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Conflicts Have Severely Damaged Afghanistan's Environment, says UN Report - 2003-05-06

A quarter century of conflict and war has left Afghanistan one of the most environmentally damaged nations on earth. Afghanistan's environmental degradation is considered a stumbling block to development.

Khyali's wood stand is on a busy road in west Kabul.

Khyali, who like many Afghans uses one name, carefully chops and weighs a load of wood for a customer. But customers are few and far between these days. Khyali said the price of wood is just too high for most Afghans. "The wood is scarce now," she said, "so the price is going up. When we buy it, we pay a lot of money. People cannot afford to buy it."

Khyali's neighborhood was largely destroyed in factional fighting 10 years ago. Now, those who can afford to are rebuilding, which he says has helped triple wood prices over the past year. The woodcutter said there is no more wood left in his country.

"The price of wood has gone up because people have started reconstruction. Unfortunately, the forests are all gone," he said.

Khyali and the other wood cutters, carpenters, and wood dealers of west Kabul say they now must import wood from as far away as Russia to satisfy their customers.

Yusuf Nuristani is Afghanistan's minister of irrigation, water resources, and environment. "Our forests have been reduced in the last 25 years by 40 to 50 percent, or in some places 60 percent. Our pistachio forests in Badghis and Takhar in the north are gone, or at least 90 percent of them are lost. Our evergreen forests in Konar, Nangahar and Nuristan provinces and also in Paktia have been severely affected. We have lost 60 percent in some areas," he said.

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Program warns that Afghanistan faces a future without forests, clean water, wildlife or unpolluted air if current trends continue. The report says Afghanistan's environmental damage is a "major stumbling block" to reconstruction and development.

It is not only Afghanistan's forests that are disappearing. Five years of drought and the destruction of a centuries-old canal network have left many Afghans without clean drinking water or water for irrigation.

The U.N. report says even good news, such as the return of more than one million refugees to Afghanistan last year has hurt the environment, choking major cities with exhaust fumes and overloading traditional waste disposal systems.

Mr. Nuristani said a quarter century of war has left his country environmentally devastated. "Right now we are in a mess. The drought, the war, the neglect and the low level of understanding among the people about the environment have caused all these problems. So we have to intervene right now in whatever way we can," he said.

One of the first laws passed by the interim government was a ban on the cutting of green, or young trees. Yusuf Nuristani's ministry has also begun a program to restore some of the canal systems.

But the best environmental news that Afghanistan received recently was something no one could control; the return of heavy snows and rains this past winter, which filled rivers and reservoir's for the first time in five years.

Mr. Nuristani and others trying to restore Afghanistan's battered environment say if current precipitation trends continue, and the long drought is over, the country could perhaps begin its recovery from environmental devastation.