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How the Taliban adds to Afghanistan's woes when it comes to climate-fueled disasters

An Afghan boy shovels mud from the courtyard of a house following flash floods after heavy rainfall at a village in Baghlan province on May 11.
ATIF ARYAN/AFP via Getty Images
An Afghan boy shovels mud from the courtyard of a house following flash floods after heavy rainfall at a village in Baghlan province on May 11.

“I lost two of my sons who drowned. I also lost over 400 livestock and my entire crops of wheat and corn,” says Haji Ghulam, a 43-year-old farmer in Afghanistan’s northern province of Baghlan. “These floods have ruined us.”

Since March, flash floods have inundated several parts of Afghanistan, reaching disastrous levels in May. Ghulam’s sons were among the 347 people killed in Baghlan province, while more than 5,000 families have been displaced, according to the Afghan Ministry of Refugee and Repatriation.

In other western and northern provinces, the U.N. has documented more than 60,000 people affected in a span of roughly two weeks, from May 8 to 20. There are reports of significant damage to thousands of acres of farmland and livestock as well as the destruction of more than 15,000 homes, prompting the World Health Organization to warn of potential epidemiological outbreaks.

Afghanistan's plight

Afghanistan was one of three countries whose natural disasters were assessed in a new report, released this month, from World Weather Attribution. The other two: Iran and Pakistan. This trio was selected because of the severe humanitarian impacts they’ve suffered due to flooding, drought and heat, says Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London

Of the three, she says, Afghanistan has a more difficult time addressing the crisis for a variety of reasons: the sanctions against the Taliban government have put a huge dent in international aid and the country has one of the world’s highest number of internally displaced people due to internal conflict as well as climate-related disasters – nearly 6 million. “When you are living in a camp, you are much more exposed to the impact of flash floods,” Otto notes.

The report from the team of climate scientists notes that “April-May rainfall in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan has become about 25% heavier in the last 40 years, increasing the risk of devastating flash floods.”

“This year’s floods were unprecedented,” says Hedayatullah Hamdard, a Taliban official who is director of the National Disaster Management Agency in Baghlan province. “Our teams are working with the help of other organizations and NGOs to help rescue people and also provide for their needs.”

Hamdard said the floods had even wreaked havoc on some of the infrastructure designed to prevent them. “The floods were so strong that they have destroyed canals and small dams that were used to direct excess rainwater,” he says,

Even as the Taliban government in Afghanistan and international NGOs scramble to support flood victims, climate experts warn that the disasters are far from over. Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns have escalated climate-related crises, and Afghanistan is not equipped to deal with the looming catastrophes.

With the dwindling of international support after the Taliban takeover, critical climate adaptation projects have suffered.

“Almost 95% of the previous climate adaptation projects -- approximately worth $826 million -- have been suspended, including irrigation projects, renewable energy and others that can help Afghans cope with climate shocks,” says Assem Mayar, an expert in water resource management who is from Afghanistan and is now on staff at Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research.

Most of the suspended projects were being implemented jointly with the previous government of Afghanistan, but the international community is reluctant to pursue similar partnerships with the Taliban, which has a history of restricting women’s rights and freedoms.

“Afghanistan still receives some amount from EU and U.N. projects, but this is less than 10% of the previous aid,” Mayar says. “It has left Afghans weaker, vulnerable and more exposed to the hazards of climate events.”

The brain drain

Ahmed Kassas

International Medical Corps

IMC has also experienced a drop in funding, especially for its climate projects in Afghanistan. "Because of the sanctions, some donors are reluctant to put funding in, let's say, constructing water systems, which is sometimes considered development activities and not humanitarian assistance,” Kassas explains. The sanctions allow funding only for humanitarian projects.

In addition to decreased funding and a loss of technical support, the the country has experienced a massive brain drain since the Taliban takeover, with all kinds of losses that affect climate crises: disaster management professionals, researchers and trained rescue personnel.

Combined, these shortfalls have exacerbated the toll of disasters, says specialists who focus on Afghanistan.

“The [previous] government was often under enormous public and media pressure in such situations, but now nobody [in Afghanistan] dares to criticize Taliban for their poor disaster management and response,” says Najibullah Sadid, a water resources and climate scientist at the University of Stuttgart. And while the previous government was far from capable in dealing with disasters, Sadid says, they “were more prepared with human and capital resources than the current authority.”

In earlier floods, survivors could be rescued by military and security personnel, says Sadid. He notes that Afghanistan no longer has fully functioning air capabilities.

Sadid points out another challenge: “There are very few local flood response units that can reach people in the early hours of the event, which is critical to saving lives.”

Aside from the statements by Hedayatullah Hamdard of the National Disaster Management Agency, officials in Kabul, including staff of the National Environmental Protection Agency, did not reply to NPR requests for additional comment.

A call for help

As the country braces for more predicted floods in the coming weeks, scientists and experts are urging the international community to step up and support vulnerable Afghans.

“The international community bears also the responsibility for climate shocks in Afghanistan,” Sadid says. “The longer we wait for an ideal government in Kabul, the worse the condition will get, and the outcomes of these climate disasters will accumulate for the future.” Both Sadid and Mayar suggested channeling the funds directly to Afghans — cash aid to families, support for local communities to build and maintain canals -- bypassing the Taliban where feasible.

Mayar likened climate change to a virus that can spread quickly through an entire community. “While the stronger can resist long enough and even recover from its impact, it will kill those who are weakest first,” he says. “Afghans are the weakest members of the global community.”

''We feel a sense of dread'

Despite being on the front lines, awareness about climate change remains very low among Afghans. Ghulam, the farmer, doesn’t know much about it, but he has noticed a significant drop in his crop yields over the years. Sometimes it’s less than half of what it was two decades ago. “But these changes are from God’s side,” he says, defeatedly.

Ghulam says that the village that was once his home, his ancestral land and the birthplace of his 10 children, now lies in ruins. Although he has received financial support from the Taliban government to compensate for his loss, Ghulam is unsure if he will be able to fully recover from this trauma.

“We are afraid to rebuild here,” he says, urging the government to relocate him and other affected families to safer regions. “Every time the sky turns dark again, we feel a sense of dread that maybe there is another storm coming that will take away what it missed the first time.”

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar



Copyright 2024 NPR

Ruchi Kumar
[Copyright 2024 NPR]