Climate Refugees

Spotlight: Afghanistan

Afghanistan has endured four decades of uninterrupted war. The US invasion of Afghanistan of 2001, which marked the beginning of the “War on Terror,” is the longest war in US history. As a result of continuous warfare and instability, Afghanistan is one of the top three refugee-producing countries in the world, accounting for 2.7 million refugees.63 Millions more have been internally displaced by violence and climate crisis impacts.64 However, due to long-standing political, economic, and social devastation and disarray, efforts to prevent precarious environmental effects and degradation are at a nascent stage in Afghanistan.65

In 2018, 435,000 people were displaced in Afghanistan due to disasters, surpassing the total number of people displaced by conflict and violence, estimated at 372,000.66 In the same year, a severe drought affected two-thirds of Afghanistan67 and forcibly displaced 371,000 people, predominantly impacting those dependent on agriculture and livestock-related livelihoods.68 Nineteen informal settlements were set up to accommodate IDPs, but unsafe conditions in the settlements continue to pose health and protection risks, and many more IDPs are forced to seek temporary shelter in precarious living spaces and conditions.69 The frequency and severity of droughts are expected to increase,70 severely affecting surface and groundwater resources, which are already stressed by water mismanagement and changing climate conditions.71

Desertification is yet another effect of the climate crisis impacting Afghanistan—one being exacerbated by deforestation,72 overgrazing, and the switch to rain-fed wheat cultivation, all of which accelerate soil and land degradation.73

Aside from drought and desertification, over the last decade farmers have noted a link between rising temperatures and the unpredictability of rainfall patterns.74 Likewise, increased temperatures could impact crop variety and lead to varying outbreaks of pests and diseases.75 For the 85 percent of Afghanistan’s population that relies on agricultural and food production as a means of subsistence, these changes are of great concern.76 Further, warmer temperatures will melt snow and ice and ultimately alter seasonal precipitation patterns and, combined with a lack of vegetation (resulting from deforestation, which helps to stabilize water flow), will increase the risk of flooding throughout the country.77 Additionally, temperature variations may reduce the risk of avalanches in some parts of the country but will simultaneously exacerbate snowfall and the risk of avalanches in others.78 Less dire predictions project that Afghanistan will warm 1.5°C by 2050, with additional warming of 2.5°C by 2100.79

Recurring environmental disasters have hindered people’s resilience and ability to cope with the climate crisis, and in 2019, 10 million people were reported as being food insecure and in need of humanitarian aid as a result of extreme drought and flooding.80 Future projections indicate that 59,001 people will be displaced due to flooding, and 78,153 people will be displaced due to earthquake-related disasters.81 However, obtaining accurate projections of the far-reaching effects of climate and environmental changes is a challenge, as there is a lack of robust data accounting for climate impacts in Afghanistan.82

With around 3,000 endemic plants—nearly four times that of Europe—Afghanistan is recognized as one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet.83 Since 2002, the UN Environment Programme has supported the Government of Afghanistan’s environmental conservation efforts. It has engaged with Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) to increase advocacy and outreach for the protection and conservation of the environment and the country’s natural resources.84 By 2004, the NEPA enacted several initiatives to protect the environment and to mitigate the climate crisis. These included the establishment of four national parks,85 as well as amendments to the country’s environmental laws.

Critically, the constitution itself holds Afghan people accountable to “protect the environment, conserve the environment, and to hand it over to the next generation in the most pristine condition possible.”86 In 2017, with support from the UN Development Programme and the Least Developed Countries Fund, Afghanistan launched a $71 million initiative to build the resilience of rural communities against climate crisis impacts.87 Afghanistan completed its National Adaptation Programme of Action for Climate Change in 200988 and signed and ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016.

  • 63. “Figures at a Glance,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees, (June 19, 2019), accessed June 20, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.
  • 64. “Afghanistan,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, accessed June 20, 2019, http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/afghanistan
  • 65. Abdul Azim Doosti and Mohammed Haris Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan: Climate Change and Governance in Afghanistan, (Kabul: National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan, 2015), 10, accessed June 20, 2019, https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22447/Report_CC_Go....
  • 66. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. “Afghanistan,”
  • 67. 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview, reliefweb, (2019), 7, accessed June 20, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/ sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/afg_2019_humanitarian_needs_overview.pdf
  • 68. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019, 36.
  • 69. Reliefweb, 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview, 10
  • 70. Disaster Risk Profile: Afghanistan, (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2017), 10, accessed June 20, 2019, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/284301491559464423/ pdf/114097-WP-P155025-PUBLIC-afghanistan-low.pdf.
  • 71. Afghanistan, The National Capacity Needs Self-Assessment for Global Environmental Management and National Adaptation Programme of Action for Climate Change Final Report, (Kenya: UN Environment Programme, 2009), 23, accessed June 20, 2019, https:// unfccc.int/resource/docs/napa/afg01.pdf.
  • 72. Afghanistan’s forests have been severely depleted due to deforestation and account for an estimated 2 percent of the country’s total land cover. Doosti and Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 31.
  • 73. UN Environment Programme, Afghanistan, The National Capacity, 14, 23.
  • 74. Sune Engel Rasmussen, “How climate change is a ‘death sentence’ in Afghanistan’s highlands,” The Guardian, (August 28, 2017), accessed June 20, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/28/ how-climate-change-is-death-sentence-afghanistanhighlands-global-warming.
  • 75. Doosti and Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 18.
  • 76. World Bank, Disaster Risk Profile: Afghanistan, 10.
  • 77. Doosti and Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 38.
  • 78. World Bank, Disaster Risk Profile: Afghanistan, 14.
  • 79. Doosti and Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 7
  • 80. “IFRC: Climate change increasing hardship in Afghanistan where 10m people living with aftermath of extreme weather,” Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, (March 28, 2019), accessed June 20, 2019, https://www. climatecentre.org/news/1125/ifrc-climate-change-increasing-hardship-in-afghanistan-where-10m-peopleliving-with-aftermath-of-extreme-weather.
  • 81. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Afghanistan.”
  • 82. Doosti and Sherzad, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 6.
  • 83. Rasmussen, “How climate change is a ‘death sentence.’”
  • 84. “Afghanistan Celebrates World Environment Day 2016,” UN Environment, (August 7, 2017), accessed June 20, 2019, https://www.unenvironment.org/news-andstories/story/afghanistan-celebrat....
  • 85. Rasmussen, “How climate change is a ‘death sentence.’”
  • 86. “Prince Mostapha Zaher, Afghanistan 2010: Champion of the Earth, Inspiration and Action,” Champions of the Earth, accessed June 20, 2019, https://web.unep. org/championsofearth/laureates/2010/prince-mo- 71 belonging.berkeley.edu @haasinstitute stapha-zaher.
  • 87. “Afghanistan launches US$71 million initiative to prepare rural communities for climate change,” UN Development Programme, (December 13, 2017), accessed June 20, 2019, https://www.adaptation-undp.org/ node/4382.