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As American and NATO troops vacate Afghanistan, uncertainty looms over Kabul. The consternation is not limited to the mountainous nation and is spreading across the world, particularly South Asia. Security experts believe that the withdrawal of US soldiers will now embolden Islamist terrorist organisations in the region, and Kabul may fall into the hands of the Taliban again. In a disturbing trend, the radicals who ruled Afghanistan between 1994 and 2001 have already started to get hold of the key positions in the country in last few months.
However, another worrisome dimension of the troop withdrawal has been building up behind the scenes. Afghanistan is highly prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, landslides, avalanches and recurring droughts. It faces serious threats of climate change impacts, including crises in agriculture due to prolonged droughts and sudden floods, loss of wildlife and biodiversity, unemployment and so on. One particular concern is the problem of migration which has roots not only in conflict and violence, but will be aggravated due to climate change and extreme weather events. The new circumstances have shattered any hope of dealing with this threat which is hovering over the war-stricken country.
Sinking into civil war
With US-NATO troops returning to their homeland, there is little clarity about what the new Afghanistan will look like or how it will shape up politically. Experts say Taliban does not want any elections and their offer of power sharing based on Sharia law has been rejected by the current Afghan administration. “This country is sinking into an intense civil war again. There is a completely unacceptable divide between Kabul and Taliban,” warns security expert Ajai Sahni who is also the executive director of Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia terrorism portal.
“Taliban is increasing its area of influence every day and wherever they dominate, they will set up a sharia-based regime. Therefore, I am not sure anyone will be able to work there other than some rouge-state players like China and Pakistan. Even they would like to see some stability there,” Sahni said. As the conflict intensifies, the country’s resources will be diverted towards combat and fortification. As a result, preparations against climate change and disasters will likely get no attention.
Looming climate crisis
Data suggests that at least 9 million people were affected and 20,000 lives were lost between 1980 and 2017 due to disasters caused by natural hazards. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) more than 1.1 million people were displaced due to disasters in Afghanistan at the end of year 2020. In last twenty years more than 6.5 million people have been affected by flood and around five million live in the areas prone to landslides and avalanches.
The impacts of extreme weather events induced by climate change however, won’t spare the majority of Afghan population which is grappling with destitution. Like any other country, women and children are the biggest victims of internal migration here too. According to Amnesty, nearly 4 million people in Afghanistan are living in camps and most of them are women and children. These camps are overcrowded and many of them do not have basic amenities like bathroom and toilets.
It is noteworthy that social mores strictly prohibit Afghan women to interact and solicit help from men outside their family. For any woman, medical help becomes impossible, if it is available at all, unless the doctor or nurse is a female. “In Afghanistan, the number of people displaced by the climate crisis is rising, with women and young people hardest hit by the increasingly severe droughts and flooding that impact the conflict-stricken country,” says Sudipta Kumar, Country Director of ActionAid Afghanistan.
“Our research shows there is no overall national regulatory framework that addresses climate change or that protects people forced to migrate due to climate disasters,” he said.
Presently, the Taliban is mounting pressure in several parts of country. This offensive will likely aggravate in coming days. In the regions controlled by them, it will be a double whammy on women who have already been the worst victims of changing climate. “We’re calling for existing policies and strategies to be climate-proofed and gender responsive. This means recognising the disproportionate impact of climate migration on women and girls, and the increasing threat of gender-based violence, child marriage and exploitation they face due to the climate crisis. As conflict and insecurity rise following the US troop withdrawal, women and girls already displaced by climate change are at even greater risk,” said Sudipta.
An uncertain future
Due to protracted war and conflict, while Afghan society has endeavoured to seek security and fight poverty for decades, there has been scant chance to sensitise and build awareness towards the looming climate crisis, changing weather patterns and environmental degradation. “Our journalists were born during the war (with Taliban). So, our priorities, the topics in our stories and news was all about fight, all about war, all about violations, violence, challenges and instability,” says Asef Ghafoory who is a journalist in Kabul. He explains that Afghan media persons didn’t have enough time to work on the issues of agriculture and climate.
Many farmers still do not know about the reasons behind the rising number of extreme weather events or the threats to biodiversity. They need training and help to grow climate-resilient crops and deal with the whims of erratic weather. This needs resources and political will, which will be focused again to deal with security and conflict issues in the new scenario. Like journalists, the current administrators, policy makers and activists who could have written, advocated and implemented steps to tackle climate issues, were born or have grown up with war as a constant backdrop. Now all of them stare at a grim future where the security concerns are extending beyond the imminent military conflagaration.
“As the influence of Kabul diminishes in areas that are lost, these international (aid and humanitarian) organisations may simply withdraw. If somebody asks me what can be done in such a scenario, I don’t have much to suggest. I am afraid that the prospects are very bleak,” Sahni said. The irony is that the United States, which is the biggest contributor to the historically accumulated carbon in the space – and still currently ranked the second biggest emitter after China – perhaps did not even consider the humanitarian fallouts from the climate crisis before deciding to exit the longest military conflict in US history.