Here's why climate change in Afghanistan has global repercussions

An Afghan woman carries empty containers to fetch water in Nahr-e-Shahi district in Balkh province, Afghanistan, August 6, 2023. REUTERS/Ali Khara

An Afghan woman carries empty containers to fetch water in Nahr-e-Shahi district in Balkh province, Afghanistan, August 6, 2023. REUTERS/Ali Khara

What’s the context?

Severe droughts are exacerbating Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis, but funding for climate change adaptation is frozen

LONDON- Afghanistan is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, with worsening droughts and flash flooding destroying livelihoods and fuelling hunger.

However, the Taliban's seizure of the country in 2021 means it has been excluded from global climate change talks and will not be represented at the COP28 summit starting in Dubai on Thursday.

Here's a look at Afghanistan's climate crisis and its wider repercussions:

How severe is Afghanistan's climate change problem?

Afghanistan is one of the lowest producers of planet-heating fossil fuel emissions, accounting for less than 1% of the global total.

But it is also one of the countries most vulnerable to the destructive impacts of climate change. 

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Its average annual temperature increased by 1.8 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2010, about twice the global average, according to Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency. The largest rise was in the south (2.4 degrees Celsius). 

Drought affects 25 out of 34 provinces in the country, where around 80% of people depend on agriculture for a living and it accounts for more than 30% of gross domestic product. 

Changing weather patterns and rising temperatures not only affect rainfall, but also the melting of snowpack and glaciers in Afghanistan's mountains that keep rivers flowing and fields watered during the spring and summer.

Higher temperatures can unleash cataclysmic glacial lake "outburst" floods in the mountains and impact meltwater flows for irrigation.

One study found Afghanistan had lost 14% of its total glacier area between 1990 and 2015. 

Widespread deforestation has also contributed to flooding, with fewer trees available to help prevent erosion and hold soil in place.

How does this affect Afghans?

Aid agencies say climate change is exacerbating a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with 29 million people in need of aid and more than 3 million uprooted from their homes. 

Droughts and flash floods have destroyed crops, land and infrastructure and led to an increase in pests and disease.

Hunger has fuelled displacement within Afghanistan and migration to other countries.

Climate change has also led to conflicts over water and fertile land, including in border regions.

What are the wider global risks?

Afghanistan's climate crisis, if not adequately dealt with, could drive mass migration to neighbouring countries and onwards to Europe, according to security experts.

There are also fears it could impact water availability in countries downstream from Afghanistan potentially stoking tensions. 

Afghanistan shares river systems with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

What impact has the Taliban takeover had?

Afghanistan's climate plan estimates it needs $20.6 billion to fund climate adaptation and emission-cutting initiatives between 2021 and 2030.

But donors froze development aid when the Taliban grabbed power in August 2021.

Some 32 large environmental programmes worth more than $800 million were suspended overnight.

These include a major rural solar installation project backed by the Green Climate Fund, a global financing body that aims to help developing countries meet their climate goals.

International sanctions are unlikely to be eased due to concerns over the Taliban's human rights record and treatment of women.

Hundreds of climate and environmental experts have also fled the country.

Some have expressed fears that without support for renewable energy the Taliban will ramp up the use of highly polluting coal

Afghanistan has significant fossil fuel deposits, many untapped. The cash-strapped Taliban have boosted exports and encouraged investment in the sector. 

One report last year estimated coal exports to Pakistan were likely to have doubled since the Taliban takeover.

Are the Taliban worried about climate change?

The Taliban have strongly criticised their exclusion from COP28 and previous summits, saying climate change is a global challenge that must be separated from politics.

They say the country should receive international assistance to help recover and build resilience. 

Afghanistan suffered $2 billion in damage from climate change in 2022 alone, according to the Taliban.

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But experts say financial sanctions mean Afghanistan will be excluded from accessing a new global "loss and damage" fund to help the world's poorest countries recover from damage wrought by climate change.

The Taliban administration says it is implementing small and large climate change initiatives.

It has reinstated several water management projects started before the takeover including a major irrigation canal in the north, though neighbouring countries have raised concerns it will divert their water

What is the international community doing?

UN agencies and donors are looking at how they can help Afghans adapt to climate threats in ways that do not benefit or legitimise the Taliban.

One option is to channel funding through international organisations. This has already begun on a limited scale with projects to provide farmers with drought resistant seeds and help communities build small dams to store water.

UN agencies and donors are also examining options for restoring the 32 suspended programmes and stalled financing from three global climate funds.

Community components of two of the projects have resumed. But unlocking the others is very complex.

For example, some were being implemented by ministries of the previous Western-backed government, but cannot be handed to the Taliban-led ministries that have replaced them.

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A person walks past a '#COP28' sign during The Changemaker Majlis, a one-day CEO-level thought leadership workshop focused on climate action, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 1, 2023

Part of:

COP28: What’s ahead for climate change action?

Fossil fuels, funding, adaptation and reparations for the world's poorest will be key debates at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai

Updated: December 16, 2023


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