The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan

Martina Dazzi
The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan
Source: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU)

The nexus between climate change and human security in Afghanistan remains severely understudied. This article aims to discuss the effects of climate change and water scarcity on violence at the communal level in the country, where the rise of tensions and violent disputes among different local communities are often induced by the competition over scarce natural resources, such as water. To further the knowledge of this topic and answer to the main research question – Does climate change and the resulting water scarcity fuel instability in Afghanistan? – several interviews with experts in both water security and Afghanistan have been conducted.

What is known about climate change suggests that in the future, it will be uncontrollable and widespread, raising concerns for human security. Despite its vulnerability to both climate change and conflicts, little attention has been paid to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, climate change is not only a future possibility in the country, but it is already happening at a fast rate. According to recent studies, since 1950, the climate has experienced significant changes: for instance, temperatures have risen by around 1.8 °C with more pronounced warming in the South, followed by the Central Highlands and the North. Scientists have also found that since 1960, mean rainfall in Afghanistan has decreased by 2% per decade, limiting the availability of vital water resources.

The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan
Source: UNAMA

The 2011 Afghanistan Human Development Report warns that by 2025 the country’s water availability per capita per year will decline by approximately 36% relative to 2004. By 2040, it will fall by almost 50%. NEPA, UNEP, and WFP report that Afghanistan is also extremely exposed to climate hazards, especially droughts caused by either declining rainfall or river flows, resulting from reduced spring-time snowmelt in the highlands. It is not surprising that Afghanistan is 26th on the 2019 Climate Risk Index list of most vulnerable countries to extreme weather events. Interestingly, even the interview participants have noticed changes in the climatic patterns of Afghanistan and confirm that many critical issues in the country actually derive from water, which is often considered a hidden security problem.

Secondly, climate change is not the only factor reducing water in the country. As a matter of fact, years of conflict, water mismanagement by the state, neglect of infrastructures, and lack of skilled personnel have played an equally important role in the scarcity of water resources. Such constraints have been largely cited in the interviews, which underline the serious lack of irrigation networks, water storage capacities, and of an adequate water management system in the country. However, the words of one of the participants invites us to reflect:

“Climate change and the lack of infrastructures are both important issues, but they have a different speed. Climate change is faster, and it cannot be controlled”.

The consequences of water scarcity in Afghanistan can be multiple. Unsurprisingly, the agricultural sector is severely affected alongside food security. Moreover, as agriculture is the main economic activity of the country, water scarcity also has an influence on income generation, employment opportunities, and rural poverty. Interviewees argue that due to the scarcity of water, several provinces in the country can farm no longer. They report that sometimes water is abundant, but not in the right period for irrigation. Naturally, this has negative impacts on the agricultural sector, which is experiencing significant constraints.

NEPA, UNEP, and WFP suggest that today, usually arable land usually is sometimes left uncultivated due to a lack of water, seriously affecting farmers’ livelihoods. FAO informs us that despite its importance for the sustenance of the country, productivity in the agricultural sector remains relatively low and a third of the population is food insecure with 36% of the population living with low dietary diversity.

The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan
Percentage of households not cultivating rainfed land due to lack of water. Source: Adapted from the World Bank Afghanistan Province Dashboard.
The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan
Percentage oh households not cultivating irrigated land due to lack of water. Source: Adapted from the World Bank Afghanistan Province Dashboard.

On this basis, climate change and water scarcity were found to increase competition among local communities, exacerbating social tensions and amplifying violence in the country. Evidence from both interviews and NGOs’ reports, such as the Cooperation for Peace and Unity, suggested that water disputes at the communal and family levels are a widespread phenomenon, characterised by low-intensity violence, with high escalating potential.

The different experts from international research centres and think tanks that were interviewed for this study confirm that competition over water is increasing, leading to additional tensions, fights, and killings. Frictions between families, upstream and downstream communities, farmers, and nomads are often mentioned. Additionally, it has been found that ethnic elements are often present, aggravating the already tense situation. Therefore, it is clear that climate change has the potential to trigger violence in Afghanistan. UNEP suggests that Afghan people are more affected by these kinds of violence as opposed to war at the national level.

The Effects of Water Scarcity: Evidence From Afghanistan
Oxfam Security Survey: major causes of disputes. Source: Oxfam

Finally, participants were asked whether climate change and the resulting water scarcity might fuel instability in Afghanistan. All interviewees answered positively to this question, confirming their perception of climate change as a threat multiplier in the country.

Therefore, from the data gathered through the interviews and the analysis of previous studies, it is tempting to conclude that climate change has a significant role in Afghanistan. It is not the main nor the sole cause of problems as the insurgency still is a serious burden, but it certainly affects Afghan people’s everyday lives, contributing to the fragility of the country.

Further Readings

Akhtar, F., and Shah, U. (2020). Emerging Water Scarcity Issues and Challenges in Afghanistan in A. Ranjan (ed.) Himalayan South Asia. Internal Challenges, Disputes and Transboundary Tensions. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-28.

Brown, O., Climate Security Expert Network/Chatham House (2019). Climate-Fragility Risk Brief: Afghanistan. Adelphi.

CPHD (2011). Afghanistan Human Development Report – 2011: the forgotten front: water security and the crisis in sanitation. Centre for Policy and Human Development.

Dennys, C., and Zaman, I. (2009). Trends in local Afghan conflicts. Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU).

NEPA (2017). Second National Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Kabul: National Environmental Protection Agency.

Rassul, K. (2011). Water scarcity, Livelihood and Conflict. Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU).

Savage, M., Dougherty, B., Hamza, M., Butterfield, R., and Bharwani, S. (2009). Socio-Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Afghanistan. A Report to the Department for International Development. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

UNEP (2013). Natural Resource Management and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

WFP, UNEP, NEPA (2016). Climate change in Afghanistan. What does it mean for rural livelihoods 66 and food security? Kabul: World Food Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and National Environmental Protection Agency of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

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