by Alex Kirby – BBC Online
Two decades of war have laid waste Afghanistan’s environment so badly that its reconstruction is now compromised, the United Nations says. A UN Environment Programme (UNEP) survey found more than half of Kabul’s water supply is going to waste.
More than half the forests in three Afghan provinces have been destroyed in 25 years. A team from UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit worked with the Afghanistan Transitional Authority to carry out the survey. It involved 20 Afghan and foreign scientists in visits to 38 urban sites in four cities, and to 35 rural sites.
The team’s report says the years of conflict have led to the “collapse of local and national governance, destroyed infrastructure, hindered agricultural activity and driven people into cities already lacking the most basic public amenities.”
It says: “Three to four years of drought have compounded a state of widespread and serious resource degradation: lowered water tables, dried-up wetlands, denuded forests, eroded land and depleted wildlife populations.”
Children are at special risk. UNEP found children working 12-hour shifts in dangerous factories, and sleeping at their machines.
Two million refugees returned to Afghanistan in , and 1.5 million more are expected in 2003, putting further strains on the country and its natural resources.
Dr Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director, said the report showed environmental restoration must be a major part of Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
He said: “Over 80% of Afghan people live in rural areas, yet they have seen many of their basic resources – water for irrigation, trees for food and fuel – lost in just a generation. In urban areas the most basic necessity for human wellbeing – safe water – may be reaching as few as 12% of the people.”
The report says Kabul’s water system is losing up to 60% of its supply because of leaks and illegal use.
In Herat, only 10% of the 150 public taps were working. In Heart, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and the capital, the team found medical waste from hospitals being disposed of in the streets and an abandoned well. In some cases it contained syringes and human organs. Urban drinking water had high concentrations of bacteria contaminants, coliforms and E.coli from sewage.
Solid waste disposal, UNEP says, is “one of the country’s most glaring problems”. Dumps are often sited above cities, where heavy rain can wash the waste back into the streets.
The report says: “UNEP investigations of oil refineries and transport terminals, and brick, asphalt and lead battery factories revealed acute environmental and human health risks.
“In a plastic recycling/shoe factory in Kabul the team found children working without protection from toxic chemicals and sleeping at machines, or in factory alcoves, between their 12-hour shifts.”
In the countryside, it says, satellite imagery shows conifer forests in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan have shrunk by more than half since 1978.
Pistachio woodlands in northern Afghanistan, valuable money earners, have been devastated. The report says: “Almost no trees could be detected in Badghis and Takhar provinces in 2002 by satellite instruments, compared with 55% and 37% land cover respectively in 1977.”
Inevitably, wildlife suffers: several hundred families had taken over an island in the Amu Darya river which was formerly home to otters, wild boar, Bactrian deer and birds of prey.
The team spent two weeks on horseback in a remote area grazed by Kyrgyz and Wakhi herders, where there are snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, wolves, brown bears and Asian ibex.
UNEP says hunting, mainly for meat and furs, was significantly reduced during the Soviet occupation, but has increased since then.