Afghanistan's parched wetlands

This war-ravaged country is heading for a disaster

By Ritu Gupta
Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

Afghanistan's parched wetlands

-- May Kabul be without gold rather than snow. This mantra is chanted by almost everyone in Afghanistan -- a country where water sources are more important than human lives. After all, agriculture, the mainstay of Afghanistan's economy, accounts for 99 per cent of water use in the country. Wetlands, in particular, formed a true oasis in the middle of parched land stretches. But today these waterbodies are as arid as their surroundings.

Using images of the Landsat satellite, researchers from the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) recently pieced together a 25-year-long history of the wetlands. What emerged in the report Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment -- Afghanistan paints no pretty picture.

Sistan basin -- the most important wetland area -- has completely become parched. "The Helmand river transformed one of the region's biggest salt plains into a cradle of life called Sistan. Now it has become a death-knell," says Hassan Partow, one of the researchers. In the past five years, the river has dramatically declined -- it is running 98 per cent below its annual average. The Hindu Kush snowfields that supply water to the Helmand have shrunk from 41,000 square kilometres to 26,000 square kilometres between 1998 and 2000. Most of the vegetation has either dried up or been used as fuel. This has led to sedimentation.

Dams had been built on the Helmand for electricity generation and improved water distribution. However, two decades of conflict have prevented coordinated and strategic water releases. The reservoirs of the dams have high rates of evaporation. Hydroelectric production priorities are incompatible with water release needs during dry spells. These factors have increased the vulnerability of the basin to the worst drought ever witnessed by Central Asia to date. Excessive extraction of groundwater has also created problems. For instance, the construction of deep wells in the Bakaw district of Farah province caused the drying up of hundreds of karez -- traditional water canals.

Other wetland areas are also suffering due to the same reasons. Less than 20 years ago, the Amu Darya river covered a distance of 1,200 kilometres before joining the Aral Sea. Today, it fails to unite with the Aral. The desiccation of the Kole Hashmat Khan lake can be partly blamed on an eight-kilometre ditch dug around it to keep livestock out. The ditch is now used as a grand dumping ground. Even the lake in the Dasht-e-Nawar area has been reduced to an arid strip of land since 2002. "This led to a decline in the levels of atmospheric humidity and drying up of soil. Consequently, crops and livestock were affected," says a local resident.

The situation is no better in other areas: winds that were once cooled by the waters of the wetlands have started blowing dust, sand and salt. The land has become infertile, thousands of livestock have been lost and every fishery closed down. Local as well as migratory bird populations have disappeared. Many who had lived around the wetlands have moved away. At the same time, there has been a huge influx of war refugees. The increase in population coupled with a severe drop in the quantity and the quality of food has resulted in malnutrition and a high incidence of diarrhoeal and communicable diseases.

Is the situation irreversible? "Wetlands are dynamic ecosystems that can survive cyclical periods of drought. For instance, our images revealed that 73 per cent of the Sistan wetlands had dried up in 1987. But by 1998, they had recovered. However, the present situation seems to be beyond hope. It will become increasingly difficult for the reed beds to re-establish themselves in the sterile salt flats," says Partow.

He adds that urgent action is needed now; the longer the world waits, the more difficult it would become to bring the wetlands and their complex web of life back to their former splendour. Ironically, Afghanistan is not a party to the Ramsar Convention -- an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for conserving the waterbodies. "The government should play a proactive role. Moreover, the restoration process should not only involve improving the conditions of the wetlands, but also their surrounding areas. Community participation is a must," says Ritesh Kumar, an official with Wetlands International, a non-governmental organisation based in The Netherlands.

In the meantime, Iran has established lines of communication with the new government of Afghanistan. One of the major dams blocking the flow of water to the Iranian side of the Sistan region was Kajaki located in central Afghanistan. The Taliban government closed the sluices to the dam in 1998 after a dispute with Iran. The new government in Kabul, however, agreed to open the sluices in 2002. This is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.

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