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How inaction on climate change can worsen the crisis in Afghanistan

Everything is at stake for Afghanistan at this year’s UN climate conference.

People walk next to houses damaged by flash floods in eastern Afghanistan, on July 31.
AFP via Getty Images

After decades of foreign intervention and violent conflict, the American mission in Afghanistan has ended and the Taliban have announced a new government. But for millions of Afghans, human-induced climate change has only magnified the strife.

Most of Afghanistan is dry and hot for much of the year, and from 1950 to 2010, the landlocked country warmed 1.8 degrees Celsius — about twice the global average, but it is only responsible for a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, war, and prolonged drought threaten millions of Afghans with food insecurity. Although rainfall in Afghanistan has long varied, certain farming regions in the east, north, and central highlands are seeing up to 40 percent less rain during the spring, when the largely rain-fed crops will need water most. A majority of Afghans earn some income from farming.

The death toll was said to have hit over 100, with hundreds of homes destroyed, as a result of floods in Afghanistan in late August.
Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

To avoid the most devastating impacts for Afghanistan, experts have stressed that the US and the international community must commit to deeper cuts to carbon emissions and help developed countries to become more resilient in the face of environmental calamities.

At the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November, nearly 200 world governments have the chance to make good on their commitments to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, in line with the 2016 Paris climate agreement. Developing countries are already asking some of the world’s top economies to further slash emissions, and to provide financial help with adapting to climate change and transitioning to clean energy through mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund.

Before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency planned to submit its updated climate pledge at the conference. It 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.

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand was set to represent Afghanistan at COP26. But now he’s one of the thousands of Afghan people to flee, as the Taliban swept through major cities and assumed power. As national ozone officer for the United Nations Environment Program, Hoshmand’s work to enforce the global ban on ozone-depleting substances made him an enemy of people trading them. Having already worked a risky job in Afghanistan, Hoshmand now fears retribution as a refugee.

But despite the security threats facing him and his home country, Hoshmand stresses, “If we don’t address climate change, conflict and violence will only get worse.”

Members of the Taliban have said they want recognition from the international community and to work together to tackle shared concerns like global warming. But how?

For help answering this question, I called Hoshmand, who was in Tajikistan. Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.

This interview was conducted in late August, prior to the announcement of the new Taliban-formed government.

Jariel Arvin

What are the major ways climate change is currently affecting Afghanistan?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

Afghanistan is among the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change, based on its geography, sensitivity to, and ability to cope with global warming. I’m 100 percent sure that when you add conflict to those criteria, Afghanistan is the most vulnerable country in the world.

Various data shows that the country is facing food insecurity, water scarcity, drought, and flash floods. All these issues are connected to climate change, and in recent years, we have witnessed the situation get even worse. We’ve had extreme weather like floods in the north, while at the same time, we’ve experienced drought in the southern part of Afghanistan.

But there are also indirect impacts of climate change on Afghan society. Violence, conflict, human rights abuses, and underage marriage are linked with climate change. Eighty-five percent of Afghanistan’s economy depends on agriculture. So when farmers lose their livelihoods, they will do whatever they can to survive. In a fragile country like Afghanistan, the alternatives are often dangerous.

Jariel Arvin

What was Afghanistan doing to address climate change before the Taliban took over?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

In recent years, we’ve been actively engaging in a multilateral process to fight climate change with the aim of enhancing equality, knowledge sharing, and partnership with countries across the world. We’ve been especially focused on engaging with countries who share common interests of socioeconomic development and sustainable growth. Afghanistan has taken a number of actions at the national level, policy and planning level, and international level.

Jariel Arvin

Are there any specific policies or actions you can point to?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

We have taken lots of practical actions, like developing a climate change strategy and action plan. We also completed a greenhouse gas inventory for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, which was a very big achievement for us.

We secured more than $20 million in grants and financing from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), to support the development of renewable energy. At the same time, we’ve also improved our national climate targets in accordance with the 2016 Paris agreement. We were planning on submitting them at COP26.

Jariel Arvin

Do you have any idea what the updated plan will be?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

Not at this stage. I hope my colleagues can participate, but given the current situation it is quite difficult to arrange everything.

At the very least, I’d like to see space for Afghanistan at COP26. There should not be an empty chair. There should be someone representing the country, and that person should share at the leadership level that Afghanistan is the most vulnerable country in the world, and we need financial support to cope with climate change shocks, for the sake of our children and the next generation.

Jariel Arvin

Are you still going?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

I was on the list. And if the situation calms down, and if my colleagues resume office, then I will participate. I’d love to represent my country.

Jariel Arvin

Let’s say the Taliban didn’t take over this year. How would you have worked to address climate change if you were still a part of the government?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

My colleagues from the National Environmental Protection Agency who remained in Kabul are still working to go to COP26. Everyone is waiting for the government to be announced. Once we have a government, then I’m sure that climate experts will go to the Taliban and tell them the urgency and the importance of sending a delegation to COP26.

Jariel Arvin

I’ve read reports that the Taliban are seeking international recognition and that they want to work with other countries to fight climate change. Do you believe them?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

A decade ago, when someone in Afghanistan spoke about climate change, it was something that you had to imagine. Now it’s visible. So governments have to work with each other in order to survive. You can’t stop drought, floods, or landslides. In order to survive, governments have to address the problem. There’s no choice but to deal with climate change.

Jariel Arvin

So are you saying that since climate change is an existential issue that threatens the future of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s commitment can be taken seriously?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

I hope so. If they know that there are very serious issues we’re facing, and that we cannot do something about them without the support of the international community, then of course they will come up with some good decisions in this regard.

Jariel Arvin

How might the international community work with the Taliban on climate change?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

Climate change is different from internal issues, economic issues, or even peace and sustainability. It is a matter of life and death — of a community, of government, of a people. My family is still there. If climate change is not managed well, they might flee Afghanistan one day — not because of war but because of climate-related disasters.

Despite other political issues, the international community needs to help the people of Afghanistan. There are very remote communities where most people don’t know about climate change. They don’t know why there are floods, why there is drought, why there is uncertainty with national disasters. And it is the climate expert’s mandate to take care of them.

Jariel Arvin

So you’re saying that most people in Afghanistan, like farmers and people who are working in the agriculture sector, aren’t aware of climate change?

Samim Hoshmand

Absolutely not. They’re aware that something has changed in nature. They know that today’s situation is not like previous decades, but they don’t know the cause. They’re religious people, and they aren’t knowledgeable about the science of climate change. It is the duty of the international community to support Afghanistan in adapting to climate change shocks and impacts.

Jariel Arvin

How would you spend aid from the international community? What’s the best way to bring the most relief to people in Afghanistan? What kind of projects?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

If I’m very optimistic, we can implement projects in very remote areas, which we have not accessed in previous years. That would also be an opportunity to somehow adapt to the climate change shocks in Afghanistan, and implement projects in very remote and foreign and unsecure places.

Projects that help limit risk and exposure to natural disasters, investing in smart agriculture and adaptation projects for ecosystem restoration and reconstruction. We also need projects that improve early warning systems and water management.

Jariel Arvin

Some reports have suggested that climate change has helped the Taliban. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

When people lose their ability to farm, which is their main source of income, they become more willing to work with opposing entities to regain their livelihoods. When people are hungry, they will do anything to make ends meet.

If we don’t address climate change, the conflict and violence will only get worse.

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