To Build Peace, Confront Afghanistan’s Natural Resource ParadoxSeptember 16, 2013 By Shamim Niazi
There’s a popular saying in Afghanistan reflecting the value of water: “Let Kabul be without gold, but not without snow.”
Living in a refugee camp across the border in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, my father, who worked as a doctor in Samangan, Bamyan, Kunar, and Balkh provinces, used to tell me about the importance of our country’s natural wealth. He was optimistic that it was Afghanistan’s land, water, forests, and minerals that would help the country re-emerge as a strong nation. However, he also knew that the mismanagement of our natural resources is partly to blame for the instability, insecurity, and vulnerability that have gripped our country for so many years. This is the paradox of the natural resource wealth in Afghanistan.“Let Kabul be without gold, but not without snow.”
In June 2013, during my Masters in Environmental Management at Montclair State University in New Jersey, I returned to Afghanistan to work with the UN Country Team on how better natural resource management could support wider peacebuilding in my country. The UN Environment Program recently released a major report on natural resource management and peacebuilding that finds land and other scarce resources are often sources of coercion, influence, illicit revenues, and grievances against the government. Creating pathways to peace through these resources, rather than conflict, is a major challenge.
Who Owns the Land?
After the arrival of international forces in 2001, many Afghans were hopeful that the international community would lay down a new path to economic recovery. Refugees returned in hopes of starting a new life. Land rapidly increased in price, particularly in fast-growing urban areas, and was recognized as an increasingly important asset. This increase in land prices has led to increased competition, corruption, and conflict in some places. Meanwhile, continued uncertainty over rights, mainly due to a lack of clear land titles, has impeded development in many areas, both urban and rural.
UNEP’s David Jensen speaks at TEDx on environmental peacebuilding in Afghanistan
Many Afghans are worried about the future of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw, scheduled for the end of next year. So far, the government and the international community have not succeeded in addressing the country’s many land disputes or in creating a functioning and equitable land system, an important element for long-term stability. Meanwhile, anti-government insurgents, very powerful in some districts, are manipulating the situation by weakening the role of traditional structures and the government for resolving conflicts over land.
Water management – specifically water sharing – is another contentious issue. A lack of infrastructure to store fresh water severely hampers development, while Afghans also face inadequate sanitation, pollution, and the threat of regional conflict over what water there is.
The five major Afghan rivers are the Helmand, the Hari Rod, the Kunar, the Panjsher, and the Oxus (also known as the Amu Darya). These rivers, fed by the glaciers and snows of Afghanistan’s high mountains, flow into neighboring Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, providing them with crucial freshwater.
Unsurprisingly, water is an issue of tremendous political sensitivity, both domestically and internationally. Afghanistan’s neighbors fear that their flows will reduce as Afghanistan renovates its infrastructure after years of damage and neglect. Likewise, Afghans worry that after the withdrawal of international forces, the country may once again become a proxy battlefield for regional powers interested in gaining access to our water, forests, and minerals, as has happened in the past and continues today, in many respects.
Before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, pistachio, almond, oak, and cedar forests covered extensive areas of the north and east of the country. These forested areas provided important income-generating opportunities, including building materials, game, firewood, and forest products. However, during the chaos of the past 35 years, poverty, instability, competition over fuel wood, and lack of law enforcement has driven rapid deforestation. This has not only accelerated erosion and damaged the landscape, but also raised tensions between different communities and further contributed to poverty.
While people in Afghanistan today are more environmentally aware than they were in the late 1980s, people are still desperately poor and have limited choices for survival. If policies are not aligned properly to stop deforestation and the illegal timber trade, the poor will keep overusing the resources for their own survival. Policies have to consider community forestry, the provision of alternative fuels, raising awareness about the benefits of sustainable forestry, and improved border and customs enforcement.
Poppy Farming and a Buried Bonanza
Also driven by poverty is Afghanistan’s status as one of the world’s largest producers of opium. The drug trade has become a lucrative funding source for insurgents, corrupt government officials, regional warlords, and criminal gangs. Unfortunately, poppy cultivation is the primary source of income in many rural areas, and the government and the international community’s counter-narcotic initiatives have largely failed because they have not been able to provide a viable alternative. Poppy cultivation has actually expanded in recent years as the insurgency has gathered pace. Finding a way to short circuit this trend should be a priority going forward.Afghans are well aware of the ironic nature of their buried wealth and the risks associated with it.
Minerals are another critical resource, and one on which many are pinning Afghanistan’s future. After the withdrawal of international forces in 2014, it is hoped that the extractives sector will become the backbone of economic growth and stability. Recent assessments of oil, gas, copper, iron, and gemstones have estimated the value of the country’s largely untapped geological resources at between one and three trillion dollars.
But the extractives sector can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, our mineral and gas wealth could generate jobs, increase revenues, and fund major infrastructure projects. On the other, it could be a “curse” that encourages corruption, instigates bad governance, stunts economic growth, and causes new environmental, political, and social problems. Afghans are well aware of the ironic nature of their buried wealth and the risks associated with it, but our choices are very limited.
Seize the Opportunity
For effective peacebuilding in Afghanistan, effective and transparent natural resource management must be part of the solution – and should be considered an opportunity rather than a burden.
In a poor country like Afghanistan, natural resources provide a large proportion of the wealth and can provide a foundation for sustainable development if their value is recognized and respected. It has also been proven that good environmental design at the beginning of development efforts and other large projects (e.g., infrastructure and energy projects) eventually pays off. The government has to build stronger inter- and intra-organizational coordination between its own agencies and with donors to help achieve these goals. In addition, donors should work to harmonize their plans and activities more effectively in order to help develop the capacity of the environmental sector. UNEP’s conflict resolution tools and strategic environmental assessments are both valuable tools in this context.
Better management of Afghanistan’s natural resources not only matters for the country but also throughout Central and South Asia. With careful planning, and the advice of our elders, we can ensure that in the years to come Afghanistan’s resources are a blessing, not a curse.
Shamim Niazi a researcher with UNEP Afghanistan. This blog is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of UNEP.
Sources: AFP, Lujala and Rustad (2011), UNEP, United Nations Country Team in Afghanistan.
Image Credit: Natural Resource Management Guidance Chart, used with permission courtesy of UNEP. Video: TEDx Talk By UNEP’s David Jensen, courtesy of UNEPandYou. Photo: Deforested hills in Northern Afghanistan, used with permission courtesy of UNEP.