Afghans are ‘voiceless’ in the face of climate impacts

The international isolation of the Taliban has meant that Afghanistan – a country deeply impacted by climate change – is being shut out of all international solutions
<p>An Afghan girl rests while fetching water in Balucha, northwest Afghanistan. Due to climate change, her country faces increasing water insecurity. (Image: Mstyslav Chernov / Alamy)</p>

An Afghan girl rests while fetching water in Balucha, northwest Afghanistan. Due to climate change, her country faces increasing water insecurity. (Image: Mstyslav Chernov / Alamy)

For three consecutive years, Afghanistan has experienced recurring droughts and flash floods exacerbated by climate change. And yet, Afghanistan was left out of the United Nations’ annual conference of the parties (COP) dedicated to dealing with climate change – for the third year in a row.

COP28 concluded on 13 December 2023 and was attended by nearly 200 countries. Among the key outcomes was the launch of a loss and damage fund, set up to help developing countries that are vulnerable to climate disasters. Afghanistan has one of the lowest CO2-emissions-per-capita figures in the world, yet in 2023 it was ranked fourth among all countries on a climate change risk index (after Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen). Despite this, Afghanistan has been locked out of these global negotiations on climate issues since the Taliban reclaimed power in August 2021.

Taliban-led Afghanistan is currently not represented at the UN. In November 2022 the COP bureau deferred a decision on Afghanistan’s participation, which effectively excluded the country from COP28. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which manages the COP bureau, has not given a reason for this deferral.

International agencies and donor countries have been reluctant to engage with or legitimise the Taliban; the militant group is known for its links to international terror networks and has been under UN sanctions since 2011. Since August 2021, several countries and agencies including the World Bank have withdrawn financial support for the aid-dependent nation; the World Bank deployed a second set of suspensions after the Taliban stopped girls from attending school in March 2022. The affected aid recipients include at least 32 climate change adaptation projects.

Blunt instruments

In Afghanistan, climate scientists and activists are concerned that this continued exclusion may have dire consequences for the country’s ability to cope with rapidly increasing climate shocks. Some say it may already be too late to address the crisis developing within Afghan communities.

“Climate change is a political issue, but it is also an issue that cannot be politicised,” says Qiyamud Din Ikram, a fellow at Refugees International. He is one of the few Afghans living in exile who attended COP28 in an independent capacity.

In Afghanistan, Ikram was a private consultant on projects related to climate adaptation, environmental protection, climate justice and education. Unable to return to Afghanistan since 2021 because the Taliban persecutes critical voices, Ikram campaigns for Afghans in need of climate change assistance from abroad.

“Already we are witnessing a disruption in people’s livelihoods – more than 80% of Afghans rely directly or indirectly on the agriculture and livestock sectors,” Ikram tells The Third Pole. This is causing “internal displacement, migration from rural areas to cities… with many even going beyond the borders”.

“Decades of conflicts have already eroded the coping and adaptive capacities of the Afghan people to withstand the effects of climate change,” Ikram adds.

In such circumstances sanctions can be a blunt instrument, says Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Mukhopadhaya is also a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, the latter another country excluded from COP negotiations since a military coup in February 2021.

“While sanctions are a form of pressure to somehow secure some good behaviour, the fact of the matter is that a lot of innocent people also suffer, whether it is due to the [lack of] delivery of humanitarian aid or restrictions on funds for development. But more worryingly, now [sanctions disrupt efforts] for mitigating climate change impacts, which is something of global importance,” Mukhopadhaya says.

“We shouldn’t really be leaving anyone out. And in particular, not people who are just suffering the consequences of other people’s emissions.”

Afghanistan’s crisis

Afghanistan’s predicament was brought into sharp focus during COP28 as the loss and damage fund was launched. The fund is currently very parsimoniously resourced: its pool of just USD 700 million represents less than 0.2% of the estimated total needed for countries suffering from climate disasters. Without an internationally recognised government however, Afghanistan cannot hope to access even this.

“The intention of the fund was to reach countries that are most vulnerable, but how do they expect to meet this goal if [the people of] Afghanistan are left out?” asks Assem Mayar, an Afghan water management expert and former Kabul University professor.

Since 2021, Afghanistan has been undergoing a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Much of this may have been triggered by the Taliban takeover and aid blocks, but the deeper crisis is due to a prolonged cycle of droughts, and changes to rain and snow patterns. This has led to water shortages, leaving a country that is heavily reliant on domestic farming vulnerable to starvation. 

Climate change is a political issue, but it is also an issue that cannot be politicised
Qiyamud Din Ikram, Refugees International fellow

According to a UN estimate published in August 2023, over 29 million Afghans – 68% of the population – were in need of urgent humanitarian aid to survive; in late June, the World Food Programme said it expected at least 15 million Afghans to have endured acute food insecurity between May and October 2023.

“This crisis can be directly attributed to changes in the climate,” Syed Samiullah Hakimi tells The Third Pole. A professor of agriculture at Kabul University, Hakimi has long been an advocate of deploying smart agriculture technologies to help farmers adapt. He is also among the few experts Afghanistan has retained since the Taliban returned to power.

“The rising temperature has triggered glacial melts in Afghanistan,” says Hakimi. “Based on one of the surveys conducted between 1990 and 2015, about 406 square kilometres of glaciated area were lost in the north of Afghanistan, affecting water sources.”

Meanwhile, a 2017 study revealed that Afghanistan’s river basins are shrinking: the total combined surface water volume of the Kabul, Panj-Amu, Helmand, Harirod-Murghab and Northern river basins shrank from 57 billion cubic metres between 1969 and 1980, to 49 billion between 2007 and 2016. Changing weather patterns have compounded this problem.

“The last three decades has been challenging for agrarian communities,” says Hakimi.

Missed opportunities

Unable to attend COP28, Hakimi followed the developments closely and was discouraged by the lack of Afghan representation.

In light of the growing climate crisis in Afghanistan, Hakimi says that isolating the country from future conferences could spell disaster for its people: “This was a missed opportunity for a country that is already suffering. Not only can we not seek investments to help Afghan farmers, but being isolated we can’t even get funding to resume urgent adaptation projects, such as managing water resources, building dams … this will have a severe negative impact on Afghanistan.”

Hakimi’s disappointment is shared by Ikram: “Nearly every country or agency here [at COP28] is collaborating with others, sharing knowledge, technology and resources to adapt to climate change. But Afghanistan was sidelined at every event; it was very sad.”

Climate change-related disasters are not restricted to borders. If Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, this will spill over into the region, triggering displacement, political instability and insecurity.
Qiyamud Din Ikram, Refugees International fellow

Ikram says he made a point of bringing up Afghanistan at every COP28 event he was invited to speak at. This included “Advancing Cooperation on Asylum and Migration”, a side panel on climate displacement organised by the European Commission. Ikram offered a warning to the room of academics and students: “Climate change-related disasters are not restricted to borders. If Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, this will spill over into the region, triggering displacement, political instability and insecurity.”

Observing these proceedings on the ground at COP28, The Third Pole noted genuine enthusiasm for issues related to Afghanistan only among Afghans.

Indigenous solutions

According to Ikram, Afghanistan’s unique situation requires equally innovative approaches. Many of these entail bypassing the Taliban, which most governments do not wish to even inadvertently legitimise. “There are UN and international organisations working in Afghanistan who can help channel funding and resources to the local communities in need,” Ikram says. “Some of the urgent issues on resuming adaptation projects can be resolved simply by collaborating with local organisations.”

Mayar agrees: “Even before the Taliban, there were no government institutions accredited to directly seek funding on such projects. It was the UN agencies that brokered the process to make the proposal and bring adaptation funds within Afghanistan, working in collaboration with the Afghan government.”

Before the Taliban takeover, every Afghan submission to the Green Climate Fund was completed through an international agency that partnered with an Afghan government agency. Mayar says the UN could once again step in and facilitate funding to help Afghans. However, now there is no government agency to partner with.

In a statement issued at the beginning of COP28, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) admitted efforts up to that point had been insufficient: “Humanitarian funding continues to decline, and climate finance remains largely suspended.”

UNAMA also said Afghan voices were absent from global climate fora and the de facto authorities – the Taliban – were yet to establish policy or governance conducive to international support, despite pitching for it.

Banking restrictions also need to be relaxed, says Hakimi: “Right now, organisations wanting to work in Afghanistan are facing many challenges due to the banking restrictions. I would also advise donor governments and agencies to consider finding new avenues, such as working with the UN or international NGOs who are able to facilitate distribution of funds to local NGOs to work on development projects.” He adds that even support for small projects could make a big difference.

“It was their [developed countries’] commitment to want to reach the vulnerable people in the world,” says Mayar. “There exists mechanisms for them to realise this goal – they need to find ways to do it.”

As UNAMA put it on 1 December: “Afghanistan cannot go another year without a voice on climate change.”