Action on climate change could be a way to move beyond humanitarian aid and start building the food and water security Afghanistan so desperately needs.
As the Taliban took Kabul last August and completed their spectacular return to power, international media attention drove a frenzy of global interest in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan is no longer headline news, the country is facing a perfect storm of worsening humanitarian, economic, health and governance crises. The United Nations projects that at least 24 million Afghans, more than half the population, will need humanitarian assistance in 2022. With almost 9 million people on the edge of starvation, Afghanistan is fast becoming the most food insecure country in the world.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is at an impasse with the international donor community. Unwilling to reward the Taliban with normal relations, Western nations and donors have been debating how to tackle the humanitarian crisis without giving the new regime a financial and political lifeline. On 11 February, the Biden administration announced it would release $7 billion of frozen Afghan government funds. However, only half of this money will be made accessible to Afghanistan’s central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), while other half will be held in the US until litigation by families of 9/11 victims is resolved and it is determined whether they can access these funds. This is despite the fact that no Afghans were among the 9/11 hijackers and that this money also includes peope’s personal savings.
International sanctions and the crippling banking and financial crises are hurting ordinary Afghans far more than the Taliban, particularly the Taliban elite. Instead, the Taliban’s biggest challenge is transforming from insurgent group to government. In January 2021, the Afghan parliament passed a government spending budget of $6 billion, 75 per cent of which was to be provided by donors. For the Taliban to match that, they need as much as $500 million per month. Although the newly reinstated Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is imposing itself on the structures and blueprint of the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, it lacks both significant amounts of money and much-needed human capital.
The multiple crises facing Afghanistan are exacerbated by the deepening challenges of climate change. According to Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, temperatures rose by 1.8°C between 1950 and 2010, twice the global average.
Afghanistan is among the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world due to its geography, sensitivity to changing weather patterns, and an infrastructure unable to cope with global warming. It is suffering its second drought in four years, along with an economic meltdown that is compounding the humanitarian situation. These near-term climate impacts, if left unaddressed, will only worsen the ongoing socioeconomic catastrophe, conflict and violence.
So far, the focus of the international community has been on the status of the new regime and the Taliban’s failure to ensure inclusivity and human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls.
Climate change straddles both the dire humanitarian situation Afghanistan faces over the short term, and its longer-term developmental challenges.
While addressing the impact of climate change and raising awareness about the threat it poses was a low priority for the previous Afghan government, the problem is now exacerbated as the Taliban regime also lacks the capacity to assess and understand the severity of the impact it could have on Afghanistan. Of the 60 senior appointments and cabinet roles announced by the Taliban since September, an absolute majority are clerics, excluding not only women but also technical expertise. Although the previous Western-backed Afghan government had engaged with COP26, the delegation nominated to attend the conference fled to neighbouring countries as the Taliban took control of Kabul.
As the multiple crises in Afghanistan intensify, so does the pressure on the international community to take action that could alleviate the harsh conditions facing the Afghan population without legitimizing the Taliban regime. Climate change is a profoundly central issue for Afghanistan that should not be seen as a distant – or indeed an external or Western – phenomenon. It directly impacts the lives of Afghans as well as the lives of their neighbours in the region.
Climate change could provide an entry point for engagement with the de facto Taliban government in a desecuritized and depoliticized setting. Firstly, it is one of the few issues the international community and the Taliban government actually agree on. Prior to COP26 in Glasgow, the Taliban urged world leaders to act on climate change and have since called on international donors to resume working on climate-related projects which have been halted. Secondly, climate change straddles both the dire humanitarian situation Afghanistan faces over the short term, and its longer-term developmental challenges. Supporting action to adapt to climate change could be a way to move beyond the minimal humanitarian aid Afghanistan has received so far and start building the food and water security it so desperately needs.
Finally, climate change also affects Afghanistan’s neighbours. While not being naïve to the realpolitik of cross-border cooperation in this region, building climate resilience could also provide a small, but significant, way of building lines of communication and cooperation from Afghanistan into the region. These may be small steps but, given the circumstances, they are steps worth taking.
Coauthored with Hameed Hakimi, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme and Europe Programme, Chatham House. Published by Chatham House 16 March 2022 – Link