFC-based equipment, which came into effect in November 2018. Following that, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation was supporting the Afghan republic in training technicians for customs  to implement ban on HCFC equipment. In addition, Afghanistan once restricted importing vehicles more than a decade old , but then abandoned the rule because of the protests from traders, claiming they had placed orders for old cars and Afghans could not afford newer models.
10 For example, FAO and the Green Climate Fund joined forces in 2019 to implement the first-ever GCF-funded project in Afghanistan. It had focused on building the capacity of NEPA. Later, another proposal was submitted to extend this project for two more years. The implementation of these projects aimed at enabling NEPA to independently handle GCF-funding projects and lead government coordination on GCF projects. A list of the small projects implemented in Afghanistan and sponsored by various donors is available here.
11 In addition, the Asian Development Bank funded a joint master degree programme of integrated water management implemented by the Kabul Polytechnic University and Griffith University of Australia for the employees of the ministry of Energy and Water. Funds for this project were transferred to the Kabul Polytechnic University’s account from ADB at the start of the project, which meant that, after a three-month break following the takeover of the country by Taleban, the programme could resume as normal.
12 As UNEP was assisting NEPA in preparing the national communication report for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it could continue this task without the Taleban government’s involvement in order to avoid a pause in climate change monitoring and fill the gap of submitting regular reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Climate Change Crisis in Afghanistan: The catastrophe worsens – what hope for action?