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FEATURE-As Afghans count cost of deadly floods, officials warn of worse to come

CHARIKAR, Afghanistan, Oct 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Grocer Aziz Ullah took in his brother’s three children after he was killed by devastating flash floods in late August which also destroyed Ullah’s shop in the northern Afghan city of Charikar.

“These poor orphans have lost their parents and have nowhere to go,” said the father-of-five, 59. “How am I going to look after their needs? Only God knows.”

In the once-bustling provincial capital of Parwan, where nearly 160 people died, residents are trying to repair their shattered properties, while still grieving for relatives.

The north and east of the country are struggling to recover from the effects of the heavy downpours that claimed more than 200 lives, mostly women and children, across 13 provinces, as officials warn climate change could bring more such disasters.

In August, torrential rains swept off the majestic Hindu Kush mountains and through the valleys of Parwan, washing away hundreds of homes.

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the area in early September, he noted that 80% of natural floodwater channels had been turned into residential areas, increasing the loss of life.

He ordered Charikar’s administration to clear the flood pathways, resettle people now living there, and produce a new development master plan for the city.

Thousands of hectares of farmland were also damaged and livestock perished in the floods that caught local communities off-guard.

TINY EMISSIONS

Rohullah Amin, deputy head of the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), set up in 2010, warned of far worse impacts from rising temperatures and erratic weather in the coming years if climate change “is not taken seriously locally and internationally”.

“The developed world needs to take responsibility as we have barely contributed to climate change, but are losing so many lives due to it,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With very little industry of its own, Afghanistan accounts for far less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a report submitted to the United Nations in 2017, the NEPA said that since 1950, Afghanistan’s mean annual temperature had increased significantly by 1.8 degrees Celsius, while spring rainfall - important for crops - had decreased by up to a third.

Amin called for greater support from wealthy, high-emitting countries for his war-ravaged nation that, despite its tiny role in heating up the planet, is on the receiving end of the wild weather being intensified by global warming.

Afghanistan ranks among the countries most at risk of - and least prepared for - climate-linked threats ranging from food insecurity to disease outbreaks, according to an index compiled by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative.

U.N. agencies says droughts are likely to become the norm in Afghanistan by 2030, leading to land degradation and desertification, affecting more than a third of its 38 million people.

Projections by the NEPA suggest rising temperatures will lead to reduced spring rainfall and higher evapotranspiration, together with more frequent extreme events such as droughts, floods, landslides and avalanches.

But preparing people for that, and encouraging them to take precautions, will not be easy, said Mohammad Iqbal, director of public awareness at the NEPA.

“Even after these floods, it is hard to convince the locals, especially the poor farmers - who are suffering the most - that climate change is real and they need to adapt to this new reality,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The government has launched programmes to raise awareness about climate impacts and encourage better protection of the country’s fragile environment, with the help of local community and religious leaders.

Under a new national climate action plan developed by the NEPA, now pending cabinet approval, it also aims to move gradually towards clean energy, cut back on low-grade coal for heating in its harsh winter, and launch a reforestation drive.

WAR-WEARY

But the impacts of climate change are already exacerbating the consequences of long years of war.

Spells of drought followed by untimely torrential rains - coupled with political insecurity - displaced more than 500,000 Afghans last year alone, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Amin, who leads the NEPA’s climate change directorate, warned the recent floods should be taken as a “grim reminder and alarm calls” for what the future may have in store.

Glaciers are melting rapidly, compounding the threat of flash floods, which can severely damage crop yields, he added.

The NEPA estimates that well over half of households across Afghanistan depend on farming and livestock-keeping for their main source of income.

The August floods hit the northern, eastern and central highlands, where rain-fed farming and pastoralism are common, hampering households’ ability to produce enough food and income to meet their basic needs, NEPA officials said.

Environmentalist Sayed Montazer Shah, a former adviser at the agriculture ministry, said the government and the international community had neglected Afghanistan’s “environmental emergency”, with the spotlight on its recently rejuvenated but fragile peace process.

Government and Taliban negotiators have been meeting in Doha since Sept. 12, hoping to agree on a ceasefire and a power-sharing deal. But they have been bogged down in the principles and procedures for the talks.

Shah said the country’s ongoing conflict also had inflicted harm on its ecosystems, which in turn could add more deaths to the toll from violence.

“The forest cover is fast depleting, with trees in the jungles - particularly in the areas held by the (Taliban) insurgents - being cut ruthlessly at an alarming rate,” Shah said, noting militants are likely working hand in hand with illegal loggers to make money.

The 2017 NEPA report said Afghanistan’s forests were severely damaged as a result of decades of deforestation, over-harvesting, mismanagement and drought - and covered just 1.5-2% of the country.

In mountainous areas especially, deforestation can lead to soil erosion, hiking the risks of deadly landslides and floods.

Amin of the NEPA said he hoped the renewed push for peace would take a holistic view of the multiple risks facing the country – including its environment.

“Our sincere hope and aspiration is that all sides embrace peace and realise the common threat of climate change,” he said. (Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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