A land in turmoil

An assessment of environmental degradation must preclude rebuilding of Afghanistan

Published: Tuesday 15 January 2002

Following the conclusion of the un-sponsored talks on Afghanistan in Bonn, unep executive director Klaus Toepfer rightly said environmental issues should form part of the package being considered for the country's rehabilitation.

Afghanistan today is at best a relic of years of war litters. The big challenge before the war-ravaged country is thus a developmental one, where ecological issues need to be urgently addressed. The over two-decade long armed conflicts have led to degradation in areas such as freshwater, sanitation, forests and soil quality. What needs to be first built up is a good natural resource base.

Afghanistan has a tradition of irrigation tunnels, which has now been eroded and bombed out. This unique system, called karez, has its origins in Mesopotamia and Babylon around 700 bc from where it spread to Egypt, Persia and India. Similar structures in the Malabar region of Kerala are known as 'surangams'.

The special water harvesting structure, some large enough to accommodate trucks and tanks, have now run dry to become the famous 'caves', which were targeted by the us bombers. Coupled with earlier attacks by Soviet forces, this destroyed a system, which once irrigated the southern and eastern parts of the country. Consequently, the question of Afghanistan's very dependence on land water resources is today a moot one, what with its intricate water channels completely lost.

Once the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people are secured, an urgent assessment must be made of the environmental damage after pinpointing areas of degradation. No long-term economic development is possible with a backdrop of contaminated water, polluted land and marginalized natural resources.

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