The rapidly changing political landscape in Afghanistan does not change the permanent physical geography of the region. As world leaders gather to discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow later this month, the extreme vulnerabilities of the Afghan people should not be neglected. With their chief negotiator in exile, it is unclear whether an Afghan delegation will be able to attend the summit in the current context, but the donor community has a moral and ecological responsibility to ensure that environmental stresses are mitigated in the country.
The Afghan people are desperate for clean energy and food security, and the discussions in Glasgow can have important implications for the future of planned environmental projects in Afghanistan, including over $20 million of direct funds from the Green Climate Fund.
Neighboring Pakistan has already been ranked as the eighth most vulnerable country to long-term climate change in the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, and Afghanistan was noted as the fifth most impacted by immediate climate change related events in 2019-2020. The country has warmed by more than 1.8 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2010 — almost twice the world average. A regional approach to addressing adaptive capacity to climate change is urgently needed.
Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors who share rivers and aquifers as well as vital trade links will need to be collectively engaged if meaningful progress is to be made.
The international donor community can thus also have an opportunity for engagement with the politically dominant forces in Afghanistan on an issue that is of planetary importance and hence less likely to raise domestic political concerns. Perhaps through such engagement there may be opportunity for building trust for resolving other unrelated disputes and concerns as well.
There is growing consensus among conflict analysts that “environmental peace-building” is a largely unrealized tool in the annals of diplomacy that should be better harnessed. The good news is that there are existing institutions that could be empowered to further facilitate such an approach. The South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP), based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, has been in existence since 1981, but so far has been limited by its mandate and resources. This is one of the few regional organizations where India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all active members, and it actually predates the prominent and politically contentious South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), based in Kathmandu, Nepal, that was established in 1985.
There is considerable experience that Afghan technocracy built in this arena over the years. The outgoing director general of SACEP, Ashraf Haideri, is an Afghan national who has been a reasoned voice for regional environmental cooperation. Prince Mostapha Zaher (grandson of the former king), was former director general of Afghanistan’s environmental agency and recognized as a UNEP “Champion of the Earth” who was still in Kabul until at least Sept. 7 when he spoke via Zoom at a panel for the World Conservation Congress.
Harnessing technocratic human capital of the Afghan diaspora through regional environmental projects that could make a palpable difference will also help at national political healing within the country.
The current pledge of over $1 billion for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan is significant but reactive. Sustained engagement with the country on clean energy projects through a revitalization of assistance through the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility and the Adaptation Fund should be a priority. Large hydropower energy infrastructure projects such as the Shahtoot Dam that are politically contentious for the region should be considered amidst a broader cooperative strategy for alleviating energy poverty through solar, wind and devolved smart grids. Afghanistan’s mineral resource development should also be considered within the World Bank’s “Climate Smart Mining” program that has received support from a range of donor trust funds.
While reaching consensus on recognition of the current Afghan government may require considerable negotiations, environmental security challenges cannot wait for such deliberations to bear fruit.
Focused project assistance and regional environmental dialogue can be pursued through existing international environmental treaties and various United Nations agencies as well as implementing partners of the Global Environment Facility.
This is a time for creative solutions to urgent climate challenges in vulnerable countries like Afghanistan that have potential to bring regional powers like India, China and Pakistan also closer in terms of cooperation on a planetary challenge that goes beyond parochial rivalries.
Along the way there may well be more lasting peace dividends in a fraught region that houses a fourth of the world’s population and has become a bell-wether for global environmental security.
Saleem H. Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware and also directs the university's Minerals, Materials and Society program. He is also a member of the United Nations International Resource Panel. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali