Afghan climate activist Abdulhadi Achakzai was his country’s sole representative at the United Nations COP27 climate conference recently held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
The South Asian country was excluded from the summit because the country has remained diplomatically isolated since the Taliban retook power after 20 years in August last year.
The climate summit, the UN mission in Afghanistan, started on 6 November called for urgent collective climate action, saying the country is “one of the least prepared countries against climate shock”.
It added that Afghanistan is the sixth most affected in the world by climate-related threats, with the country facing frequent droughts, flash floods and landslides that affect livelihoods and infrastructure.
Achakzai, his country’s unofficial representative at the international summit, took the opportunity to brief delegates on the climate crisis in Afghanistan and put the issue on the agenda of the participants.
Experts blame climate change for the country’s frequent natural disasters and are calling for international funding to tackle the problem.
“I stopped everyone I met and asked them, ‘Have you heard about Afghanistan?’ I would then tell them about the situation in our country, the suffering of our people due to climate change,” said Achakzai, director of the Environmental Volunteer Network (EVN), an NGO based in the capital Kabul.
The non-profit organization works to raise awareness and training on climate issues across the county.
“Everyone seems to agree with me when I said that Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries affected by climate change, but few were willing to take action,” Achakzai told Al Jazeera.
Funds have dried up
International organizations and stakeholders remain hesitant to do business with the Taliban, who currently rule the country of 38 million people. Funding for both development and climate projects has dried up due to international sanctions.
The Taliban expressed their disappointment at COP27’s exclusion at a press conference on 10 November.
“Climate change knows no national boundaries and the issue should not have been politicized,” said Hafiz Aziz Rahman, acting head of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), who criticized Afghanistan’s exclusion from the conference.
Rahman highlighted the frequent droughts plaguing Afghanistan, despite the country playing little part in causing climate change.
Ramiz Alakbarov, UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, agreed that there is an urgent need to address the country’s climate challenges.
“Action for Afghanistan is needed now. We can not wait. Afghans don’t have time to wait. All parties will have to find common ground and a common goal to work towards a sustainable future for Afghanistan,” Alakbarov said.
“We also need to be clear: this problem is not specific to Afghanistan. It is a bigger regional problem and if we don’t act now in Afghanistan, it will be a significant setback to climate action across the region.”
But international funding for climate solutions in Afghanistan has shrunk dramatically since last year.
The Afghan environmental agency NEPA revealed in August that the international community had halted 32 environmental protection projects worth $805 million since the Taliban takeover.
Exclusion from climate dialogue
The Afghan academic and scientific community, meanwhile, warn of dire consequences if Afghanistan is excluded from the climate strategy dialogue.
“Some of the immediate climate problems are frequent droughts and flash floods, followed by wildfires, [and] the shrinking of the glaciers,” said Najibullah Sadid, an Afghan climate scientist and associate researcher at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.
Sadid added that since most Afghans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and economy, climate change-induced droughts and floods have had a significant impact on livelihoods, exacerbating food insecurity in the country.
According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 223,000 Afghans were affected by natural disasters this year across Afghanistan alone. Meanwhile, Save the Children estimates that nearly 13 million children will be affected by extreme weather events, including droughts and floods.
The effects of climate change will further exacerbate the situation in the country, which is facing a severe humanitarian crisis and economic collapse.
Experts have also stressed the need for climate adaptation, as Afghanistan experienced a temperature increase of 1.8°C between 1950 and 2010 – twice the global average.
“It is important [that] we are looking at life-saving adaptation mechanisms, such as expanding irrigated agricultural land that can withstand the drought,” said Mohammad Assem Mayar, a water management expert and lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University.
But experts say a lack of international funding is a major impediment in Afghanistan’s fight against climate change.
“There is a need to increase the steadily dwindling climate change adaptation funds that can be transferred to Afghanistan through existing money transfer mechanisms,” Mayar suggested, referring to methods used by international agencies because of the sanctions.
Climate adaptation funding refers to support for specific projects that help local communities adapt to their changing environment. “Apart from the expansion of irrigated agricultural areas, the impact of drought can be reduced, for example, through the construction of small reservoirs and the introduction of water-saving technologies,” Mayar said. “Similarly, flood control, diversion dams, watershed management and various small reservoirs can help mitigate the surge.”
He implored the international community to resume projects through UN agencies to reach rural communities hard hit by climate change.
“Isolating Afghanistan means punishing the people, which is not fair,” Mayar said. “Climate change will not stop, and without support for adaptation it is as if the Afghan people are gradually being pushed towards the death penalty.”