HERAT, AFGHANISTAN – As dry months turned to parched years, Fatemeh watched the crops in her northwestern Afghan province of Badghis wither and her cattle die of thirst. Hunger turned to desperation, and eighteen months ago, her farming family begged a wealthy man for a loan to get them through the worst drought Afghanistan had seen in decades. He obliged, with $1,250 worth of sheep, rice, and flour.
When rains returned in spring, so did the man, this time demanding repayment. But there hadn’t yet been a profitable harvest. “Give me your daughter,” he said. He wanted shy, four-year-old Fariba as a wife for his son.
“She would have died from sorrow,” says Fatemeh, glancing at Fariba, her wide, brown eyes outlined with kohl.
And so they fled—to save Fariba, to search for land that could survive the next drought, and to escape U.S.-backed Afghan airstrikes that pounded Taliban fighters in nearby villages at night. After three days and three nights on the road, they found shelter in a sprawling, bare-bones camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat.
In the 18 years since the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism has dominated the global conversation about the South Asian country, influencing billions of dollars spent on warfighting and reconstruction efforts in a relentless conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Meanwhile, a potentially bigger fight is brewing.
Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and one of the least equipped to handle what’s to come. Experts say drought, flood, avalanches, landslides, extreme weather, mass displacement, conflict, and child marriage—all of which already plague Afghanistan—are set to worsen.
There has been relatively little attention paid to climate change in Afghanistan, where the majority of Afghans are farmers or earn income from agriculture, and where the United Nations Environment Programme estimates 80 percent of conflict is over land, water, and resources. And assistance to help Afghans cope with the effects of drought and climate change-related hardships is often too short term or does not take into account the actual needs of Afghans on the ground, critics say.
Afghanistan’s extreme drought of 2018 is over, for now. But Fatemeh is one of an estimated 13.5 million Afghans who remain severely food insecure. A third of Afghans have migrated or have been displaced since 2012, according to the International Organization for Migration. Projections paint a picture of an even hotter, more resource-scarce Afghanistan.
Temperatures could rise by 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, according to UN Environment and Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, unless measures are taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While Afghanistan’s precipitation levels are projected to remain relatively stable through the end of the 21st century, hotter temperatures would lead to more evaporation, endangering life-sustaining water resources.
That could be a death sentence in places like Badghis, where Fatemeh and her family dug holes in the ground to collect rainwater and melted snow to survive before ultimately fleeing.
“No land. No water. No life,” says Gul Dasta, Fatemeh’s sister. Under her homemade emerald green dress hanging off of her rail thin body, a newborn baby tries in vain to feed from her deflated breast.
To much, too little
Some 450 miles east of Herat, in northeastern Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, local communities are also at the mercy of the elements. There, the turquoise Panjshir River winds through a lush valley wedged between towering mountains.
In July 2018 a mountain glacier melted too fast, causing a natural dam surrounding a glacial lake to burst. Thousands of cubic tons of water rushed down the mountain, triggering a landslide that destroyed schools, hundreds of homes, and fields growing beans, potatoes, olive trees, and wheat.
Shepherds on the mountain called downstream to alert their loved ones, but for at least 10 people, including 65-year-old Bib Mazari, it was too late. “The water washed her body away,” said her brother, Niaz Mohamed.
The spring and summer snowmelt of glaciers keeps entire communities alive with their cool, fresh water. But too much snowmelt too fast is deadly, increasing the risk of springtime flooding and summer drought.
Glacier volumes in the extended Hindu Kush Himalaya region are projected to decline by up to 90 percent by 2100, according to the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
The cash-strapped and embattled Afghan government is working on installing stations on the mountain to warn people of disasters. But locals, who say there has been inadequate government assistance, aren’t holding their breath. Following the 2018 flash flood, which wiped out fertile agriculture land, many villagers left Panjshir for good. They’re not alone, much like Fatemeh and her family, who abandoned their traditional way of life in order to survive.
Across the country, men like Gul Dasta’s husband are saying goodbye to loved ones to search for work in Iran, leaving women to head households in a traditionally patriarchal society. Families are moving to displacement camps and urban cities like the capital Kabul, one of the world’s fastest growing cities. There, they pray, life will be easier.
But even in Kabul, the most developed Afghan city, home to hundreds of embassies and military bases, many city residents face their own fight for survival. Kabul’s population has ballooned in recent decades, placing even more strain on resources, like water. Despite Afghanistan’s abundance of snowy mountains and rushing rivers, clean water is a luxury for many Afghans, largely due to war, widespread water mismanagement, and corruption.
Kabul’s water distribution system provides water to less than 20 percent of the city’s population. Because most of the groundwater is not potable, Kabul residents dig unregulated wells or buy expensive bottled water that clog waterways and festering roadside sewers. An $82 million, USAID-supported project to expand Kabul’s water infrastructure is supposed to be completed by 2021. But such water projects in the past have come under fire for failing to meet objectives.
Afghanistan currently lacks the ability to store or use most of its water, says Faez Azizi, a water resources and hydrology advisor at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Energy and Water. Most of that water flows into neighboring countries.
“The people need water,” says Azizi. “Afghanistan needs the construction of dams. And this needs huge investment.”
But large-scale dam projects are controversial and complicated. USAID and other development and government agencies have struggled to support dam projects, and such initiatives pose diplomatic and security risks both within Afghanistan and with neighboring countries like Iran.
For rural communities across Afghanistan, small dams are lifelines to produce electricity, irrigate fields, and divert water for drinking.
In May, a tiny farming village flanked by the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan’s central Bamiyan province—famous for its once towering stone Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001—plunged into darkness when floodwaters wiped out a dam and the electrical lines it powered.
The drought set off a series of devastating events. Girls and women, traditionally responsible for collecting water, cooking, and tending to crops, were forced to walk longer distances during drought. In one girls’ school in rural Bamiyan, one-fifth of the students—several hundred girls—were pulled out of school by their families during the drought, according to Director Abdul Qayoon Afshar.
But even when it rained, the water didn’t offer much relief. The parched ground could not easily absorb water. Deforestation on the mountainside created a sleek surface for water to rush down, wiping out the dam, the community mill, and fields of freshly planted crops.
“It has gotten harder for us,” says 41-year-old Abdul Ghafur, who pulled his oldest son out of school to help replant. Ankle deep in mud and wielding a dirt-caked hoe, he sighed, staring out at the wilted, water-logged fields of destroyed crops his family had planted days earlier. “And it will get harder for my sons to do this.”
Abdul Ghafur is counting down the days until he, too, will be forced to leave Bamiyan in search of work, just like his neighbors.
In Bamiyan, a mountainous geographic buffer offers relative protection from powerful militant groups. But in other provinces, like Fatemeh’s home of Badghis, due west of Bamiyan, drought and natural disasters further fuel insurgency and militant recruitment.
“It was easy for [the Taliban] to capture the area,” says 40-year-old Kamar Gul, who left Badghis two decades ago during a previous drought, and who still has family in Badghis. “Everyone was hungry.”
In Badghis, wholly reliant on rainfall for agriculture and drinking water, food insecurity is still at crisis level. In 2017, nearly 60 percent of Afghans made a living from agriculture, and yet, nearly half were highly food insecure. Only one country, war-ravaged Yemen, was more food insecure.
“Every day, I dream my children are dying from hunger,” says Fatemeh, who says members of her family joined the Taliban during the drought. There has been relatively little research into how the effects of climate change, and the desperation it fuels, impact peace prospects.
“Climate change exacerbates the situation,” says Jeremy Pal, Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science at Loyola Marymount University. There’s a limited amount of arable land, and the “potential for more refugees and displacement.”
In recent years, less winter snow has meant it’s easier for the Taliban to wage war outside of its traditional fighting season. Meanwhile, more Afghan civilians were killed or wounded this past year than in any year since 2009, mainly by Afghan and U.S.-led allies, as well as by attacks by the militants they’re fighting.
While the United States has spent at least $744.9 billion in warfighting since 2001, in addition to millions more from the international community, most of that money went to traditional security efforts: training Afghan soldiers, dropping bombs, and supporting thousands of foreign troops. Sixteen percent of the U.S. budget in Afghanistan has gone toward reconstruction, the majority of it funding security, counternarcotics, and governance projects. Only a small fraction of funding has supported initiatives that help Afghans adapt to climate change, respond to natural disasters, and foster resilience.
“The development system is broken,” says Anthony Neal, a humanitarian policy analyst who served as Advocacy Manager throughout the drought response for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which helps manage camps for internally displaced people like Fatemeh. “Development donors are not adaptable and we’re therefore relying on the short-term funding and emergency response to meet long-term and developmental issues.”
Though limited and inhibited by insecurity, corruption, and lack of sustained funding, initiatives to combat climate change have popped up in Afghanistan in recent years, some of them supported by the United States. and the international community. Greenhouses have been set up for women farmers. Communities have received funding and training to grow crops like saffron instead of drought-resistant poppies, which have long fueled Afghanistan’s illicit heroin trade.
Early warning systems have been developed in order to better warn communities of impending natural disasters. Wells and water systems have been dug and installed in remote areas. Awareness, too, has increased about climate change and the threat it poses to national security.
In September, despite near-daily terrorist attacks in the capital and across the country, dozens of young Afghans—many of them women—took to the streets in Kabul demanding that attention be paid to climate change. Guarded by Afghan security forces holding Kalashnikov rifles, the protestors held up banners and donned face masks protecting their mouths and noses from the polluted air, thick with smoke billowing from the exhaust pipes of Soviet-era vehicles and coal-burning stoves. “Stop denying, our world is dying,” read one sign held up by a young man.
While initiatives across Afghanistan strive to foster climate change resilience and adaptation, they largely cannot reverse or slow the effects of climate change because Afghans are not the primary drivers of climate change in their country. Instead, that burden largely lies with the United States, China, and India, together making up half the world’s CO2 emissions. In recent years, the United States has loosened regulations on emissions and slashed funding for development programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
These policy shifts have coincided with controversial peace negotiations with the Taliban, which calls for a pullout of foreign troops in Afghanistan, in addition to other demands that have left many Afghans worried about the future of international aid.
In Herat, the camps housing Fatemeh and thousands of others have lost most of their emergency funding in recent months. That means largely no more food or water distribution, or education programs, which has led to increased rates of child marriage and begging. Funders say the situation is no longer an “emergency” because the drought is over and people, in theory, could return home.
Just down the road, another sprawling camp filled with Afghans who fled previous droughts and conflict has turned into a permanent, impoverished town. They, like Fatemeh, don’t plan to return home.
Sitting inside her family’s tent, its sides rippling against whooshes of hot, sandy wind, Fatemeh thinks back to her own brief childhood in Badghis, wading through golden fields of wheat up to her knees. There, she laughed and played with friends as the cattle grazed nearby.
“We were free,” Fatemeh says, holding the tiny hand of her daughter, Fariba, tightly. “I want my daughter to have that same feeling.”
Unless something changes drastically—and soon—Fariba will grow up in a wasteland dotted by plastic tents, next to a dry, cracked riverbed that offers no relief. When she begins menstruating, she’ll pay off her family’s debt by marrying the son of the man who loaned her family money. They may have survived the drought, but it has most certainly cost Fariba her freedom.