Supporting Sustainability in Afghanistan

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While developing countries are not the main contributors to global carbon emission levels, it is still important to promote and support sustainability initiatives in these regions.

Countries such as Afghanistan, with limited financial resources and outdated infrastructure, can utilize such initiatives to maintain low per capita carbon emission levels and simultaneously grow their economies. Further, as Afghanistan’s economy continues to expand, the need to address environmental issues will simply intensify.

While fossil fuels are generally a much cheaper energy source, funding from international organizations such as Green Climate Fund and UNFCCC has made renewable power more accessible for Afghanistan. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the country can also help alleviate poverty, improving the standard of living for many Afghan citizens. This, in turn, will benefit both international relations and the battle against climate change.

Afghanistan’s Current State

Afghanistan currently faces many challenges that are exacerbated by environmental degradation and climate change, placing it on the United Nations’ list of least developed countries.

In fact, Afghanistan is considered to be one of the countries that is the most impacted by the consequences of climate change. It is estimated that 80% of Afghanistan’s economic losses are caused by climate-induced disasters, in combination with harsh winters.

Only 12% of the land is arable, making this a scarce resource in high demand. Climate change only worsens this situation as extreme weather conditions influence rainfall and temperature patterns, negatively affecting both agriculture and biodiversity. These factors in addition to poor management of natural resources have resulted in great amounts of pollution and severe health issues. This greatly harms Afghanistan’s economy as the majority of Afghans are farmers or rely on agriculture as their main source of income.

Most Afghans also lack access to other vital resources such as clean water. Even citizens in Kabul, the most developed Afghan city, struggle with water shortages due to war, widespread mismanagement and corruption.

Additionally, the effects of climate change have influenced Afghanistan’s overall stability. Statistics show that approximately 90% of internal conflicts in Afghanistan are caused by disputes over limited land and water resources. Unfortunately ongoing conflict over a number of decades has also contributed to a significant increase in poverty. A World Bank study stated that  the number of people living below the poverty line in the country has grown from 38.3% (2012) to 55% (2017).

Further, related research conducted across Africa has revealed that countries at war have, on average, 50% lower incomes compared to those not at war. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler from Oxford University have estimated war costs equal to 105% of a country’s GDP. These findings are especially concerning for Afghanistan, which already has high poverty levels and a GDP per capita of just $585.85. Other studies have also found that the estimated economic costs of war for Afghanistan are approximately $60 million and 250 human casualties per day and this does not account for the costs needed to recover from the associated economic losses.

Conflicts across Afghanistan can be linked directly to large decreases in agricultural output which represents approximately 60% of the country’s total GDP. The Swedish Committee for Agriculture (SCA) identified several reasons for this including lower workforce availability, a decline in livestock populations, lack of government funding for resources such as fertilizer, and damage to irrigation facilities. Many farmers have also been pressured to grow cash crops for the government as opposed to subsistence crops that would help support their families and stimulate the agricultural sector. Buried landmines are another great source of risk for farmers, which The British Medical Journal claim have hindered agricultural production from growing about 88-200%.

Current Support Programs

Despite the abundant supply of renewable resources such as wind and sunlight in Afghanistan, they lack sufficient technology and infrastructure to take advantage of these unless they are provided with external support and funding. Fortunately, international organizations have already started implementing programs to facilitate a transition to more sustainable practices.

For instance, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (GEF-SGP) funds environmental projects that promote biodiversity and combat issues such as climate change, land degradation, and the elimination of harmful chemicals. In addition to the creation of various sustainable systems (e.g. wind turbines) and providing better access to clean energy and water, the establishment of these various projects also creates new job opportunities (e.g. Afghanistan’s first female rangers).

Recent projects have involved partnerships between GEF-SGP, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The “Strengthening the Resilience of Rural Livelihood Options for Afghan Communities” initiative (CCAP) from 2014-2018 advocated for policies to mitigate and raise public awareness about climate change specifically. CCAP funded a number of small infrastructure improvements (e.g., greenhouses, food processing centers, rain harvested reservoirs, and flood protection walls) to help communities live more sustainably. For example, in Herat, the establishment of rehabilitated rangelands stabilized shifting sand, unblocking and improving access to water sources. Furthermore, improved irrigation infrastructure allowed farmers to increase productivity and income by enhancing livestock and crop quality, leading to a stronger and healthier economy.

In its final report, the CCAP project was evaluated using a matrix with specified criteria. The project satisfactorily achieved its objectives to improve rural livelihood in four of Afghanistan’s provinces: Panjshir, Balkh, Uruzgan, and Herat Provinces. Interviews and focus group discussions with residents in these regions identified greater employment, more livelihood opportunities, and better irrigation facilities as the most significant improvements.

Another project, “Establishing integrated models for protected areas and their co-management'' (EIMPA), also implemented several initiatives in Afghan communities. Most notably, the project created new business opportunities for women, reduced exposure to poor indoor air quality through the provision of solar cookers, installed stronger protection measures against mudflows, and improved management of solid waste. According to EIMPA’s final report, these initiatives all helped successfully achieve its objectives of improving natural resource management, protecting biodiversity, and economically empowering women.

Moving Forward

While CCAP and EIMPA were both successful overall, they highlighted numerous factors that must be prioritized when international organizations pursue projects in Afghanistan.

CCAP’s report noted that it was important to avoid conflicts related to project locations and recipients. Possible ways to do this are involving well-respected community members such as mirabs and Community Development Councils (CDCs) in the project implementation process and signing written agreements with local authorities. It also advised the use of efficient monitoring systems to keep track of data and progress throughout the project term. Additionally, EIMPA’s report mentioned that collaboration with the police may be desired but not necessary and technical advice should be given to ensure the success of smaller projects such as planting trees.

It is important to consider all these factors and effectively leverage social networks when implementing programs in new unfamiliar communities. Doing so will guarantee that future efforts to promote sustainability in developing countries make tangible progress, creating a better standard of living for citizens while also combating climate change and reducing war conflicts.

More posts by Emily H. Kim.
Supporting Sustainability in Afghanistan
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