At COP21, Afghanistan’s Adaptive Capacity Remains a Concern

Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O'Connor)
Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O’Connor)

Ahead of the Paris conference on climate change in December 2015, conflict-ridden Afghanistan submitted its climate action plan in October to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The plan’s assessment of the country’s capacity to adapt to climate change and the associated challenges of doing so clearly outline genuine concerns that potentially may impact the livelihoods of millions of Afghans in the upcoming years and decades. War-torn Afghanistan is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters throughout the impoverished country’s 34 provinces. Previously, the Stockholm Environmental Institute projected in a report on climate modeling 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. (See here)

Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)
Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)

Meanwhile, prolonged political instability in Afghanistan took its toll on scientific research of the impact of climate change on the country’s glaciers and mountains. As a result, scientists mainly used available tools to substitute ground based research in the country, such as high-resolution imagery collected from satellites, periodic water level measurements from glacier-fed Amu Darya and the exchange of information between the neighboring states.

Nonetheless, the complexity of the studies related to climate change’s effect in South Asia and surrounding regions dictate the necessity of continuing research, focusing on weather patterns in the target areas, and evaluating weather anomalies in the greater Eurasian region. Ben Orlove, a member of the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute’s Working Group, believes that this year’s mid-summer heatwave in southern Pakistan, which claimed close to 2000 lives, is a sign of the changing climate in the region. According to news reports, summer temperatures reached 49 degrees C (120F) in the Pakistani city of Larkana. In the neighboring India, a heatwave which occurred in May this year killed over 2500. And the question arises as to the degree of the observable impact in Afghanistan.

A highly visible impact of global climate change in Afghanistan was recorded in the tributaries of the Amu Darya river in the Wakhan corridor. A recent study on retreating glaciers in Afghanistan and Pakistan entitled “Space-based observations of Eastern Hindu Kush glaciers between 1976 and 2007, Afghanistan and Pakistan” states, “In the Hindu Kush, retreat and relative stagnation dominates. Similar results have been obtained in other regions, where 93% of the sampled glaciers in the Wakhan region of Afghanistan and 74% of the sampled glaciers in the Hindu Raj of Pakistan retreated.” Rapid glacial melt in Afghanistan, combined with heavy rains during the spring-summer seasons, translates to flooding in the conflict affected areas.

Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)
Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)

However, scientists warn that flooding hazards are only a small part of the larger impact of climate change processes in Afghanistan. In the last two decades, the country has had severe droughts that have revealed high vulnerability of millions of Afghans. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicated in a memo in 2007 that effects of desertification and droughts were observable in the country’s “arid north, west and south”. They pointed out the necessity of research and increased data collection to analyze weather patterns in the country. The memo also highlighted existing challenges associated with a “near total lack of data,” which remains a barrier for researchers and scientists to investigate impact of the desertification in the country. The Afghan government’s National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment summary stated that a “high proportion of Afghanistan’s 27 million people face chronic and transitory food insecurity. Food insecurity based on calorie consumption is estimated at 30.1 percent. Of the 7.6 million food-insecure people, an estimated 2.2 million (or 8.5 percent) are very severely, 2.4 million (9.5 percent) severely, and 3.1 million (12.2 percent) moderately food insecure.” Climate change experts presume that increasing temperatures in spring-summer seasons in the next several decades are expected to exacerbate existing food insecurity in Afghanistan.

Social impacts from weather anomalies is also anticipated to worsen already unresolved issues with the access to clean drinking water. In 2014, an assessment produced by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) reported that:

Access to clean drinking water from the tap has so far remained a dream for most families in Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, only one household in ten is connected to the largely dilapidated public water supply; in provincial towns, the figure is one in five. Meanwhile, the rural population relies for its water primarily on public wells, rivers and streams, or water tankers.

They indicate that a gradual increase in temperatures by 1.4 C to 4.0 C in 2060s is expected to severely impact Afghanistan’s agriculture and water management. Socio-economic development of the country is more than likely to experience distress that could lead to humanitarian crises in the future.

Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)
Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)

Ben Orlove argues that climate change could be a cause for internal mass migration in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley triangle, where poor water irrigation practices remain a matter of regional debate. Arguably, developing weather patterns such as rising temperatures and droughts may aggravate social tensions within densely populated Ferghana Valley. Such scenarios may well reasonably be applied to Afghanistan, where migration can be triggered due to drought and loss of livelihoods in the rural areas as a direct consequence of changing weather patterns. Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) indicated that it is unable to improve the overall situation with research of the effects of climate change due to “general lack and inaccessibility of data, lack of capacity and trained manpower, lack of meteorological stations in most part and data, lack of potential climate knowledge.”

NEPA has been essential to international donors in introducing and conducting sustainable development programs (such as water storage and sustainable water usage) in mountain communities. In 2012, the United Nations Environment Program jointly with NEPA launched the first of its kind in the country: a climate change initiative in Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamyan and Daikundi provinces. This $6 million program was mainly financed by the Global Environment Facility to “improve water management and use efficiency; community-based watershed management; improve terracing, agroforestry and agro-silvo pastoral system, climate-related research and early warning systems; improve food security; and rangeland management.”(See here)

The UNFCCC’s assessment of the country’s adaptive capacity concluded that funding of the related study projects is available but aid remains marginal due to the concentration of “efforts on emergency response, together with high-priority development issues that include education, health and basic infrastructure, amongst others.” However, the Afghan government recognizes that existing climate change-related challenges are not limited to funding gaps, weak public awareness about environmental issues, lack of research data, expertise and reliable historical data. The country’s authorities believe that these key actions are part of the National Adaptation Plan that would enable Afghanistan to “overcome existing gaps and barriers towards sufficiently addressing” country’s adaptation needs. It is hoped that the initiatives currently being discussed at COP21 will contribute to such efforts.

Ryskeldi Satke is a researcher and contributing writer with news organizations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at

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