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A decades-long conflict set against a backdrop of floods, drought, and failed crops has left Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people deprived of food and water, while eroding the country’s government and social support systems.
“The sky stopped raining on us, the earth has stopped growing grass for us, and eventually the government has also stopped helping us,” said Abdul Baqi, one of the 371,000 Afghans displaced from his home when drought conditions ruined livelihoods, reports the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Climate change has ravaged rural Afghanistan—and the NRC report says more than three million Afghans stand to be affected by drought this year alone.
Now that American troops have withdrawn and the Taliban has returned to power, the regime’s handling of climate-induced devastation will have an impact on their legitimacy both at home and abroad. But more importantly, the country’s climate policy—and how it is addressed at the COP 26 climate summit—will determine the security and survival of millions of Afghan citizens.
Climate, Hunger, and Conflict
A combination of social, political, and geographic factors make Afghanistan one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change. The region’s annual temperatures have already risen 1.8°C since 1950, compared to the 1.08°C increase worldwide, and the temperature rise is expected to continue outpacing the global average, says Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).
Roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas and depend directly on agriculture for food and employment, making them particularly vulnerable to shifting precipitation patterns that cause drier springs and wetter winters. The increasing frequency of droughts and floods causes substantial crop losses—recent droughts have left the country 40% short of the wheat it needs for this year. A third of all Afghans were already facing severe hunger before the U.S. withdrawal, and that number has now risen to more than half of the total population, reports Bloomberg News.
“Climate change is unfair. It further weakens those who are already struggling and have limited means and social capital to overcome the consequences of extreme weather events, and whose livelihoods are weather dependent,” writes the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Many Afghans are being forced to part with the few assets that could help maintain their future resilience. “In desperate attempts to feed their families, herders have been forced to sell their livestock, farmers to flee their villages, and parents are marrying their daughters at ever younger ages,” reports Al Jazeera.
The fighting that led up to the Taliban’s takeover had the added impact of displacing hundreds of thousands of Afghans and cutting them off from food and shelter, says the NRC. The Taliban are now displacing more communities by forcibly evicting their opponents as well as minority groups, and redistributing the land to their own supporters. Those coerced to leave their villages are then subjected to checkpoints to ensure they are not taking any crops with them.
“It’s particularly cruel to displace families during harvest and just before winter sets in,” said Human Rights Watch Asia Director Patricia Gossman.
As well, the country now faces economic collapse and massive inflation as foreign powers protest the new government by withholding aid and freezing Taliban access to the former government’s assets.
“It’s this perfect storm that, on top of the drought, every single factor that could help people survive or cope has been taken away,” Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute told the Financial Times.
Food and water shortages feed the country’s ongoing conflict. Disputes among citizens on matters like “access to agricultural land and grazing pastures or the division of vital irrigation water, can and do turn violent,” explains the Climate Security Expert Network. The scarcity is so pervasive that more Afghans have been affected by fighting over natural resources than by militant insurgency.
However, the division between the two sources of violence is not clear. Criminal organizations and insurgent groups—including the Taliban—grew in power by recruiting citizens looking to escape the hunger and poverty worsened by climate change. At the same time, the previous government was delegitimized when it failed to address water shortages. That helped build support for the Taliban, even as the regime weaponized water access by disrupting dams and cutting off water access to targeted regions, reports Water, Peace & Security.
The Taliban have built up support within this turmoil by presenting themselves as a source of stability. But the regime needs to deliver on the promise now that it is in charge again, and that will mean addressing the environmental challenges pushing citizens to desperate measures.
Among other actions, “providing safe, predictable and regular water would be an opportunity for the Taliban to prove their legitimacy and show good governance,” Janani Vivekananda, a senior advisor on climate change and peacebuilding at think tank Adelphi, told Climate Home News.
The combination of climate and conflict is now entrenched in the region’s politics, and Afghanistan’s rural economies’ involvement in illicit markets demonstrates how difficult it will be to resolve the crises.
Many Afghan families pressured by the drought began growing water-efficient opium poppies, rather than food crops, to earn money through the county’s vast drug trade. The Taliban itself is deeply involved in the opium market, which amounted to roughly 7% of the nation’s GDP in 2017, reports Reuters. Some experts estimate that illicit narcotics contribute up to 60% of the regime’s annual revenue, though other sources suggest that a larger contribution came from taxing the now-ousted government for access to mined resources, including coal. Either way, the contribution from opium is substantial.
Income from poppies is now a main lifeline supporting many communities through decades of violence and land degradation, making the crop a major political issue. But the regime had banned opium during its previous reign and has vowed to do so again in a bid for recognition by foreign powers, says the BBC.
“Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore, but we need international help for that,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said.
But the Taliban will face pushback from rural communities that are the base of their support, writes the New York Times. The previous opium ban was unpopular with rural Afghans and caused “a huge political storm against the Taliban,” foreign policy expert Vanda Felbab-Brown told Reuters.
Against this likely backlash, the only viable path towards stability could start with alleviating the climate-provoked water and food shortages. But the Taliban are aware they may not be able to achieve that without recognition from foreign governments.
Global Community Wary of Intervening
The Taliban are also calling for support from foreign donors through renewed investments for climate change projects, says The Telegraph. Ongoing projects were shut down or scaled back following the takeover earlier this year, some of them already approved and funded by support programs like the Green Climate Fund.
But the international community is now walking a fine line to balance the devastating consequences of withholding aid against maintaining leverage against the Taliban—which is critical in light of reports from inside the country that the regime is continuing to violate human rights and deny basic freedoms to women. Leaders of the G20 agreed in mid-October to provide funding for humanitarian aid, but have clarified that the aid is not a sign of recognition, reports Al Jazeera.
Although some countries—like China—pledged financial assistance and expressed a willingness to engage with the Taliban months ago, governments more aligned with the United States continue to express concern about diverting funds that may inadvertently support the regime and cite unclear commitments from Taliban leaders on essential policy issues like protecting the freedoms of women and girls, writes Global News.
The UN has set up a “special trust fund” in the absence of sufficient humanitarian aid from foreign governments, intended to provide funds to Afghan households to help families survive the winter and prevent the country’s economy from imploding. Payments will provide a temporary basic income, cash for public works programs, and grants for micro-enterprises, reports Al Jazeera. But World Food Programme Director David Beasley said more is needed to stave off the worst outcomes.
“Children are going to die. People are going to starve. Things are going to get a lot worse,” he told Reuters, adding that the country’s collapse would trigger a migration crisis that would also affect surrounding countries.
“I don’t think the leaders in the world realize what is coming their way,” said Beasley.
Climate Action and COP 26
Before the Taliban takeover, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan laid out its climate policy in a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) filed with the UN. The NDC lists various climate goals, including improving water access for farmers and raising awareness among Afghans. It acknowledges the country’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions 13.6% by 2030, though reaching that target is “conditional on external support.”
The nation intended to update its climate pledge and participate in COP 26, where representatives “planned to ask for more financial assistance for projects to improve water management, as well as smart agriculture implementations to improve farm productivity and reduce environmental harm,” says Vox.
However, Ahmad Samim Hoshmand—the Republic’s climate negotiator who was also responsible for enforcing regulations for ozone-depleting HFCs—left the country after receiving death threats from illegal traders released by the Taliban. Hoshmand continued expressing interest in attending COP 26, but the Taliban also requested a presence at the summit and expressed a desire to contribute to global plans to tackle climate change, Vox writes.
“We believe the world has a unique opportunity of rapprochement and coming together to tackle the challenges not only facing us but the entire humanity,” said Adbul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission. “These challenges ranging from world security and climate change need the collective efforts of all, and cannot be achieved if we exclude or ignore an entire people who have been devastated by imposed wars for the past four decades.”
Despite his own aspirations, Hoshmand said the international community should engage the Taliban in climate discussions and facilitate Afghanistan’s access to the Green Climate Fund, which he says can be “slow and painful” for countries experiencing conflict.
“The climate threats of drought and desertification faced by Afghanistan does not recognize politics and diplomatic relations—it is a threat to the people of Afghanistan whether they are led by the Taliban or someone else,” he told Climate Home News.
Foreign governments ultimately denied the Taliban’s request to attend the summit for fear it would indicate tacit recognition of the regime as a legitimate government. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also rejected applications from six environmental experts from Afghanistan—who had fled the Taliban—just days before the summit. The UNFCCC gave no explanation, reports The Guardian. As a result, Afghan citizens are not represented at the global climate summit.
By investing in regional environmental projects, international support can provide sustained financial assistance while addressing sustainability and employment issues, he says. For the many people struggling for food, water, and security against a backdrop of rising temperatures and political turmoil, “the donor community has a moral and ecological responsibility to ensure that environmental stresses are mitigated,” writes Ali.
The physical geography that makes Afghanistan so vulnerable to the climate crisis will not change, making it even more important during COP 26 that “the extreme vulnerabilities of the Afghan people should not be neglected,” Ali adds.