Environmental Legislation a First for Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan, November 29, 2005 (ENS) - The first legislation written to conserve and protect in Afghanistan's wildlife, waterways, forests, air and soil has been developed by the government with assistance from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The development of this law is one component of a three year program for capacity building and institutional development for environmental management, begun at the request of the government of Afghanistan in October 2003.

The law is based on the findings of a six month long in-depth look by a UNEP Post-Conflict Assessment Team at the country, which has been wracked by decades of warfare, civil disorder, lack of governance and drought.

In February 2003, a UNEP Post-Conflict Assessment Team issued its findings, saying that the most serious issue in Afghanistan is the long term environmental degradation caused, in part, by a complete collapse of local and national forms of governance.

In earlier post-conflict environmental assessments, UNEP has typically focused on warrelated damage and environmental impacts from chemicals released from bombed targets. The picture in Afghanistan is different. The most serious issue in Afghanistan is the longterm environmental degradation caused, in part, by a complete collapse of local and national forms of governance.

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Loss of vegetation cover has caused serious soil erosion across Afghanistan such as in this village near Mazar-e-Sharif. (Photo by Dennis Bruhn courtesy UNEP)
As the country’s natural resource base has declined, its vulnerability to natural disasters and food shortages has increased, the team found. "Effective natural resource management and rehabilitation must be a national priority if Afghanistan is to achieve long-term social stability and prosperity," the assessment team said. "Mitigation of environmental problems and protection of the environment will also support sustainable rural development and enhance job creation."

The assessment report contains 163 recommendations, covering environmental legislation and enforcement, capacity building, job creation, planning, environmental impact assessment procedures, industry and trade, public participation and education, and participation in international environmental agreements.

It also makes recommendations in relation to water supply, waste, hazardous wastes and chemicals, woodlands and forests, energy, air quality, wildlife and protected areas conservation, desertification and food and agriculture resources and identifies actions at specific urban and rural sites visited during the assessment.

But the assessment and understanding, however thorough and insightful, can never take the place of legislation, says UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

"Without laws, environmental treaties and agreements are mere paper tigers," he said.

"So the Environment Act is the cornerstone for the development of an effective and integrated environmental management regime that secures environmentally sound sustainable development and use of natural resources, while still promoting economic and social well-being and development," said Toepfer.

Funded by the European Commission, the government of Finland and the Global Environment Facility, the program to design the new Environment Act is being implemented by UNEP's Post Conflict Branch.

Water is key to the health and wellbeing of Afghanistan’s people, and essential to maintain agricultural productivity, the core of the Afghan economy. But the assessment team found both surface and groundwater resources have been severely affected by the drought, as well as by uncoordinated and unmanaged extraction.

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Black smoke rises from an asphalt factory near Herat. (Photo by Soren Hvilshoj courtesy UNEP)
The UNEP team found that many deep wells have been drilled without considering the long term impacts on regional groundwater resources, including traditional systems of underground water canals.

Water resources across the country are threatened by contamination from waste dumps, chemicals and open sewers. Many of Afghanistan's traditional wetlands are completely dry and no longer support wildlife populations or provide agricultural inputs.

UNEP found that over 99 percent of the Sistan wetland, which UNEP calls "a critically important haven for waterfowl," was completely dry. Wind blown sediments were filling irrigation canals and reservoirs, covering roads, fields and villages, with an overall effect of increasing local vulnerability to drought.

Improved water resource management will, in many regions, be an essential first step in rebuilding rural communities and improving human health. Maintaining water quality and quantity should be the overriding goal of all land-use planning activities and integrated water basin planning should be implemented across the country.

"If we are to help deliver a stable future for this country and for countries across the globe, the environment must be factored into rehabilitation and future planning. For the environment is not a luxury but the basis for economic development and livelihoods. Poverty cannot be defeated and prosperity realized without this pillar of sustainable development being strong and viable," Toepfer said.

Studies indicate that over 80 percent of Afghanistan's population relies directly on the natural resource base to meet its daily needs.

But the productivity of the land base is declining, driving people from rural to urban areas in search of food and employment, the team found. Riverbanks are eroding with the loss of stabilizing vegetation, and flood risks are increasing. Restoration of forests and other vegetation cover combined with grazing management are high priorities to combat erosion, desertification and flood risks.

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Confluence of Afghanistan's Wakhan and Pamir rivers (Photo by Charudutt Mishra courtesy UNEP)
The new Environment Act contains the frameworks needed to manage sustainably and use Afghanistan's natural resources and to rehabilitate its damaged environment, UNEP says. The Act also clarifies institutional responsibilities and contains the compliance and enforcement provisions required to allow the government of Afghanistan to enforce effectively the legislation.

Most species of Afghanistan's natural wildlife are having difficulty surviving. Flamingos have not bred successfully in Afghanistan for four years, and the last Siberian crane was seen in 1986.

While the Wakhan Corridor contains healthy populations of endangered snow leopards and other mammals including Marco Polo sheep, active hunting is occurring in many regions of the country, either for sport, for meat, or in order to supply furs for sale to foreigners in Kabul.

The legal status of all protected areas is currently in question, and no management is taking place to protect and conserve their ecological integrity and wildlife.

Less than one percent of the land base is contained within protected areas – none of which cover the dwindling conifer forests of the east. UNEP says restoration of forests and other vegetation cover combined with grazing management are high priorities to combat erosion, desertification and flood risks.

If enacted, the new environmental legislation will create a framework to use in addressing these natural resources conservation issues.