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AFP, June 6, 2008

Afghanistan’s natural environment a victim of war

Illegal logging, smuggling of birds and pollution are some of the environmental problems facing the country

By Bronwen Roberts

YEARS of war saw Afghanistan’s forests levelled and its land polluted with fuel and mines, while more recent unchecked building and urbanisation is heaping new pressure on the environment, officials say.

As countries mark World Environment Day on June 5, conservationists and officials say Afghanistan faces many and unique challenges. The post-Taliban government has passed the country’s first environmental law and set up a protection agency, but a lack of capacity and expertise dog efforts to recover from the past and cope with the future, they said.

“The environmental loss was second to the human loss,” said Ghulam Mohammad Malikyar, founder of Save the Environment Afghanistan, of the decades of war that started with the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s. Before the conflict, three percent of the country was covered in natural forest, Malikyar said. This has been cut back to 1.5 percent through illegal logging and degradation including from people fleeing war.

More than half the forests in three Afghan provinces have been destroyed in 25 years.
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.
BBC, January 29, 2003

“When there was fighting, people migrated to hidden places,” he said. “Smugglers and mafia cut trees and took them to neighbouring countries.” The unlawful timber trade is continuing, with some reports of police involvement. So is the smuggling of falcons with about 1,000 of the birds trapped in the country’s deserts every year and smuggled into Pakistan en route to the United Arab Emirates where they can fetch 500 to 30,000 dollars each, Malikyar said.

Another victim has been the endangered snow leopard, native to this area. “Before the war we had 500 snow leopards,” Malikyar said. “Now there is no exact figure but they are estimated at 80 to 120.” The pelts of the elusive animals are however not too hard to come by. In one of dozens of fur shops in Kabul that are filled with sheep, mink and fox, a shopkeeper recently displayed one priced at 2,000 dollars.

At a market for international soldiers at the US military base at Bagram north of Kabul about 180 were seized over a recent two-week period, said Zahid Ullah Hamdard from the National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA). “There is no legislation to control the export of endangered species.” There is also no wildlife inventory but efforts are under way, led by the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, to survey animal populations.

Drought, desertification and deforestation have long been problems, particularly for the 80 percent of the population who live off the land, but one of the biggest new challenges is pollution, Hamdard said. Four million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, many of them flocking to Kabul which is now jammed with four million people, several times more than it was built to accommodate.

Air pollution is fed by roads choked with traffic and the burning of wood and plastic in the absence of electricity; garbage is piled in the streets and rivers; water supplies are often filthy. “In the rapid development of the past six or seven years, the environmental impact has not been taken into account,” Hamdard said. “We will again need to invest resources to recover what we have damaged.”

The government - already dealing with insecurity and widespread poverty - had however taken some “bold steps” to protect the environment, he said. One was establishing NEPA in April 2005 and the other was passing the Environment Law, the final version of which came into force in 2007. There were also moves under way to pass environmental impact assessment regulations for new projects and to protect significant areas, such as a group of startling blue lakes at Band-i-Amir in the central province of Bamiyan.

Discussions are meanwhile under way between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan to form a transboundary park in the Pamir mountains, Hamdard said. Afghanistan largely lacks the resources and expertise it needs to tackle its environmental problems, he said. And there is general lack of understanding of the importance of environmental protection, with awareness-raising key to events planned for World Environment Day.

“During the last 25 or 30 years environment was ignored and neglected and this needs time, capacity and resources to recover,” Malikyar said. Of efforts so far, he said: “It is not enough for a war-stricken country but it can be a step forward.”

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