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UN to Conduct Environmental Study in Afghanistan - 2002-02-06

The United Nations Environment Program says it is preparing to carry out the first environmental assessment of Afghanistan in 25 years. The Geneva-based organization says it is hoping to recruit Afghan researchers and others qualified to assist U.N. experts.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says the proposed review would be the first comprehensive look at Afghanistan's environment since Western scientists visited there in the late 1970s. Since then, Afghanistan's rugged terrain has been punished by war and years of drought.

Henrik Slotte heads one of the UNEP units that would be involved in the environmental study of Afghanistan. He carried out similar studies in the Balkans after the fighting ended there, and says that experience taught him the importance of beginning as soon as possible.

"Subject to the security, subject to the requests from the Afghan authorities and subject to funding needed, we would be ready to start activities already this spring," he said. "Our experience in the Balkans has [taught] us that the sooner the better. The sooner the better for moving in, starting, and examining the war-related impact."

Mr. Slotte says the UNEP team that goes into Afghanistan will be able to take advantage of some of the things it learned in Balkans, but he says Afghanistan poses new challenges.

"A lot of lessons that we learned from the Balkans can be used concerning the approach: the way we fit together international teams, but it's a totally different country, it's a totally different environment, it's a different culture," he said. "Everything is different, so we cannot copy what we have done in the Balkans."

As an example of the damage that has been done to Afghanistan, the UNEP official cites what Afghan refugees are saying about their country. They speak of rivers turning to sand, hillsides eroding and pastures disintegrating into thorny scrub.

Mr. Slotte says his agency will work with other U.N. partner agencies, like the World Food Program, to ensure that the study is comprehensive. So far, $1 million has been allocated for the assessment, but more funds will be needed.