Afghan Task Force Embarks on Assessment Mission

KABUL, Afghanistan, September 12, 2002 (ENS) - Five teams of scientists left Kabul this morning to begin the first assessment of the damage to Afghanistan's environment inflicted by 30 years of conflict. Under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the 20 Afghani and international experts will identify urban pollution hotspots, and determine the legal and ecological status of the remaining wetlands and forested areas.


Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UNEP Afghanistan Task Force (Photo courtesy Balkans Task Force)
Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UNEP Afghanistan Task Force, is a former Finnish environment minister who also chaired the Balkans Task Force which performed similar assessments following the Kosovo conflict.

"Afghanistan's environment has been heavily damaged by military activities, refugee movements, the overexploitation of natural resources, and a lack of management and institutional capacity," said Haavisto.

"The past three years of drought have worsened this damage. Assessing and repairing the country's environment will prove vital to the long term well being of the Afghan people. In addition, protecting the environment will support sustainable rural development and enhance job creation in Afghanistan," he said.


A soldier from the 10th Mountain Division mans his MK-19 grenade launcher from atop an observation post at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. February 2002. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Sheffer courtesy U.S. Army)
Afghanistan has lost up to 30 percent of its forests since 1979, and now less than two percent of the country remains forested, UNEP says.

Once rich with orchards, vineyards, spice gardens and forests, Afghanistan's rangelands, watersheds, and agricultural areas are degraded. The UNEP teams will identify immediate and long term threats to the country's land, waters and biodiversity.

The country's six protected areas, where biological diversity once flourished, cover less than one percent of the land. The expert teams will examine threats to these areas and determine strategies to ameliorate, improve, protect, and maintain their natural resources.

An undetermined number of endangered Afghanistan leopards inhabit the high mountainous areas of Afghanistan and bordering countries. In addition, up to 200 snow leopards were recorded in 1992, also high in the mountains, according to the 2000 IUCN-World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Animals.


One of the few remaining markhor goats (Photo courtesy IUCN)
An endangered member of the goat family with long, spiraling horns known as the markhor occupies arid cliffside habitats in sparsely wooded mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Mammals of Afghanistan classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List include the blue sheep, the wild goat, the mouflon, the Asiatic black bear, and the Eurasian otter.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said to succeed in the long term, the rebuilding of Afghanistan must include "efforts to revive and protect wildlife and ecosystems, clean up contaminated sites, and manage natural resources such as freshwater and forests more sustainably."

The Afghanistan Task Force teams will collect baseline data on environmental conditions, and biodiversity, and generate reports detailing findings and providing recommendations and project proposals.

Team members will transfer knowledge and build capacity through on-site training of Afghan experts, workshops, discussion sessions, and seminars.

The field missions will be supplemented by an environmental analysis based on remote sensing using a combination of classic optical and state-of-the-art synthetic aperture radar technology.

On an institutional level, UNEP will do an in-depth analysis of international environmental conventions to determine what opportunities and potential benefits they may offer Afghanistan.

UNEP will also assess Afghanistan's existing environmental institutions and provide recommendations for structuring the environmental administration in a way that meets Afghanistan's needs and incorporates best international practices.

The final report detailing the findings of the assessment will be published in December 2002.


Natural disasters as well as war have taken their toll. Two earthquakes in March 2002 ruined many Afghani homes such as this one. (Photo courtesy Mennonitisches Hilfswerk)
The report will recommend projects for improving or remediating environmental threats, improving the institutional framework, increasing Afghanistan's capacity for environmental management and protection, creating jobs in the environmental sector, and improving the implementation of international environmental agreements.

The UNEP mission is financially supported by a number of governments, including Finland and Switzerland.

The environmental assessment is being coordinated with the Afghan Assistance Coordination Agency, in cooperation with the Ministry for Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, the Ministry of Public Health, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The United Nations Development Programme, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have each made an expert available to participate in the field mission. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) is providing overall support for the assessment.

In the coming months, a separate group of FAO experts will undertake a nationwide horticultural survey and a study of potential export markets for Afghani produce.


Drying plums on racks in Afghanistan, 1994 (Photo by M. Griffin courtesy FAO)
Immediate assistance will be given to the most important orchards, but long term recovery of the sector depends on water, says FAO horticultural specialist Noorgul Hamzakheyl. "If the drought ends, then Afghanistan's gardens have a future," he says.

In the 1960s, high value horticulture and dried fruit provided Afghanistan with almost half of its export revenue, the FAO says. Byproducts of orchard fruits, such as pomegranate rind and walnut husks, were used to dye the brightly colored carpets for which the country is famous.

The FAO mission will visit some of the 100 nursery gardens the organization helped to establish over 10 years ago to assess the damage wrought by dwindling resources, drought and war.


A nursery near Asmer, Kunar province, which FAO helped establish in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy FAO)
The effort to rebuild Afghanistan's agricultural base received a setback sometime over the last few months. The Future Harvest Consortium reported here Tuesday that looters have destroyed Afghanistan's largest seed collection, or genebank, when they took the plastic containers in which the seeds were stored. Scientists cannot say when the looting occurred.

Afghanistan's national food crop collection was first destroyed in 1992 by Mujahadeen factions. Researchers then re-collected samples of the country's major food and cash crops. During the Taliban era, scientists stockpiled hundreds of seed samples.

In 1998, Dr. Nassrat Wassimi, then adviser to the FAO's crop improvement program in Afghanistan, hid these collections in the basements of houses in the northern city of Ghazni and the eastern city of Jalalabad where they remained until the looting.

Dr. Wassimi is now Kabul coordinator of the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan. He is coordinating with seed genebanks in five countries to restore the lost collections.

"The Future Harvest Centers act as the international custodians for more than 660,000 different food crop samples in eleven crop genebanks," says Geoffrey Hawtin, Director General of the International Plant Genetics Resource Institute, a Future Harvest Center based in Rome. "Cases like Afghanistan illustrate why collecting and conserving plant genetic diversity is so important."