I Pollute, Therefore I Am
The Problem of Environmental Pollution in Afghanistan
‘My child is sick and has been for a long time. He is not getting better at all. He coughs all through the night until morning. During the day, he is feverish. Just look at how thin he has become.’ I am being told all of this by a father who is holding his sick child in his arms. He has come to a private hospital and is waiting to ask the doctor what he can do for his five-year-old son. ‘What do the doctors say?’ I ask. ‘That his lungs are too weak. As soon as he inhales dust or smoke, this is what happens. Look at how his nose is running! It all comes from the pollution. From the pollution of the water and the air,’ he answers.
Close bond with nature
Environmental pollution is a problem that has attracted great attention and is a cause for concern, at least in Afghanistan’s major cities and in particular in Kabul. The causes of the pollution are not hard to identify. It is easy to imagine how life-threatening climate and environmental change are in a country like Afghanistan, where 80% of the population live off natural resources. In addition, the health authorities in Afghanistan announced in July 2009 that environmental pollution is responsible for the death of 3,000 people in Kabul every year. Since then, statements such as these have been repeated, grabbing people’s attention and increasing their concern. They want to know what caused the recent flooding and the lowering of the water table. They want to know why the air in the cities is getting more polluted and is full of dust particulates.
Looking at Afghanistan from the outside, one might think that the challenges of climatic change are not a priority in this country, which is struggling with other, greater, security problems such as war, armed opposition groups, infrastructure problems, interaction with regional and international powers, and the safeguarding of the progress that has been made in recent years. Nevertheless, none of this has caused the Afghans to forget their environment. There is a deep and cultural bond between the Afghans and their natural environment, a bond that is deeply rooted in their consciousness and has existed for hundreds of years. Even a cursory glance at some of the sayings, anecdotes and poems of this country reveals this close bond. There are a great many sayings and aphorisms based on nature, for example:
The more fruit the tree bears, the more it bows down towards the earth (a reference to the humility of the wise).
The water is polluted at the source (used when something is wrong right from the word go).
Kabul lacks gold, but never snow.
These phrases are an illustration of how words like ‘tree’, ‘water’, ‘source’, and ‘snow’ are used. Another reference to this bond is the green tea that has been the most popular drink among Afghans for generations. Even President Karzai generally has a cup of green tea in front of him during meetings.
Imported or genuine worries?
In the last days of 2012, the Afghan senate invited the head of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency to attend an open session of the parliament to answer questions on environmental protection. The senators asked him what was causing the concentration of particulate matter in the air, the air pollution, and the lung, kidney, and throat diseases. Trees are disappearing, unprecedented floods are on the rise, and everywhere you go there is rubbish. I was watching the session, and it was very clear to me that the senators’ questions were quite genuine. No one had asked them to call this session. If the Afghan senators had asked questions about the ozone layer, the habitat of polar bears in the Arctic, and the most recent developments in the Amazon, one could have assumed that the West had convinced them to ask these questions and to put on a show like this. But the session was so lively and so engrossing that it would be ridiculous to speak of conspiracy theories.
In response to the senators’ question, Mostafa Zaher, head of the National Environmental Protection Agency, summed up the main causes of environmental pollution in Afghanistan as follows: a rapidly growing population, which has resulted in a decline in the rural population; increasing traffic density on rural roads; the burning of wood and fossil fuels such as bituminous coal in houses and factories; a lack of environmental awareness; and the reduction of green spaces.
He then turned his attention to the role of the state authorities and complained about the lack of co-operation and co-ordination between them. He said: ‘As long as environmental protection is not considered a priority in state planning, the situation will only get worse.’
The government is also constantly talking about limits and challenges and is urgently asking people to assume greater responsibility. Although people are willing to co-operate and to assume responsibility, they say that they cannot change the circumstances. For example, underground and surface-level water reserves are always being polluted. Moreover, Kabul, which has a population of four million, does not have a sewage system. Instead, every house has a pit for its own liquid waste. The people have no choice, and the government hasn’t got the means to do anything about it. It’s a similar story when it comes to air pollution.
The environment is being destroyed at all levels. From time to time, warning voices speak out and alarm bells are rung: but nothing happens. For whom are these bells actually tolling?
Farewell to the blue sky
‘The doctor says we should keep the house warm. This year, I bought a kharvar (560 kg) more wood than I did last year so that the child would not catch cold. The doctor prescribed more medicine. Maybe it will get better this time,’ he says holding the sick child even closer. His child’s dreadful coughing doesn’t stop. The father leaves the hospital. There is a long tradition of felling trees and using the timber as fuel in winter. People buy wood to heat their homes, thereby contributing either consciously or unconsciously to the destruction of the forests in the process. According to a statistic from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), about 50% of the country’s valuable forests had disappeared by 2008. I follow the man and his son and ask the father if he isn’t worried about the destruction of the forests and environmental pollution. Pointing to his son, he says that he is very worried about air pollution, but that he doesn’t think about the forests.
In short, the Afghans’ concern about the environment is restricted to their own circumstances and goes no further than that. They are not worried about the glaciers, the rising sea level, the extinction of bears in Poland, or the depletion of the ozone layer because they don’t generally believe that any of this affects them. Afghanistan doesn’t have any coastlines that could be eaten up by rising sea levels, there are no endangered bears in Kabul Zoo, and people have not given any serious thought to the ozone layer and its consequences.
To draw his attention to the importance of trees for cleaning the air, I ask him why air pollution has occurred in the last few years after so many trees have been felled. His answer astonishes me. With great emphasis, he says: ‘This pollution and these illnesses are new. They have come to our country together with the people from the West. No one ever mentioned them before.’ I ask him how he reached this conclusion. But he doesn’t answer. A few moments later, he is gone. Such analyses and conclusions are not unusual among the traditional classes; in fact, they are widespread. If we take this as an example of the reality of Afghan life and, more generally, of other areas too, we might perhaps understand why Afghan and foreign men of state talk at cross purposes and why they always encounter problems when they encounter each other. Although the fate of Afghanistan depends on these contacts, they are constantly polluted by misunderstandings, just like the sky above Kabul, whose blue has been obscured by a thick layer of dust that hides it from the people down below.
Environmental protection, a small administrative body, and nothing else
Despite all these challenges and environmental problems, the National Environmental Protection Agency seems to be facing them alone. Until the agency was set up, contemporary Afghanistan had never had an authority that focused on environmental problems. The establishment of this authority in 2005 was a historic event. This was followed in 2007 by the first law on environmental protection, which regulated the task of state authorities in this area, especially the role of the National Environmental Protection Agency. This law identifies two major national environmental protection tasks:
1. The drafting of a bill
2. Monitoring environmental conditions.
The text of the law, which was drafted with the help of the UN Environment Programme, outlines ways and means of protecting wild animals, water, forests, and other natural resources. Afghanistan has also signed up to a number of international conventions and treaties. All of these things constitute several steps forward. The Afghans who were responsible for these achievements are very proud of them. They say that they took the first steps, and focused most of their efforts on general environmental awareness. The experts recall two efforts in particular and praise the relevant initiatives:
1. The willingness of communication service providers to send environmental messages via the mobile phone network
2. The collection of provisions of religious law relating to the protection of the environment.
The sending of text messages was a praiseworthy initiative. However, because of the costs it generates for the communication service providers, it is not used very often. For example, the last text message that I received in this context was dated 16th May 2012. It was a Persian-language text message that read: ‘Human and Islamic ethics support the planting, nurturing, and protection of trees and ornamental shrubs.’
The second initiative, which is in fact a long-term research project, began on 27th June 2009. On this day, the representatives of the National Environmental Protection Agency in Kabul said that, with the help of the clergy and the Ministry for Education, they intended to include the subject ‘Islamic Religious Law for Environmental Protection’ in the university curriculum. The plan had two objectives: firstly, to teach people that environmental protection is an important theme in religion, and secondly, to create an Islamic law for environmental protection. This religious law should be taught in schools so that people begin to see environmental protection as a major part of religion.
The Afghans are deeply rooted in religion. Everyone still remembers the jihad against the Soviet armed forces. They went to war because they were told over and over again that their religion was under threat and needed the help of the faithful. I believe that Afghans remain a religious people to this day. The National Environmental Protection Agency is aware of this fact and makes clever use of it to reach its goals. The representatives of the agency claim that after three years, they have succeeded in using religious regulations to convince people of the necessity of environmental protection. While the destruction of natural resources continues, these representatives claim that they have at least slowed down the speed of destruction. They say that the task of environmental protection has been transferred to an authority that has limited financial resources and accounts for a very tiny part of the state budget.
Our city, our home
It must be said quite honestly that some of the habits and negative developments that have inflicted themselves on our culture during the war years still play a major role in the environmental pollution of recent years. Afghans are capable of doing three things in public: spitting, throwing rubbish on the streets, and urinating. Although the third bad habit has been in decline since 2001, the first two are still the norm everywhere. In an attempt to improve the situation, the City of Kabul has written the slogan ‘Our city, our home’ all over the city and on the uniforms of its employees. Afghans interpret this slogan differently. One day, one of my friends was eating fruit outdoors and threw the skin onto the footpath. When I protested, he said, ‘This is my country; I am free to do what I want.’ It was as if he was saying, ‘I pollute, therefore I am.’ With this act, he wanted to prove his existence. ‘And what about the slogan “My city, my home”?’ I asked him. ‘I do the same at home,’ he said, laughing. Many Afghans throw rubbish on the street, wherever they want, and generally no one stops them. You can imagine the catastrophe that has resulted from this kind of behaviour over the past ten years. With old slogans like ‘Our city, our home’, the city will not be able to rid Kabul of its mountain of rubbish. Perhaps it needs more accurate, more effective words so that people react in a more responsible way, open their eyes, and really see how their environment is being polluted.
Mining: the dragon awakes
Despite the size of the difficulties currently being faced, it is possible that the implementation of widespread mining and industrialisation plans, which are yet to come, will be the nail in the coffin of Afghanistan’s beautiful and unique natural environment. According to a number of studies, Afghanistan has huge reserves of iron, copper and lithium as well as huge oil and gas fields. Perhaps until now the lack of security and the high investment risks have prevented international companies who are interested in drilling and mining here from exploiting Afghanistan’s natural resources.
The lack of security is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it has contributed to the destruction of Afghanistan’s natural environment, and on the other, it has prevented the dragon of mining from entering the country. Nature-lovers and environmentalists are extremely worried about the damage and challenges that would go hand in hand with the extraction of resources by international companies who think only of their profits and their returns on investment. Of course our mineral resources could make us rich, which would mean we would no longer be a burden on the international community. It could even help us foster peace, but we would at the same time accelerate the destruction of our natural environment. Our water would no longer be pure; our air and our soil would no longer be able to sustain the fruit and plants that currently grow. Our president says: ‘By involving regional and world powers in Afghanistan’s mineral resources, we can ensure that they play a role in our economy and that we can at last live in peace.’ This would be a rare occurrence indeed in the history of independent Afghanistan.
Environmental activists point out that, so far, Afghanistan does not have any mining laws that would set out the rules for the industry. Afghanistan, they say, is not capable of protecting and pushing through its interests in the face of multinational economic giants. Swift decisions that haven’t been given much thought pose a threat to the historic peace for which Afghanistan yearns. These are complex conditions that will determine the future of the environment in this country. All relevant factors have been interwoven here: environment and peace, peace and the economy, peace and the economy and culture, and our lives and our future, and all of these factors at once.The fact is that all countries in the world - from the West to the East, from the North to the South - pursue their own interests. It is our task to bring these different interests into line with our own so that we can live in peace. It is a Herculean task that, while not impossible, is certainly very difficult to accomplish.
is an Afghan writer and journalist who lives in Kabul.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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