The Condition of Afghanistan's Environment

by Daud Saba / Mardom Nama-e Bakhter / August 1997 issue

To date, no specific environmental study has been carried out in Afghanistan. The lack of information on the quality of air, water, vegetation, land, and other environmental factors could be attributed to the non-existence of organizations or agencies devoted to this issue. Studies revealed that until at least 2000 B.C.E, the land of Afghanistan was covered with cedar-rich forests, and had a different pattern of climatic and life support system than that of today.

The ecosystem in Afghanistan had never been damaged to the extent that it has been in the last two decades. This deterioration has been created by the unlimited use of nature and its energy. Albeit, this environmental degradation was enhanced by war.

Two thirds of the landscape of Afghanistan is occupied by mountainous terrains with little or no vegetation, typical of an arid country. For this reason, the vegetation in these terrains play a vital role in the ecosystem. For example, if we consider the role of pistachio (Pistacia vera, yielding) among hundreds of other floras, we find out that it not only provides climatic and environmental stabilization over the areas of its growth, but eases the life of thousands of families by providing them with a natural source of income.

Half of the remaining parts of the country's landscape are deserts, which are hostile environments. The rest are farmlands and pastures. At present, only six percent of the fifteen percent of agricultural land in Afghanistan is under cultivation. In the past twenty years, the agricultural areas have been drastically decreased. It is estimated that we lost thirty percent of our farmlands and pastures, either by abandonment or degradation. The farmlands in the province of Kabul have been lost due to degradation resulting from the expansion of the urban institutions. This led to a drastic change of the previously dominant climatic and environmental factors in this region.

Compared to that of 1979, our agricultural farm products have decreased fifty percent. To compensate for this loss, rural people started to utilize the free natural resources of their environment. The end result of this process was a disaster for our few natural forests, which were cut and smuggled to Pakistan. Deforestation, floods and avalanches added to the devastation. Once the forest's productivity was declined or monopolized by certain warlords, the poor farmers sought another cheap and accessible alternative, which was the cultivation of opium. This was encouraged by Afghan warlords, and the growing international drug market. Hence, this resulted in further degradation of Afghanistan's environment.

Many forested areas and farmlands were burned and degraded by the use of heavy war technology and chemicals. It is estimated that ten thousand villages, and their surrounding environments were destroyed. This continuous process still takes its toll on our environment.

However, the legacy of land mines in Afghanistan is the worst environmental nightmare that has been created as a result of constant war. The presence of more than ten million land mines in the country, makes it the world's most deadly mine field. The daily death toll due to these devices is about 20 to 30 people, mostly children and civilians.

Even though Afghanistan itself doesn't have any industry to create air pollutants, smog is a common phenomenon in most of the urban areas. Trans-boundary air pollution is another concern. Due to this, we receive enormous amounts of pollutants originating from the Aral sedimentary basin, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan's industrial parks. How much of the pesticides originating from these countries and worldwide end up on our lands and environment through air currents and rains, is another mystery that is adding to our environmental crises. Chemical weapons have been used during the Afghan war with the Soviets, and this caused severe short-term damage to our environment and ecosystem. No data exists on their long-term effects.

It could be concluded that at present, the environment in Afghanistan is in a deep crises. The problems not only affect the people of Afghanistan and their ecosystem, but the whole world. Once any of the environmental components are lost, recovery is almost impossible, e.g., the capture of a pair of Caspian Tigers (Panthera Tigris Virgata), roaming in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in April 1997, may have put an end to the survival of this highly endangered and almost extinct species.

The people of Afghanistan are in desperate need of help to repair their natural habitat and ecosystem. The international community is responsible for lending Afghans a hand in order to help revive this wounded piece of our common home, earth.

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