How passivity in climate change can exacerbate Afghanistan’s crisis

After decades of foreign intervention and violent conflict, the US mission in Afghanistan has ended and the Taliban have done so announced a new government. But for millions of Afghans, human-caused climate change has only intensified the fighting.

Most of Afghanistan is dry and hot for much of the year, and from 1950 to 2010 the landless country was warmed 1.8 degrees Celsius – about double the global average, but it is only responsible for one small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The combined effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, war and prolonged drought threatens millions of Afghans with food security. Although precipitation in Afghanistan has long varied, some agricultural regions in the east, north and central highlands look up to 40 percent less rain in the spring, when the largely rain-fed crops will need water the most. A majority of Afghans earn some income from agriculture.

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

To avoid the most devastating consequences for Afghanistan, experts have stressed that the United States and the international community must commit to deeper cuts in CO2 emissions and help developed countries become more resilient to environmental disasters.

At UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, almost 200 world governments have the chance to fulfill their commitments to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in line with the Paris 2016 climate agreement. Developing countries are already asks some of the world’s foremost economies to further reduce emissions and provide financial assistance with adaptation to climate change and the transition to clean energy through mechanisms such as Green Climate Fund.

Before The Taliban took over, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency planned to deliver its updated climate pledge at the conference. It planned to ask for more financial support for projects to improve water management, as well smart agriculture implementations to improve the farm’s productivity and reduce environmental damage.

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

But despite the security threats he and his homeland face, Hoshmand emphasizes: “If we do not address climate change, conflict and violence will only get worse.”

Taliban members have said they want recognition from the international community and working together to address common concerns such as 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 new Taliban-led government.

Jariel Arvin

What are the main ways in which climate change is currently affecting Afghanistan?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

Afghanistan is among the most vulnerable countries in the world in terms of climate change, based on its geography, sensitivity to and ability to cope with global warming. I am 100 percent sure that Afghanistan is the most vulnerable country in the world when you add conflicts to these criteria.

Various data show that the country is facing food security, water shortages, droughts and floods. All of these issues are linked to climate change, and in recent years we have seen the situation worsen. We have had extreme weather like floods in the north, at the same time as we have experienced drought in southern Afghanistan.

But there are also indirect effects of climate change on Afghan society. Violence, conflicts, human rights violations and younger marriage is linked with climate change. 85 percent of Afghanistan’s economy depends on agriculture. So when the farmers lose their livelihood, they will do what they can to survive. In a fragile country like Afghanistan, the alternatives are often dangerous.

Jariel Arvin

What did Afghanistan do to tackle climate change before the Taliban took over?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

In recent years, we have been actively involved in a multilateral process to combat climate change in order to increase gender equality, knowledge sharing and partnerships with countries around the world. We have focused in particular on cooperating with countries that have common interests in socio-economic development and sustainable growth. Afghanistan has taken a number of actions at the national, policy and planning and international levels.

Jariel Arvin

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

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

We have taken lots of practical steps, such as developing one 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 great achievement for us.

We secured more than $ 20 million in grants and funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), to support the development of renewable energy. At the same time, we have also improved ours national climate targets in accordance with the Paris Agreement 2016. We planned to send them to COP26.

Jariel Arvin

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

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

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

At least I would like to see room for Afghanistan at COP26. There should be no empty chair. There should be someone representing the country, and that person should share at management level that Afghanistan is the most vulnerable country in the world, and we need financial support to cope with climate change, for the sake of our children and the next generation.

Jariel Arvin

Are you still walking?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

I was on the list. And if the situation calms down, and if my colleagues resume the office, I will attend. I would like to represent my country.

Jariel Arvin

Let’s say the Taliban did not take over this year. How would you have worked to deal with climate change if you were still part of the government?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

My colleagues from the National Environmental Protection Agency who remained in Kabul are still working on going to COP26. Everyone is waiting for the government to be announced. Once we have a government, then I am sure that climate experts will go to the Taliban and tell them how urgent and important it is to send a delegation to COP26.

Jariel Arvin

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

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

A decade ago, when someone in Afghanistan talked about climate change, it was something you have to imagine. Now it seems. So governments have to work with each other to survive. You can not stop droughts, floods or landslides. To survive, governments must address the problem. There is no choice but to deal with climate change.

Jariel Arvin

So you say that because climate change is an existential issue that threatens Afghanistan’s future, can the Taliban’s commitment be taken seriously?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

I hope so. If they know that we are facing very serious problems and that we cannot do anything about them without the support of the international community, then of course they will make some good decisions in this regard.

Jariel Arvin

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

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

Climate change differs from internal issues, economic issues or even peace and sustainability. It is a matter of life and death – of a society, of government, of a people. My family is still there. If climate change is not tackled properly, they could escape Afghanistan one day — not because of war but because of climate-related disasters.

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

Jariel Arvin

So you say that most people in Afghanistan, like farmers and people working in the agricultural sector, are not aware of climate change?

Samim Hoshmand

Absolutely not. They are aware that something has changed in nature. They know that the current situation is not like previous decades, but they do not know the reason. They are religious people, and they are not knowledgeable about the science of climate change. It is the duty of the international community to support Afghanistan in adapting to climate change and its impact.

Jariel Arvin

How would you spend aid from the international community? What is the best way to get the most relief for people in Afghanistan? What type of project?

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

If I am very optimistic, we can carry out projects in very remote areas, which we have not reached in previous years. It would also be an opportunity to somehow adapt to climate change in Afghanistan and implement projects in very remote and foreign and insecure places.

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

Jariel Arvin

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

Ahmad Samim Hoshmand

When people lose their ability to cultivate, which is their main source of income, they become more willing to work with opposing entities to regain their livelihood. When people are hungry, they will do anything to end each other.

If we do not tackle climate change, conflict and violence will only get worse.

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