Friday, June 27, 2008

On the road to extinction

As noted in OPED13 “Unnoticed victims of the Afghan wars" (written January 2002 and reprinted below), Afghanistan's flora and fauna were under pressure from the years of fighting. Now an added pressure is coming from demand from foreigners for items related to endangered species...

“Afghanistan's snow leopards have barely survived three decades of war. But now the few remaining mountain leopards left in Afghanistan face another threat -- foreigners involved in rebuilding the war-torn country.

Despite a complete hunting ban across Afghanistan since 2002, snow leopard furs regularly end up for sale on international military bases and at tourist bazaars in the capital. Foreigners have ready cash to buy the pelts as souvenirs and impoverished Afghans break poaching laws to supply them.”

Foreigners threaten endangered Afghan snow leopards

OPED 13 Unnoticed victims of the Afghan wars (Jan 2002 reprint)

Though you'd be hard-pressed to find it in the news, other things equally devastated by Afghanistan's decades of war are the flora, fauna, and the environment of the country. The problems these face have a direct impact on the future of the country, and their deterioration will complicate and hinder the recovery and rebuilding process.

Topography: Covering an area of 647,500 square mile, Afghanistan is slightly smaller than the state of Texas. It is a rough, mountainous country divided by the Pamir and HinduKush ranges. The Hindukush run across the country from north-east to south-west, with lower ranges radiating in all directions. The west and south are lowlands, while the east and southeast are foot hills to the mountains. Afghanistan's climate is influenced by the topography, with low rainfall of 23-37cm, except in the southwest where it is often less than 12cm. A major part of the precipitation is as snow. In the south and east this melts quickly, while in the mountains the snow cover lasts. Most of the precipitation usually falls between October and April. Afghanistan's rivers are fed by mountain streams. In the north is the Amu Darya, which receives water from the Pamirs, in the central part of the country is the Harirud that flows to the west/northwest to the border with Iran, and in the southwest is the Helmland river, which starts in the central Hindukush then passes through the southwest and passes into Iran. Afghanistan has a few, small lakes, and some salt marshes on the western border with Iran.

Besides the destruction of towns, villages, and infrastructure, continuous war since 1979 has also wreaked the following havoc:

  • Afghan fauna typically were animals well adapted to arid steppe or mountainous conditions. The wild asses and gazelles which roamed in herds across the steppes have been mostly exterminated. Their predators, cheetah and hyena, have thus also declined. Other predators such as the Turanian fox, the snow leopard, wolf, and lynx have almost been exterminated for their furs - not surprising in this decimated country where a single leopard fur can command $2,000 on the black market, a sum that can mean the difference between life and death. Animals in rugged and isolated areas, such as the Marco Polo sheep in the high mountains, have been slightly protected by their isolation.

  • Very large numbers of birds (the Siberian crane, flamingos, falcons, mallard, etc.) once flew through Afghanistan during their migration from Siberia to India and Africa, stopping at resting places in the Afghan lakes. Estimates are that these numbers have fallen by 85% due to the ongoing wars as they have chosen alternative migratory routes.

  • Much of Afghanistan's vegetation has been cleared for farming or destroyed in the war. Villagers and refugees have been cutting down trees for fuel for cooking and heating, others have been and are clear-cutting vast quantities of trees (pines, oak, cedar, walnut, etc.) for sale in neighboring countries. Much of south-east Afghanistan was once forested, but now less than 2% of the country is forested, and this is disappearing at an alarming rate.

  • Deforestation and the clearing of vegetation has greatly increased soil erosion by water and especially by wind. A drought that has lasted for several years has also exacerbated the situation. The small percent of good arable land has been losing its carrying capacity. Soil erosion has partially filled reservoirs with sediment, decreasing the ability to generate electricity. Existing irrigation tunnels have been damaged by bombing .

Thus we see that besides the people the very land has been ravaged by the years of war. Klaus Toepfer (Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program - UNEP) in December '01 called for environmental issues to be part of any international recovery program for Afghanistan. As he stated so well, "A healthy environment is a prerequisite for sound and sustainable development. People can not secure real and sustainable economic development against a background of contaminated water, polluted land, and marginalized natural resources"

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