Afghanistan Crisis

In Afghanistan, climate change could drive conflict amid Taliban takeover

Published : August 31, 2021 18:47 IST

Taliban fighters patrol along a street in Kabul. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP

Amid the Taliban takeover, climate change could worsen poverty and drive more conflict in Afghanistan.

Forty years of conflict have left many Afghans on the edge of survival — and highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Not only is the landlocked country already becoming drier and drier, but it's also just been thrown into more political uncertainty by the Taliban takeover. Experts say it's a recipe for disaster.

"You have a country that is one of the most vulnerable to climate change and any implications as a result of that and without the needed capacities, you're looking at a human catastrophe," said Basir Feda, head of the Afghanistan unit at the Berlin-based Berghof Foundation, an NGO that promotes peacebuilding.

The arid state has seen a mean rise in temperature of 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.24 Fahrenheit) since the middle of the 20th century, compared to a global average of 0.82 C. Droughts, already more frequent, are likely to become an annual occurrence by 2030.

According to the United Nations, a severe drought caused more internal displacement between 2017 and 2018 than conflict. And now the country is in the midst of another prolonged dry period, which the U.N.'s World Food Programme has warned could leave millions of Afghans at risk of starvation. The agency said it needs $200 million (€170 million) a year to continue working in Afghanistan — its staff members are allowed to continue humanitarian operations in the wake of the Taliban's takeover.

Oli Brown, an associate fellow at London-based policy think tank Chatham House, told DW that food must get to Afghanistan's mountainous areas before winter weather makes some places unreachable. "The big challenge in the short term is feeding people in Afghanistan," said Brown. Nearly half of the country's 30 million people live below the poverty line and a third is dealing with severe food insecurity. "Obviously, the ability of the international community to do that now is reliant on decisions that the Taliban government takes — are they going to create the conditions in which people can eat?"

Climate change, poverty and conflict intertwined

Creating those conditions will require the Taliban to address climate change in the long term, according to Brown. "If you look at some of the predictions for Afghanistan in the future, this (climate change) is going to be something that will be a constraint ... A Taliban government is going to have to deal with it if they want to see a more peaceful and a more secure Afghanistan, which can feed its people," he said.

Even under one of the U.N.'s more optimistic scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Afghanistan will likely continue to warm by at least a further 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. That level of warming would still further decrease the amount of snow available to feeds rivers, making water even scarcer.

While drought will be even likelier, so too will extreme rainfall over short periods, increasing the chances of deadly landslides in the mountainous country. And years of war have robbed Afghanistan of the ability to build capacity to adapt and protect its population.

"War is development in reverse," said Brown. That means that 40 years of conflict have, for instance, also meant a chronic underinvestment in water infrastructure like dams and irrigation. Farmers used to rely on ancient irrigation systems known as "karez," which avoided evaporation by transporting water underground from the mountains. Maintained by villages, some are still functional, but the vast majority were destroyed or fell into disrepair during the decades of war.

More than 80 per cent of the population is involved in agriculture and because so many are reliant on rain-fed farming and livestock raising, they are particularly vulnerable to climate shocks, added Brown. That, in turn, makes people more likely to fall into severe poverty, which increases the likelihood of displacement, according to Action Aid, an international NGO working on poverty.

Afghanistan already has nearly 4 million internally displaced people. And a recent Action Aid analysis on climate change and gender found a further 5 million could be forced to migrate due to climate disasters by 2050 even if governments around the world act to significantly cut emissions.

Climate change sets the stage for increased conflict over ever-decreasing resources like land and water. Evidence suggests it's pushing more farmers to ditch food crops like wheat in favor of drought-resistant poppies used in the opium trade. Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer in the opium industry, worth between $4.1 billion and $6.6 billion in 2017. Revenues from the trade are used to finance the Taliban and other armed groups.

"The whole question is how do you deal with poverty which comes as a result of climate change?" said Basir Feda of the Berghof Foundation. "There's a direct link that exists between conflict and poverty. And climate change can really function as a catalyst there — and a pretty significant one at that."

Working with the Taliban?

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban's Cultural Commission, told U.S. magazine Newsweek it was seeking global recognition of what it is calling an Islamic Emirate, and said climate change is a challenge that can only be overcome with the collective efforts of all.  Thus far only a few countries are willing to engage with the Taliban. The question for the international community is how much they should engage with the group.

"They will not be able to run the country without assistance, they must know this," said Jost Pachaly, who heads the Asia division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a policy reform think tank based in Germany. "It's a very critical question for the international community: how to deal with the situation — not to support the Taliban but also not let the Afghan people suffer … This is a humanitarian disaster."

Women, whose rights are already being curbed under Taliban rule, will likely face an even more uncertain future in the context of climate change. Internationally women are hardest hit by the impacts of global heating, as they are often responsible for collecting water and providing meals.

In Afghanistan, particularly in rural parts of the country, women are further constrained, because they are expected to confine their social and economic lives to the home, or as close to it as possible and are totally financially dependent on men to work and support their families, says Basir Feda. "This puts women in a far more vulnerable situation, because not only do they play an important role in putting food on the table, they also do it in an environment where their capabilities are severely limited."

While organizations like the World Bank have suspended aid to the country as they wait to see what the Taliban does, international aid and humanitarian organizations want to continue working in the country. Feda says it is on the "Taliban's shoulders" to keeps its promises and create an inclusive government acceptable to all Afghans so the country can work towards peace and create climate resiliency. "I will never believe that all is lost in Afghanistan."

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