The environment in Afghanistan is under intense pressure from ongoing conflict and instability across the region, population growth coupled with 80% of the population directly dependent on the already-scarce natural resources for their livelihoods, and a susceptibility to natural disasters such as prolonged droughts or flooding.
This susceptibility is due to Afghanistan’s unique climate. It is a very mountainous and dry country, with an arid/semi-arid continental climate and large areas of land that receive little to no precipitation throughout the year. The precipitation that does fall occurs mostly as snow on high mountains, which varies considerably according to elevation and year. There are also numerous watersheds across the land that are largely dependent on the snow melt originating from ice caps and glaciers in the high mountains.
Afghanistan is facing the threat of global climate change on a large scale, potentially affecting both the country’s natural resources and its socio-economic development. Although Afghanistan has a distinct lack of data and insufficient institutional capacity to study climatic patterns in detail, data and trends from neighboring countries combined with climatic models have shown that the country will likely be impacted by a range of new and increased climatic hazards in the near future. The most significant challenges are expected to relate to drought. Since the early 1960s, the country has begun witnessing an increased frequency of drought; however, rather than remaining a cyclical (and temporary) event, drought could become the norm in Afghanistan by the year 2030. The mean annual temperature has increased by approximately 0.60C since 1960 with spring rainfall decreasing by around 2.7 mm per month, which will dry the environment further if the trend continues. Models do point towards significant warming across all areas of Afghanistan, with average predicted increases in temperature possibly up to 60C by 2090. Flooding events are likely to be exacerbated by more rapid snow melt in the spring as a result of these higher temperatures. Further, the drought and flooding-related events will have a larger impact due to the associated dynamics of desertification and land degradation, loss of vegetation and the current unsustainable management of much of the land area. Particular regional challenges predicted in the future include extensive flooding in northeastern Afghanistan from rains and melting winter snow, torrential rains and flash flooding in the lowlands of the Hindu Kush, rising temperatures in the southern province of Kandahar and widespread drought in the western and northern low-altitude plain areas.
In terms of the biological diversity of the country that has evolved to live within Afghanistan’s environment, climate change on this scale could have devastating consequences, particularly given the already-degraded environment. Even small changes in temperature tip weather cycles of hot and cold, and dry and wet towards the extremes, often in too short a period of time for species and habitats to adapt.
Socio-economic conditions are also set to worsen with the onset of climate change. Reduced river flow from earlier snow melt and lower levels of precipitation during cultivation of crops provide just two examples of how the agricultural sector will be affected. Water resource management will also become problematic with livestock and crops lost to flooding or drought, and whole livelihoods destroyed. The poor and those who rely on subsistence agriculture could be particularly affected, with food security and water availability issues becoming ever-more pressing.
The Amu Darya – one of the major rivers in Central Asia - provides an example of how much of a country and even an entire region’s land can be dependent on just one watershed. The Amu Darya River is approximately 2,400 km in length and its drainage basin includes most of Kyrgyzstan, northeastern Afghanistan, western Turkmenistan and approximately half of Uzbekistan, with a number of large urban centers included within. The Amu Darya’s watercourse runs along Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before continuing northwards towards the Aral Sea. Its water comes almost entirely from glacial melt in the high Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan and the Tien Shan Mountains that span much of Central Asia, with the Pamir River being one of its sources.
However, only about 200,000 km2 of the Amu Darya River’s drainage area actively contribute water to the river because flow in so many of its tributaries has now been reduced, primarily due to an expansion of irrigated lands to support the increase in agricultural activities. The Amu Darya River first failed to reach the Aral Sea in the late 1980s, with watershed irrigation being a major contributing factor. The already depleted water system and the huge population across the region that depends on the wetland (particularly communities inhabiting its lower reaches), is now likely to be threatened further by the effects of climate change, including reduced flow from earlier snow melt, higher summer evaporation rates and increased glacial retreat.
Recent steps towards mitigation of climate change in Afghanistan are being taken by the government including becoming party to the International Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2002. Renewable energy strategies and responsible land management practices are also being planned and implemented across the country, with support from a range of international organizations. WCS has been active in assisting with this work given the cross-cutting issues of climate change, wildlife conservation and livelihood development.
As a priority, WCS is helping to improve the availability and quality of data related to the status of ecosystems in Afghanistan. In 2006, WCS began by deploying air temperature loggers in the Wakhan Valley and Big Pamir area since air temperature is an important proxy to understanding the effects of climate harshness on animal survival and for evaluating long-term climate changes. This unique set of more than 40,000 data points collected by WCS constitutes the first longitudinal study of air temperature variations in this area and also helps to support other components of the overall program with a better understanding of abiotic factors prevailing in the area.
As potential markers of the increasing detrimental effects of climate change, WCS field teams study and monitor seasonal populations of indicator species in locations across the country, such as the high-altitude Marco Polo sheep. Our investigations in several water systems in Afghanistan have also revealed data that could be used to model the effects of climate change and unsustainable land practices at a finer scale. This information can then assist the government to form appropriate and timely strategies.
A recent project being piloted by WCS in Wakhan and Bamyan involves the introduction of fuel-efficient stoves to help reduce local shrub/fuel collection and use by 75%. As well as helping to halt the progression in habitat loss and therefore the localized effects of climate change, this project offers alternative livelihoods to local community members who are trained to produce and distribute the eco-friendly technology among their communities. WCS is also helping to equip schools in Band-e-Amir with solar panels, providing enough clean, environmentally-friendly energy to support computer centers at the schools. Solar panels make use of renewable solar energy by harnessing the radiation from the sun and converting it into useable electrical energy, thereby reducing fuel collection, combustion and gas emissions into the atmosphere.
WCS Environmental Education programs conducted in Wakhan, in Bamyan and in Nuristan also teach school children about the benefits of biodiversity and how managing natural resources responsibly can help to offset the effects of climate change.