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Taliban’s Approach to Natural Disasters

Ms Puspa Kumari, Research Intern, South Asia Centre, MP-IDSA.
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  • July 03, 2024

    Climate change is one of the most important challenges in the 21st century and has unfavourable consequences, including droughts, floods, storms, decrease in rainfall, landslides, rise in temperature, premature melting of natural glaciers, etc.1 Despite contributing the least to climate change, Afghanistan remains the sixth most vulnerable country to be affected by climate change. The country has been witnessing erratic rainfall, prolonged droughts, flash floods and earthquakes, wreaking havoc on agricultural productivity and thereby severely affecting local livelihoods.2

    In the latest episode, floods hit the Faryab province in May 2024, killing over 66 people, damaging more than 1,500 houses and swamping over 400 hectares of land. Earlier, severe floods have hit Baghlan, Ghor, Badakhshan and Herat resulting in significant human casualties and financial losses. Baghlan province, in particular, recorded the highest number of casualties and widespread destruction, with at least 300 people killed and several hundreds injured.3

    Afghanistan is 63 per cent mountainous, with glacial Hindu Kush in the north and deserts in the southwest. The mean annual temperature rose by 1.80C between 1951 and 2010. While the Hindu Kush region experienced the lowest increase of 0.60C, mountain glaciers decreased in volume by 18.5 per cent from 1990 to 2015 increasing the chance of severe flooding.4 According to the INFORM Risk Index report of 2023, Afghanistan ranks fourth in the list of countries most at risk of a crisis.5 It ranks eighth on the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index of countries most vulnerable and least prepared to adapt to climate change.6 The UN World Food Program (WFP) has warned that floods are likely to intensify in the months ahead, with a major impact on food security.

    The climate issue is complicated by emergencies, such as the forced return of more than half a million Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran.7 Furthermore, income opportunities have shrunk since the withdrawal of international organisations from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021, making people dependent on foreign aid.

    Natural Disasters and their Consequences

    One of the most pressing consequences of the climate crisis in Afghanistan is its impact on food security across the country. An overwhelming population of the country depends on natural resources for their livelihood. Since 1980, disasters caused by natural hazards have affected 9 million people and caused over 20,000 fatalities, with flooding being the most frequent and damage-causing hazard in the country.8

    As a result of the recent floods, approximately 500 people have died, dozens are missing, and hundreds more have been injured in several provinces of Afghanistan.9 Thousands of acres of agricultural land, and several thousand residential homes in the provinces of Baghlan, Ghor, Faryab, Sar-e Pol, Badakhshan, Herat and Takhar have been swept away by the floods. So far in 2024, over 1,19,160 people have been affected by heavy rainfall and flash flooding across provinces.10 The impact of floods were compounded by preceding drought conditions, resulting in diminished pasture land, water scarcity, food insecurity, economic decline and land degradation. These factors, coupled with heavy precipitation and snowfall in 2019, exacerbated the flooding situation.

    The average monthly rainfall in Afghanistan has decreased by 2 per cent every decade since 1960.11 This is primarily due to a decrease in spring rainfall of roughly 6.6 per cent each month. It is also a concern in arid to semi-arid regions like southern and south-western Afghanistan which are water-stressed. Droughts are the most frequently reported shock experienced by households in Afghanistan, increasing from 39 per cent in 2021 to 64 per cent in 2022.12

    Currently, 25 out of 34 provinces experience either severe or catastrophic drought conditions, affecting more than 50 per cent of the population.13 It has severely affected the agriculture land as the sand becomes stiff after droughts and it cannot absorb water as much as required, resulting in massive water overflow. With a minimum functioning irrigation system, Afghanistan relies on snow melting in the mountains to keep its rivers flowing and fields watered during the summer. As temperature rises, less precipitation takes place and subsequently during the summer the snow melt is not feeding into rivers as much as it used to.

    Taliban’s Response

    Prior to the collapse of the republic government in August 2021, Afghanistan had several promising disaster mitigation initiatives. However, following the Taliban's assumption of power and a huge reduction in foreign aid, these projects were abandoned.14 Since then, Afghanistan’s exclusion from the annual United Nations climate change conferences and lack of knowledge to mitigate the climatic disasters by the interim government has stopped various climate-related initiatives, leading to major economic losses, an increase in climate refugees and internal displacement.15

    After the recent incidents of massive floods during the month of May, the Taliban's Ministry of National Defense extended aid to 1,700 families in Baghlan province, distributing 10 million Afghanis and various supplies to flood victims across 20 districts in Badakhshan.16 More recently, on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha, the interim government handed over newly built houses to 100 quake-affected families in Herat province.17 During the celebration, the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs informed about the ongoing drafting of a five year plan that aims to identify national priorities based on the country’s actual needs and available resources.18

    Sensing the seriousness of the climate change in the country, the Taliban administration has repeatedly urged world leaders to act on climate change. It has also called upon the international donors to resume working on climate-related projects which have been halted.19 This could be seen as a sign of the interim government acknowledging the need for international help and their inability to handle the crisis on their own.20 However, according to several reports, Taliban have been extensively interfering in the working of aid organisations. The inclusion of Taliban in the aid delivery process might delay the delivery of aid to disaster affected families. This might also increase the corruption in the distribution process when more authorities get involved.

    Despite forming assessment committees, on-ground efforts remain limited. Residents of Murghab district in Ghor complained about the lack of government assistance,21 while Baghlan flood victims criticised delays in receiving aid.22 Several aid collection campaigns are being launched. In this series, the Herat Economy Directorate demonstrated solidarity by donating 3.6 million Afghanis to aid flood victims in Ghor province.23

    The Way Ahead

    The climate crisis in Afghanistan is a severe humanitarian emergency. It has impacted the livelihood of millions. Since the ban on poppy cultivation, farmers in the country have been forced to look for alternative crops. This, however, is made difficult by the unviability of enough fertile land and water. Apart from looking at projects to promote development and economy of the country, the impact of climate change needs to be mitigated by taking serious efforts and mobilising an increasing amount of both human and financial resources. This will be challenging given the fact that the country remains financially stressed.

    Humanitarian assistance alone is insufficient to meet the current demands. The interaction between the Taliban and the international community is predominantly limited to the field of humanitarian aid. However, climate change could serve as a significant topic for interaction between the Taliban and the international community. Such engagement could strengthen assistance, institution building, and integrate Afghans into global climate discussions. For that, inclusion of Afghan NGOs and grassroots representatives in global conferences remains crucial for collaborative networks. Therefore, inviting them to the upcoming COP 29 conference on climate change in Baku, Azerbaijan in November 2024 could be a first step.

    The Taliban's response to natural disasters has largely been inadequate, leaving common Afghans reliant on limited support from international and local NGOs. To access essential resources and funds for Afghanistan's economic and social progress, the Taliban must rebuild the international community’s trust and fulfill their promises made in the Doha negotiations. The interim government has asserted that the international community should refrain from allowing ideological differences to obstruct humanitarian assistance to the local population. If these challenges are not dealt with on a priority basis, the common Afghans are likely to continue to suffer from lack of economic opportunities and disasters occurring due to climate change.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.