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UNEP report chronicles environmental damage of the Afghanistan conflict

Kabul/Nairobi, January 29, 2003 - Two decades of warfare in Afghanistan have degraded the environment to the extent it now presents a major stumbling block for the country's reconstruction efforts.

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Post-Conflict Environment Assessment report, produced in close cooperation with the Afghanistan Transitional Authority and released today, shows how conflict has put previous environmental management and conservation strategies on hold, brought about a collapse of local and national governance, destroyed infrastructure, hindered agricultural activity and driven people into cities already lacking the most basic public amenities.

Three to four years of drought have compounded a state of widespread and serious resource degradation: lowered water tables, dried up wetlands, denuded forests, eroded land and depleted wildlife populations.

With two million returning refugees in 2002 and a further 1.5 million expected this year, pressure on Afghanistan's natural resources and environmental services are set to increase further.

The UNEP assessment was carried out last year by 20 Afghan and international scientists and experts who examined 38 urban sites in four cities and 35 rural locations.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said the report makes it clear that environmental restoration must play a major part in the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

"Over 80 percent of Afghan people live in rural areas, yet they have seen many of their basic resources - water for irrigation, trees for food and fuel - lost in just a generation.

"In urban areas the most basic necessity for human well being - safe water - may be reaching as few as12 percent of the people," Mr Toepfer said.

Disposal of solid waste is one of the country's most glaring problems. The assessment team found no dumpsites were taking measures to prevent groundwater contamination or toxic air pollution from burning plastic wastes.

In Kandahar and Herat, dumpsites are sited in dry river valleys above the cities, with the prospect that future heavy rains will wash hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of waste back into the city via the river system.

Kabul's Kampani dumpsite is also upstream of the city and close to a well field used to draw drinking water; one likely to expand to meet the city' growing needs.

Tests of drinking water in urban areas revealed high concentrations of bacterial contaminants, Coliforms and E. coli, from contamination by sewage - creating a threat to public health, particularly children who are susceptible to deadly cholera.

The assessment found Kabul's water supply system, damaged during the conflict and lacking routine maintenance, is losing as much as 60 percent of its supply through leaks and illegal use. In Herat only 10 percent of the 150 public taps were found to work.

In Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Kabul the UNEP team documented medical wastes from hospitals - in some cases even organs and syringes - being disposed of into open streets, uncontrolled dumps and an abandoned well, risking the spread of viral and bacterial diseases and toxic hazards.

However, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif have initiated recycling and composting schemes, while Herat has significantly reduced cholera cases through chlorination of its water supply, helped by international assistance.

UNEP investigations of oil refineries and transport terminals, and brick, asphalt and lead battery factories revealed acute environmental and human health risks, because of poorly maintained, rudimentary technologies and a lack of management know-how.

In a plastic recycling/shoe factory in Kabul the assessment team found children working without protection from toxic chemicals and sleeping at machines, or in factory alcoves, between their 12 hours shifts.

The rural assessment found widespread loss of forest had occurred across much of the country during the past 30 years.

Satellite imagery reveals that conifer forests in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan have been reduced by over a half since 1978. During Mujahadeen and Taliban times up to 200 timber trucks a day, representing the loss of up to 200 hectares of forest, plied the main road in Kunar, according to local officials, probably two thirds of it destined for export markets in Pakistan.

Today local communities have lost control of their resources in these eastern provinces with warlords, 'timber barons' and foreign traders controlling illegal and highly lucrative logging operations.

The assessment also documented the loss of pistachio woodlands in the north; trees from which can produce 35-50 kg of nuts per year, providing significant revenue at US$1 kg. Almost no trees could be detected in Badghis and Takhar provinces in 2002 by satellite instruments, compared to 55 and 37 percent land cover respectively in 1977.

This appears to have been caused by the breakdown of a community forest warden scheme and stockpiling of fuelwood during uncertain political conditions. Later, according to interviews with residents, military forces cut trees to reduce hiding and ambush opportunities for opposing forces.

Goats and sheep are preventing regeneration of many forest areas. As well as controlling grazing one of the proposals being considered by the Afghanistan Transitional Authority is the creation of an "Afghan Conservation Corps", utilizing ex-combatants for reforestation efforts.

In the Amu Darya River, the assessment team found several hundred families had colonised previously unoccupied tugai forest islands - a unique ecosystem and refuge for species such as the Eurasian otter, wild boar, endangered Bactrian deer, waterbirds and birds of prey - to escape conflict. Prior to the Taliban period, local residents widely respected the island's reserve status but the new colonists have been clearing and hunting the area, which covers a 100 km stretch of the river near the border with Tajikistan.

Also in Afghanistan's northern provinces, the assessment team identified potential risks from large stocks of dangerous or illegal pesticides, used in the past for control of insects, including annual infestations of Moroccan locusts.

In the remote Wakhan Corridor, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, an area rarely visited by UN missions, the assessment team spent two weeks on horseback in areas grazed by the yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz and Wakhi herders. The team confirmed the presence of snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep and species such as wolf, brown bear and Asian ibex.

Hunting pressure - mainly for meat and casual trade in wildlife furs - was much reduced during the period of Soviet occupation, but has increased subsequently. UNEP noted that the Wakhi have responded positively to recent calls by the Afghan Transitional Authority to hand in arms and stop hunting, and the area escaped much of the recent conflict and is free of land mines.

Pekka Haavisto, Chairman the UNEP Afghanistan Task Force said "Afghanistan now has an historic opportunity to get environmental issues integrated in all development plans. Protection of environment and sustainable management of natural resources will also create new job opportunities."

"Some environmental problems have to be tackled immediately. The burning of wastes, contamination between dumpsites or sewerage and drinking water, and the serious chemical threats to young workers at the factories visited by UNEP, are among the most urgent health-related environmental problems in Afghanistan," Mr Haavisto said.

The assessment report contains 163 recommendations, covering environmental legislation and enforcement, capacity building, job creation, planning, environmental impact assessment procedures, industry and trade, public participation and education, and participation in international environmental agreements. It also makes recommendations in relation to water supply, waste, hazardous wastes and chemicals, woodlands and forests, energy, air quality, wildlife and protected areas conservation, desertification and food and agriculture resources and identifies actions at specific urban and rural sites visited during the assessment.

Dr Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, Minister of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment in the Afghanistan Transitional Authority, said the Government would benefit greatly from the report as it develops the country's environmental policies and plans for rehabilitation.

"UNEP's post-conflict environment assessment illuminates Afghanistan's current levels of degradation, and sets forth a path that the country can take towards sustainable development. It warns us of a future without water, forests, wildlife and clean air if environmental problems are not addressed in the reconstruction period," Minister Nuristani said.

UNEP has assisted in the preparation of the UN's 2003 Transitional Assistance Programme for Afghanistan, which includes priority areas for environmental management, and identifies the funding that is required from the international donor community to implement them.

Minister Nuristani will also present the findings of the assessment to over 100 environment ministers attending UNEP's Governing Council meeting and Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, Kenya next week.

END

More Information:

The report can be downloaded from the website http://postconflict.unep.ch

Contact Tim Higham, UNEP press officer in Kabul, phone +93.70.276.431 or +93-70-282 456, email higham@un.org; Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, phone +254 2 623292, mobile +254 (0) 733 682656, email eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, phone + 254 2 623084, mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, email: nick.nuttall@unep.org

Documents for UNEP's 22nd Governing Council meeting, to be held from February 3-7, are available from www.unep.org/GoverningBodies/GC22/documents.asp

UNEP News Release