Scientists to assess Afghanistan's war-ravaged environment

Posted: 11 February 2002

The United Nations is leading the first environmental assessment of Afghanistan in 25 years, a task that will evaluate the damage done to everything from crops and water supplies to endangered animals.

The environmental review will be the first comprehensive look inside the country since Western scientists last had access in the late 1970s. It also will be the second such postwar environmental effort led by the UN, the first being the 1999 survey of the Balkans after the NATO air campaign. But officials say the Afghan assessment will be a more wide-ranging one. UN officials are negotiating with local warlords and the interim national government to ensure the researchers' safe passage. After a generation of anarchy and five years with little rain, there is almost no firsthand knowledge of environmental conditions. But experts say refugees and video-taped news footage describe a disaster in waiting. Afghanistan's environment is as complex and untamed as its politics. To the west, golden sand dunes get less than 3 inches of rain a year. Gale-force winds pummel the city of Herat for 120 days every spring. To the north and east, the snow-capped Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain belts soar 21,000 feet and flood the central plains with icy spring melts. They rumble with earth-quakes and landslides as subterranean continental plates grind in an endless tectonic struggle. Gene bank

Temperature extremes range from 20 below in the mountains to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the deserts. Lately, war and drought have made conditions unbearable, even by Afghan standards. Refugees talk of rivers turning to sand, orchards stripped and hillsides eroded, grain fields and pastures gnawed to thorny scrub. Herds of shaggy, black-hooded karakul sheep which provided wool for clothing and carpets, were eaten long ago - or starved.

In the rubble of Kabul, scientific casualties include a gene bank for vital crops, seed banks and collections of native plants, most of the zoo's native species, a dairy research centre, and laboratories and archives at the university. "The groundwork has been laid for an environmental disaster," said University of Massachusetts wildlife biologist Peter Zahler, who has mapped watersheds and done species counts in central Asia. "You've got a terribly poor country and you're doing big damage that will last a long time," he said. "Perhaps even centuries in some cases." Industrialised nations have pledged $4.5 billion in aid over five years to finance a new government and national security force, open schools and hospitals, and replace a shattered infrastructure.

Timber mafia

Yet 80 per cent of Afghanistan's 26.8 million people scratch out a living in scattered medieval villages. The UN's latest appraisal is likely to concentrate on a few key resources:

Forests. Forests and woodlands have diminished by half and now cover less than 2 per cent of the country. "The worst deforestation occurred during the Taliban rule, when its timber mafia denuded forests to sell to Pakistani markets," says Usman Qazi, an environmental consultant based in Quetta. Since 1979, artillery and jets have pounded forests. Refugees have turned to the same woods for survival. "Imagine 20,000 people wandering around with nothing to eat or burn," Zahler said. "How long do you think a 400-year-old patch of juniper is going to last?"

Forests and vegetation are also being cleared for farmland. "Eventually the land will be unfit for even the most basic form of agriculture," warns Hammad Naqi of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan.

Water. The normal rainfall cycle is two dry years in every five. Some villages haven't seen a good downpour since the mid-1990s. Wheat and barley fields are scorched. The water table could take centuries to recharge. The network of irrigation tunnels known as karzees has largely collapsed or been blown up. American aircraft damaged the Kajaki Dam and hydropower station guarding the Helmand Valley. Afghanistan's illegal drug trade is based on drought-tolerant poppy fields; officials say irrigation is essential to restoring food crops. Wildlife. Landlocked Afghanistan is a melting pot for desert, northern, and tropical species. In the late 1990s, antelope and gazelle in the Lashkar Gah Desert were indiscriminately hunted. Among endangered species, fewer than 100 snow leopards remain in the mountains. Some refugees have turned to hunting these rare snow leopards to buy safe passage across the border. A single fur can fetch $2000 on the black market, says Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. In addition, timber and medicinal plants are smuggled across the border while falcons and other wildlife are smuggled live to wealthy Arab and Pacific Rim customers.

The US air campaign and drought have reduced bird migrations by a staggering 85 per cent. Birds such as the pelican and endangered Siberian crane cross eastern Afghanistan as they follow one of the world's great migratory routes from Siberia to Pakistan and India. "Cranes are very sensitive and they do not use the route if they see danger," says Ashiq Ahmad, an enviromental scientist for the WWF in Peshawar, Pakistan, who has tracked the collapse of the birds' migration this winter (2001-2002).

Toxic compounds

Then there is the problem of contamination. Defence analysts say that although depleted uranium has been used less in Afghanistan than in the Kosovo conflict, conventional explosives will litter the country with pollutants. They contain toxic compounds such as cyclonite, a carcinogen, and rocket propellents contain perchlorates, which damage thyroid glands. Also cause for grave concern is the dangers presented by the millions of uncleared land mines. "Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan that includes the restoration of ecoysystems," said Kabul University chancellor Amir Hassanyar, now in Tampa, Fla. "Once our markets were filled with 100 varieties of pomegranates, pistachios, and fruits," he said. "After 23 years of war it will take 10 or 15 years to recover. Maybe more." Sources: Associated Press and The New Scientist, 2nd January 2002.