Anatomy of a Crisis 006: When Climate Change Inflames War
As Afghanistan grapples with ongoing conflict, incompetent governance, severe famine, a stagnant economy, and international disengagement, it is also struggling with a more nebulous crisis—climate change.
The Drought in Afghanistan
Over a million people have been driven from their homes due to natural disasters and climate change alone in recent years, but the most visible effect of climate change so far has been drought. Afghanistan’s worst drought in decades is now in its second year. The drought has deeply exacerbated the food crisis, leaving 95% of Afghans without enough food and 9 million at risk of starvation. As UNAMA’s Deputy Special Representative Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov said, “The long road to a better future is impossible on an empty stomach.” Stomachs will remain empty so long as this devastating drought persists.
For now, there is no end in sight. 25 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have been adversely affected, including many of the agricultural powerhouses. After losing much of last year’s crops, there were insufficient seeds to sow for the next season. As a result, the IFRC reports that “half the ground normally sown with wheat was fallow at the end of the planting window in December”. The additional season of a reduced harvest will be catastrophic in the midst of already severe food scarcity.
This does not just affect consumers. With about 80% of Afghans working in the agricultural sector, a mainstay of the economy will be devastated as livelihoods are wiped out. The ramifications on household income will be dire, causing the economy to further collapse.
Long-Term Effects of Climate Change
Even once the current drought alleviates, the long-term effects of climate change will continue to hammer the Afghan population. Areas of Afghanistan have already warmed twice the global average, leading to accelerated desertification and deforestation, which have been worsened by increasingly frequent and severe droughts and floods and 40 years of conflict. Half of Afghanistan’s forests were cut down by 2013 to feed the war machine. Furthermore, water scarcity due to drought and rising temperatures increases the likelihood of both internal and inter-state water-driven conflicts.
This is a devastating feedback loop where conflict increases food insecurity, which in turn increases conflict. The economy falters, land is degraded, and resources grow scarcer as Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) flee and soldiers take up arms, leaving their livelihoods behind. In a state where resources are currently scarce and violent conflict is already prevalent, resource driven conflict further inflames pre-existing divisions (ethnic, religious, etc.). This toxic cycle plays out across the world from Yemen to Somalia to Mali. As conflicts are inflamed, humanitarian conditions worsen, and public services evaporate.
In Afghanistan, civil war and insurgencies have consumed public attention for decades, leaving environmental issues to be almost entirely ignored. However, many of Afghanistan’s climate issues simply cannot be resolved internally, despite them being affected disproportionately by climate change. After all, the average Afghan produces 0.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, compared to an American who produces nearly 16 metric tons. The reality is this is a global issue requiring global solutions. The world’s greatest contributors to climate change need to step up to help those who are suffering its greatest consequences.
Making A Change for the Future
Immediate humanitarian relief is just the beginning. In order to prevent further international contribution to the exacerbation of Afghanistan’s conflict and humanitarian crisis, long-term solutions must be examined and implemented.
First and foremost, the international community must invest in programs that promote more drought-resistant agricultural practices and focus on securing access to more sustainable water supplies. A key part of this will be Iran and Afghanistan coming together to resolve their water disputes to ensure that Iranians and Afghans alike are better equipped to handle droughts.
Furthermore, economic diversification needs to be a development priority. Many of the effects of climate change cannot be reversed, and agricultural production may be permanently reduced in Afghanistan. Transitioning to more diverse fields will be key to promoting economic stability as 80% of the workforce is currently reliant on a single industry. In the short- and medium-term, this means focusing on launching programs for income generation for Afghanistan’s most needy, especially women. In the long-term, this means having great intentionality to building up Afghanistan’s industrial capacity and leaning into its potential role as the roundabout of Asia.
The situation will continue to worsen until the international community makes serious commitments to slowing climate change. Americans and other Westerners may be experiencing nominal effects now, but that does not change the reality that millions of vulnerable people around the world that contribute nominally to climate change are displaced, hungry, or even dead because of the West’s historically cavalier approach to the climate.
A path to peace must be found. The climate is just one of the many victims of conflict in Afghanistan, and progress remains nearly impossible within Afghanistan’s perpetual state of war. Without peace, progress painstakingly made over the last 20 years will continue to unravel and the situation could become more dire than ever.