In-depth: Environment and Energy

30 years of war and unchecked logging have left ‪#Afghanistan‬ with some of the most polluted air in the world. Now UNDP, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme are trying to reverse the damage with projects to protect natural parks and forested areas, because more trees mean cleaner air. Credit: UNDP Afghanistan / Rob Few

Afghanistan’s environment is under great pressure. The decades of conflict, on-going instability, overall poverty, prolonged droughts and susceptibility to other natural hazards, population increase and influx of displaced and returning population –have all exacted a heavy toll on the environment and natural resource base of the country.

Over 70% of the Afghan population lives in rural areas practicing agricultural and related rural activities that rely heavily on use of natural resources. Although estimates vary, of Afghanistan’s some 650,000 square km of land-locked territory, only 12% is arable and 5% irrigated, while 7% is rain-fed and cropped opportunistically. 45% is rangeland under permanent pastures,1 less than 1.5% under forest cover, with the remaining 39% being mountainous. Agriculture, not including poppy cultivation, generates about 40% of the GDP and employs about 70% of the labour force and is the major source of livelihoods in the country.

The degradation of the natural resource base directly and severely impacts the livelihood of the majority of the Afghan population as well as the country’s economic development as a whole. For instance, poor, uncoordinated management and excessive extraction of water for agriculture purposes, combined with long years of drought, has led to drastic declines in water flows in the Helmand River and 99% desiccation of its downstream Sistan wetlands, which is an important source of agricultural production.

Afghanistan is home to globally significant wildlife species (such as Marco Polo and snow leopard) as well as landscapes (such as Band-i-Amir and Wakhan Corridor). Also as the water tower of the region hosting headwaters of some of the significant transboundary water bodies (such as the Sistan and Amu Darya basins), the country also holds a key to the future of the regional environment. With the country’s water resources largely dependent on the snow melt originating from ice caps and glaciers in the high mountains, and a large portion of the territory being arid and non-arable, the impact of global climate change is believed to draw negative impacts the sustainability of already scarce resources in Afghanistan. The lack of data, the nascent stage of state building and insufficient institutional capacity in the environment sector leaves the country relatively behind in the global climate debate, adaptation and mitigation measures, while climate change will certainly not exempt Afghanistan from being impacted.

The Government of Afghanistan fully recognises that failure to address environmental challenges will negatively affect the long-term growth of the country as well as meeting the country’s MDGs. The upcoming ANDS recognises environment as a major cross-cutting issue with ramifications for addressing it within a multi-sectoral, multi-coordinated approach. In recent years Afghanistan has also started dialogue with neighbouring countries on sustainable management of transboundary natural resources, and has started active participation in Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

Poverty-Environment and Sustainable Development

WCS, with UNDP support, is working on a new five-year development plan allowing improved tourist facilities in Bamyan's Band-e-Amir that blend in with the environment and also provides employment for local people. Credit: UNDP Afghanistan / Rob Few

Studies reveal that about 93 per cent of the internal conflicts are related to land and water; about 32 per cent of households do not have any access to land; and about 35 per cent people do not have access to clean drinking water.  Afghanistan is known as the country of lowest ability to retain and utilize its water resources.   Despite the high potential of renewable energy, only about 15 per cent people have access to electricity which is serious limiting factor for community development.

Because of extreme inadequacy in waste management and pollution abatement measures, severe air and water pollution has already caused a public health hazard.  Lack of waste management approach and unsustainable land use contaminated terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem resulting in reduced ecosystem productivity including agricultural production, public health hazard and economic loss.  Cities are growing very rapidly without any systematic planning and sustainability vision.  As a result, it fails to provide basic services to  city dwellers and pollutions are more acute in cities.

On the other hand, the country is prone to frequent natural hazards such as floods and droughts, causing agricultural productivity losses and sinking the poor to extreme poverty.  Climate change implications are now quite visible in precipitation and temperature regime resulting in prolonged and more frequent droughts and floods.  Along with energy inadequacy and declining access of poor to land (valleys, rangeland and forest) and water resources, absence of enabling policies and institutional setting for sustainable management of natural resources remains a major development gap.

In recognition of people and country’s dependency on natural resources, environmental conservation has been recognized as a pressing concern in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) adopted in 2008 positioned environment as a “cross cutting issue” to the three main pillars of Afghanistan’s National Strategy: (i) Security, (ii) Governance, Rule of Law, and Human Rights, (iii) Economic and Social Development. The ANDS prioritizes restoration and sustainable use of rangelands and forests, conservation of biodiversity, preservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage sites or resources, community based natural resource management, reducing pollution, and improving environmental management, education and awareness.

The National Priority Programs (NPPs) especially Agricultural and Rural Development (ARD) Clusters are fully focusing on environment and natural resources management for an inclusive development approach in the country.  The National Environment Strategy aims to improve the quality of life of the people of Afghanistan through conservation, protection and improvement of the country’s environment.  Government has also recognized ANR and extractive industries as two main growth engines for Afghanistan.

Against this backdrop, UNDP has developed a Strategy focusing on the nexus between poverty, environment and development.  The implementation of this strategy will help UNDP to facilitate sustainable development in Afghanistan by undertaking appropriate policy and programmatic interventions for integrating sustainable development principles in the national development framework.

To be fully compatible with the national priorities, UNDP’s collaboration with the government and other relevant national and international entity will be centered on the following thematic areas:

(1) land and water resources management for peace building and economic development; (2) co-management of productive ecosystems and sustainable livelihood; (3) disaster risk reduction and community resilience; (4)energy efficiency and development of renewable energy technology systems for rural and urban areas; (5) pro-environment and pro-poor sustainable mining; (6) low emission and climate resilient cities and localities; (7) climate change adaptation specifically in agriculture, water and infrastructure sectors; (8) pollution abatement including waste management.

Currently, following are the main programmatic initiatives under the portfolio of the sustainable development:

  • Establishing Integrated models for protected areas and their co-Management in Afghanistan;
  • Strengthening the resilience of rural livelihood options for Afghan communities in Panjshir, Balkh, Uruzgan, and Herat Provinces to manage climate change-induced disaster risks; and
  • Small Grants Prgramme (SGP).

In terms of policy level interventions, UNDP is collaborating with the Government to develop the National Climate Change Action Plan, and would facilitate post 2015 development dialogue as well as other interventions as follow up to the Rio+20 conference.  

In addition, UNDP is also in the process of developing the national Rural Renewable Energy Programme and positioning itself in the area of Disaster Risk Management.