August 30, 2021 12:37:39 pm
Written by: Somini Sengupta
Parts of Afghanistan have warmed twice as much as the global average. Spring rains have declined, most worryingly in some of the country’s most important farmland. Droughts are more frequent in vast swaths of the country, including a punishing dry spell now in the north and west, the second in three years.
Afghanistan embodies a new breed of international crisis, where the hazards of war collide with the hazards of climate change, creating a nightmarish feedback loop that punishes some of the world’s most vulnerable people and destroys their countries’ ability to cope.
And although it would be facile to attribute the conflict in Afghanistan to climate change, the impacts of warming act as what military analysts call threat multipliers, amplifying conflicts over water, putting people out of work in a nation whose people largely live off agriculture, while the conflict itself consumes attention and resources.
“The war has exacerbated climate change impacts. For 10 years, over 50 per cent of the national budget goes to the war,” said Noor Ahmad Akhundzadah, a professor of hydrology at Kabul University, said by phone Thursday. “Now there is no government, and the future is unclear. Our current situation today is completely hopeless.”
A third of all Afghans face what the United Nations calls crisis levels of food insecurity. Because of the fighting, many people haven’t been able to plant their crops in time. Because of the drought, the harvest this year is certain to be poor. The World Food Program says 40 per cent of crops are lost, the price of wheat has gone up by 25 per cent, and the aid agency’s own food stock is due to run out by the end of September.
Afghanistan is not the only country to face such compounding misery. Of the world’s 25 nations most vulnerable to climate change, more than a dozen are impacted by conflict or civil unrest, according to an index developed by the University of Notre Dame.
In Somalia, pummeled by decades of conflict, there has been a threefold increase in extreme weather events since 1990, compared with the previous 20-year period, making it all but impossible for ordinary people to recover after each shock. In 2020, more than 1 million Somalis were displaced from their homes, about a third because of drought, according to the United Nations.
In Syria, a prolonged drought, made more likely by human-made climate change, according to researchers, drove people out of the countryside and fed simmering anti-government grievances that led to an uprising in 2011 and, ultimately, a full-blown civil war. This year again, drought looms over Syria, particularly its breadbasket region, the northeastern Hassakeh province.
In Mali, a violent insurgency has made it harder for farmers and herders to deal with a succession of droughts and floods, according to aid agencies.
Climate change cannot be blamed for any single war, and certainly not the one in Afghanistan. But rising temperatures, and the weather shocks that come with it, act as what Marshall Burke, a Stanford University professor, calls “a finger on the scale that makes underlying conflict worse.” That is particularly true, he argued, in places that have undergone a long conflict and where government institutions have all but dissolved.
“None of this means that climate is the only or the most important factor in conflict,” said Burke, co-author of a 2013 paper looking at the role of climate change in dozens of conflicts across many years. “But based on this evidence, the international community would be foolish to ignore the threat that a warming climate represents.”
The collapse of the government has also made Afghanistan’s participation in the next international climate talks entirely uncertain, said one of its members, Ahmad Samim Hoshmand. “Now I don’t know. I’m not part of any government. What government I should represent?” he said.
Until recently, he had been the government official in charge of enforcing the country’s ban on ozone-depleting substances, including refrigerants used in old air-conditioners and that are banned by the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that Afghanistan had ratified. Just days before the Taliban seized Kabul, he fled to Tajikistan. The traders of illegal substances whom he helped arrest are now out of prison, keen to exact revenge. He says they will kill him if he returns.
Hoshmand is now scrambling to emigrate elsewhere. His visa in Tajikistan expires in a matter of weeks. “My only hope is the ozone community, the Montreal Protocol community, if they can support me,” he said.
Afghanistan’s geography is a study of extreme hazards, from the glacier-peaked Hindu Kush mountains in the north to its melon farms in the west to the arid south, stung by dust storms.
Climate data is sparse for Afghanistan. But a recent analysis based on what little data exists suggests that a decline in spring rains has already afflicted much of the country, but most acutely in the country’s north, where farmers and herders rely almost entirely on the rains to grow crops and water their flocks.
“The effects of the severe drought are compounded by conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic in a context where half the population were already in need of aid,” UN humanitarian coordinator Ramiz Alakbarov said by email from Kabul on Thursday. “With little financial reserves, people are forced to resort to child labour, child marriage, risky irregular migration exposing them to trafficking and other protection risks. Many are taking on catastrophic levels of debt and selling their assets.”
Akhundzadah, a father of four, is hoping to emigrate, too. But like his fellow academics, he said he has not worked for foreign governments and has no way to be evacuated from the country. The university is closed. Banks are closed. He is looking for research jobs abroad. For now, there are no commercial flights out of the country.
“Till now, I’m OK,” he said on the phone. “The future is unclear. It will be difficult to live here.”