Notes from the Field

The Future of Afghanistan’s Natural Resources

April 18, 2012

On May 20-21, President Obama and NATO allies will meet to discuss their ongoing strategyfor transitioning responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to the Afghan National Army. These discussions will address the future of a country that has been at war for decades. Issues such as Taliban insurgency, transparent elections, women’s education, development aid, and anti-corruption, among many others, have all been topics on the table. But one vital component to Afghanistan’s reconstruction that has yet to receive much attention is the crucial role of natural resources.

Mountain ranges in Afghanistan's Daikondi Province

Water availability is severely stressed in Afghanistan. As the Hindu Kush glaciers have shrunk by 30 percent in the last 50 years, communities increasingly access groundwater reserves, and only an estimated 27 percent of households have access to safe drinking water.

Afghanistan’s Environment

Afghanistan is a semi-arid, land-locked country, buffered by the Hindu Kush mountain ranges, whose glacial melt is the country’s primary source of water. The mountain ranges have fertile valleys where nuts and fruit such as pomegranates, grapes, and pistachios are grown. Residents herd their goats and other animals throughout the high plateaus and deserts. The southeastern region of the country is home to rich evergreen forests, and in the northeast Wakkhan Corridor, rich biodiversity remains, including endangered snow leopards.

However, Afghanistan faces tremendous development and environmental challenges, and decades of conflict have exacerbated the degradation of the country’s natural resources. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, where 80 percent of the population relies on natural resources for their livelihoods, primarily through dependence on agriculture, which in turn makes the country particularly vulnerable to environmental factors and the impacts of global climate change. With 44 percent of the population under the age of 15, almost half of the country will face these issues over the next century. Fortunately, more people are recognizing that a long-term perspective that emphasizes the critical role of natural resources is necessary for a sustainable Afghanistan.

Environment, Influenced by Conflict

The availability of and access to water is severely stressed in Afghanistan. As the Hindu Kush glaciers have shrunk by 30 percent in the last 50 years, communities increasingly access groundwater reserves, and only an estimated 27 percent of households have access to safe drinking water. Historically, a network of karez, or underground tunnels – one of early civilization’s first advanced water management systems – once spread throughout the country  and provided water to farms and households. However, due to the incessant war, they are now in disrepair or unusable. The karez have not been maintained, and were further damaged by fighting when the Mujahadeen and local villagers used them to hide from Soviet forces. Without reliable water that the network of these water tunnels provided, communities are even more vulnerable to changing rainfall patterns, droughts, and other environmental factors.

Significant rates of deforestation are further contributing to the country’s arid landscape, air pollution, habitat loss, and increased vulnerability to flooding. (In July 2011, Afghanistan and Pakistan were hit with some of the worst flooding in recent years, killing over 1,200 people.)

In the east, the largest areas of forest have been reduced by more than 50 percent. High demand for timber trading, including from Pakistan, is the driving force behind this, where truckloads of smuggled timber are taken out of Afghanistan’s forests each day. The destruction is illegal and unsustainable, but there is little incentive for local government or communities to stop it since it brings needed revenue. (Though minimal compared to the profit made by timber traders and even the Taliban.) In the north of the country, the once iconic pistachio trees that provided substantial revenue to the region have been almost completely destroyed. During the Soviet era, opposing sides cut down these trees as a tactic to destroy cover and hiding places. Moreover, because of the instability, local communities themselves cut down the trees in larger quantities to safeguard their access to firewood, and the unmanaged trees were left vulnerable to herds of grazing animals.

Environment, Looking Forward

As Afghanistan develops, new environmental issues emerge. Mirroring global trends, Afghans are urbanizing, which is rapidly increasing demands on cities’ local water resources, sanitation capacity, land use, and air quality. The mayor of Kabul has made efforts to plant thousands of trees within and outside the city, but the Kabul River remains laden with trash. Air pollution from households burning coal and firewood and exhaust from outdated cars further threatens public health.

The game-changer is mining. In 2010, an estimated $1 trillion of untapped mineral deposits, including iron, copper, and lithium, were identified in Afghanistan and are seen as a means to transform the country’s economy. Exploration rights have been granted to companies from India, and most recently, China. In December 2011, rights for oil exploration were granted to state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation in a $7 billion agreement. However, there are concerns over the environmental impacts of such mining and extractive industries – including effects on water quality and the extensive use of water resources during mining processing – as well as whether or not the revenue generated will reach Afghan communities. Afghanistan’s government is working quickly to develop appropriate laws and regulations, but this requires time, capacity, and eventually implementation and enforcement – major challenges in a country already facing severe security challenges.

Environmental Governance

With such tenuous dynamics, the future of Afghanistan’s natural resources is uncertain, but there are some promising developments. The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) – the country’s environmental governing body established in 2005 – has made strides to address the country’s environmental challenges. In 2007, Afghanistan’s first Environment Law was approved, and the country is a signatory to a number of international conventions on environmental issues. Efforts are under way to promote better sanitation practices, environmental education, community-based natural resource management, adaptation to climate change, and ecotourism. And, in 2009, the country’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, was established.

However, communities that depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods need more access to information on responsible resource use as the country begins to face its next environmental challenges; and an increased awareness for addressing environmental issues places a greater demand for government action. However, the technical capacity of NEPA and local environmental authorities needs strengthening to effectively govern the components critical to daily Afghan life. As the government develops its National Priority Programs which will set the future direction for the country’s development path and inform the areas to which international aid will be directed, the prominence of an environmental agenda is vital for the long-term security of Afghanistan.

In November 2011, The Asia Foundation’s Environment Team traveled to Kabul to meet with government officials, civil society, and the international development community to explore the dynamics facing Afghanistan’s natural environment and their direct impact on security, livelihoods, and development. The Foundation is initiating efforts to support environmental governance in Afghanistan by helping to strengthen the capacity of environmental authorities and raising awareness among local communities on environmental issues, among its other program initiatives in the country.

Lisa Hook is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Arif Shafi:

    very important topic, related to the future of Afghans. Fruitful information for the investors. in my view, if those resources were well handled, it can change lives of Afghans, which is very important for those people, suffering for the last 30 years…
    Thanks for sharing this with me.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available