Culture and Climate

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    ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’
    Interview with Kazim Homayun

    We asked Kazim Homayun, the head of planning at the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), about Afghanistan’s official efforts to protect its environment and the obstacles that its environmentalists have to overcome.

    Taqi Akhlaqi: To begin with, please describe the organisational structure of your agency. How many people do you employ and in which provinces do you have branches?

    Kazim Homayun: After 2001 and before the National Environmental Protection Agency was set up as an independent institution, there was a corresponding department within the Ministry for Energy and Water. At the time, we employed 200 people. When the department became independent in 2005, the number of employees rose to 400. Now we have branches across the country in all 34 Afghan provinces. The number of employees has reached 850.

    What are the tasks of your agency?

    First of all, I must point out that this agency is not an executive body. Our tasks include coordination, planning and monitoring. In a variety of different ways, we are trying to heighten people’s awareness of ecological matters. We are involved in the drafting of bills, ordinances and plans, and the drawing up of lists of task priorities. At international level, we have signed up to a number of conventions and have signed protocols. We have candidate status for others.

    What have you achieved so far?

    I must be perfectly honest and say that, because of the country’s difficulties, we have no achievements worth mentioning to show on a practical level. We are new to this area and have so far focussed primarily on the drafting of bills. In this area, however, we have achieved quite a lot. For example, we have succeeded in putting some laws and ordinances into effect for the first time at national level, such as the law on environmental protection. Furthermore, we have defined specifications and standards for reducing damage to the environment, for example with regard to car engines and the limits for loads. These specifications are used to define contraventions of environmental laws. In conjunction with the Ministry of Education and the Arts, we got Environmental Protection included as a subject in schools in order to heighten schoolchildren’s awareness of the environment. Three years ago, we advised the Ministry of Higher Education to include Environmental Protection as a degree course at the Geological Faculty of the University of Kabul so that students of this subject could obtain a bachelor’s degree in it. Our consultations in this area are continuing. Our aim is for Environmental Protection also to become a course option at the private universities. At the provincial level, we are trying to use the opportunities offered by religious scholars and prayer leaders in mosques to increase general knowledge about the environment. To this end, we organise meetings and joint sessions with them. In this way, we have made every effort to really achieve something and we hope that we will soon see the fruits of our labour.

    Why is the environmental situation in Afghanistan constantly deteriorating?

    There are different reasons and factors that combine to damage the environment: a rocketing urban population, a rising birth rate, rampant poverty, and a shrinking middle class – which could otherwise be the biggest patron of the environment, democracy, and civil liberties. The poor have no choice but to cut down the tree outside their house in order to heat their home. Other reasons include a lack of urban infrastructure, the absence of a culture of using natural resources in an environmentally-friendly manner, extensive desertification and deforestation – to our knowledge, 55% of the forests in the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, and Nangarhar have disappeared since 1979 – soil erosion, and, finally, the indifference of the government. To date, the Afghan government has paid little attention to the environment. The environment is not on its list of priorities. The texts of some laws do refer to the vital role played by the environment, which is directly linked to human life; but unfortunately, the attention paid to the environment is restricted to these references on paper. For example, our agency received US $870,000 from the budget this year. The budget for the presidential guard is eighty times that figure. This is an indication of the Afghan government’s interest in the environment.

    What is behind the government’s lack of interest?

    The first reason is the fact that the government is forever having to deal with both internal and external partners. The second reason is that some senior government civil servants have sent their families abroad and are going to follow them once their time in office has come to an end. This means that they are not paying any attention to the environment of this country and are not even thinking about it.

    Do you think the international community is interested?

    Climate and environmental changes are the best evidence that we are a ‘global village’. After all, deforestation in one region also has a negative effect on other regions. This shows that we are all in the same boat. In our encounters with representatives of international organisations, we have seen that most of them are interested in common international themes and challenges such as environmental pollution and the depletion of the ozone layer. On an individual level, the international community is interested in the local problems of a country such as the pollution of groundwater and the urban and industrial waste load. We have signed up to several international conventions, which allows us to find out about the obligations of the international community and the G20 in particular, and we try to use these obligations to improve our environment. Let me give you an example: in 2009, Vietnam received 970 million US dollars from the money set aside for the revival of contaminated soil. We also have the chance and capacity to get a chunk of more than 91 million dollars from this pot, especially because the effects of climate change in Central Asia are visible.

    Changes in people’s behaviour

    Do you think the Afghan people are interested? Are they willing to co-operate? Over the years, have you noticed any changes in people’s behaviour?

    Yes, we have at least been successful in focussing the attention of the people, the media, and the citizens on this problem and giving them an awareness of it. We know that progressive countries devote at least fifty per cent of their efforts to heightening public awareness. As far as the National Environmental Protection Agency is concerned, I must say that we devote between seventy and seventy-five per cent of our efforts to this subject. Our efforts go towards informing people and sensitising them to environmental problems so that they will vote for the candidate who presents a special programme for the environment in the upcoming presidential election, in other words for the candidate who has a green view of things. I am convinced that the situation will continue to get worse until politics embraces environmental protection. We want to give people a wake-up call so that they stand up for their rights and put pressure on the government and the political parties. One clear example of this change in awareness is Jacques Chirac’s defeat at the hands of the Socialists in the presidential election. He had a tree cut down outside the offices of the city administration in Paris and was subsequently accused of being an eco-terrorist. For this reason, I look to the future with optimism.

    You have said that your agency is not an executive body. How do you co-operate with the executive and co-ordinate your programmes with it?

    The organs of government are sometimes more like stumbling blocks in our path. The Ministry of Finance in particular is always criticising the size of our tiny budget and trying to restrict it. While millions of dollars are spent every year on furniture and fittings, we have difficulties implementing our green, humane, and Islamic plans, which are constantly being called into question. Under these circumstances, we set up a committee for environmental co-ordination in the capital. The heads of planning in all ministries and government organisations are members of this committee. They attend the monthly meetings. We involve them in the planning and formation of opinions and ask them to take our green standpoints into account in their short- and long-term plans. We have also set up a commission called the Commission for the Prevention of Air Pollution. All deputy ministers, the head of the Agency for Industrial Standards, the Mayor of Kabul, representatives of civil groups and Afghan trade unions are involved in this commission. Every month, the members of the commission come together and discuss ways and means of preventing air pollution in Kabul. After all, people are relatively worried about air pollution in Kabul. However, if we left these tasks to the ministries, nothing would be done. The only thing that our agency can do is keep the Council of Ministers informed so that the ministers can make the necessary decisions. That’s as far as our influence goes: beyond that, there is nothing we can do. We once suggested setting up a ‘green police force’ to implement the environmental programmes and prevent the destruction of the environment, but the Ministry of the Interior rejected the proposal, reasoning that if they were to allow that, all the agencies would come along asking for their own police force.

    Do you have the equipment and opportunities you need to do your work?

    We intend to buy six measuring devices that will allow us to monitor air pollution. So far, however, we have only received one, which we are using in Kabul. We don’t have the equipment to measure other types of environmental damage such as water pollution or noise levels.

    What are your biggest fears for the future of Afghanistan’s natural environment?

    Unfortunately, air pollution is our greatest concern. In Afghanistan’s five major cities, the damaging levels of fine particulate matter in the air are seven times higher than the world average and three times higher than in other countries in the region. According to a joint study carried out in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank, the amount of dangerous particulate matter in the air has crossed the red line and is now causing many lung diseases including lung cancer. We are worried about the low-quality leaded petrol that bureaucracy and corruption are allowing into the country: it is contaminating our air and water with lead.

    What precautions have you taken with regard to the exploration of deposits, their extraction, and industrial pollution?

    Unfortunately, the mining industry pollutes the environment at all stages, from exploration to extraction. Experience in other countries shows that sometimes more money is spent on environmental measures related to the mining than the mine itself actually generates. We have informed the Ministry of Industry and Mining about our concerns. Happily, it shares these concerns. This ministry is aware of the problem and has already set up a corresponding department to tackle the challenge. Our representatives read the exploration contracts before they were signed and made any necessary suggestions. We consider this to be a positive step. Nevertheless, the widespread corruption in authorities is a major challenge that could put paid to all our efforts.
    Taqi Akhlaqi
    is a writer and journalist from Afghanistan.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2013

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