Can the Taliban address climate-related risks in Afghanistan? In the wake of the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan is confronted with various risks to human security and hard security, especially in the context of climate change. Climate-related security risks have been increasingly manifesting and aggravating the drivers of violent conflict. For example, the impacts of more frequent and intense droughts on depleting groundwater sources and natural reservoirs are a huge threat to the water supply of many communities. These climate impacts can aggravate the situation of water stress and food insecurity among conflicting ethnic communities and spur violence over the contestation of natural resources.
Intense droughts, the drying up of rivers, water shortages and land degradation are further straining the leadership’s ability to provide basic social services to the population. Moreover, the ability of any Afghan government to withstand the adverse impacts of climate change so far remain inadequate. Now, the question is how the Taliban might be able to respond to such climate-security challenges. This article will discuss how it may respond to some of the challenges and if this is likely to bolster resilience in Afghan society or aggravate the situation.
Inter-ethnic conflict between subsistence farmers and pastoralists
The brunt of climate-security issues in Afghanistan are faced by subsistence farmers and pastoralists. Conflict emerges in and amongst subsistence farmers and pastoralists over the utilization of arable land for proper irrigation and access to green pastures. Given that the Taliban are ethnically Pashtun-dominated, they are not likely to remain neutral conflict mediators.
The agricultural sector of Afghanistan subsumes 80% of the population. Alternatively, only 5% of the land can be irrigated for cultivation and rangelands are increasingly contested among pastoral communities. As a result, subsistence farmers and pastoralists have historically been engaged in conflicts over land rights and pasturing areas. For instance, conflict over the control of Alpine pastures between ethnic pastoral communities of Hazaras and Pashtun Kuchi has continued since the late 19th century. Back then, the King of Afghanistan gave many highland pastoral areas to the majority Pashtun pastoralists – many of which are now connected to the Taliban regime. Climate change impacts such as droughts and floods continue to degrade the quality of arable land, driving irregular livestock migration and starvation, thereby threatening livelihoods of vulnerable populations and intensifying inter-ethnic tensions.
The Taliban will have to confront tribal politics and rural agrarian feuds. In the past, the new rulers in Kabul galvanized rural farmers against the inability of the former Afghan government to provide basic services. Consequently, the social frustration with the government often manifested with local populations joining the Taliban or armed opposition groups. With climate change threatening agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, many rural communities were easy to exploit by the Taliban; but now, land conflicts, pastoral clashes or water distribution conflicts will be a challenge for the Taliban given their desire to position themselves as legitimate national governors. The inability to meet this challenge could result in losing the support of those parts in the population that have been pivotal in the Taliban’s assailment.
A similar conflict pattern emerges in the context of water shortages and related grievances. But, water-related security threats further extend to transboundary disagreements. In Afghanistan, there are five major river basins – Amu Darya, Harirud-Murghab, Helmand, Kabul, and the Northern basin – all of which discharge their water in neighbouring states. In the highly water-stressed Central Asia, climate change impacts and their knock-on effects on water considerably damage relations with neighbouring states. Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan depend on the water supply of rivers originating in Afghanistan for irrigation and food production. Several Afghan attempts to build water infrastructure were met with protest and armed cross-border resistance. For example, the development of Afghan-India Friendship Dam in Herat was attacked by peace spoiler groups supposedly financed by Iran. Also, the Taliban-Iranian relations will become stressed over water. Local levels feud due to water scarcity could lead to the potential re-emergence of Sunni-Shia tensions between the Taliban and Iran – which might threaten regional stability.
Another element, to consider is opium poppy cultivation, which is becoming a more interesting alternative as water stresses increase. This is an important source of income for the Taliban, but undermines food production and speeds up land degradation. The production of opium poppy requires little water input and can withstand dry conditions. This drought-resilient nature of opium poppy harvest makes the plant an attractive “bumper crop,” which could encourage the local population to enter the drug economy. The economic returns despite the increasingly harsh climate conditions, make opium poppy production a direct security concern – since the profits generated from the drug economy, serve as revenues for the Taliban. In a broader sense, climate change has contributed considerably in posing a security challenge to Afghanistan in the form of supporting the rise of the Taliban. The impacts of climate change have consolidated power to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The economic hardships and threats to livelihoods faced by rural Afghan populations were compounded by the impacts of climate change and was conducive for Taliban recruitment.
Moreover, in the context of socio-cultural rural practices in Afghanistan, women are actively involved in farming, livestock, horticulture, and other farming-related entrepreneurial activities such as opium poppy production. Prevailing gender dynamics of Afghanistan observes women assisting male family members as a source of cheap labour, often unpaid – especially in the cultivation of opium poppy. The situation for women in Afghanistan may worsen. The Taliban might re-impose traditional practices denying women the right to inherit land or livestock and even enforce restrictions limiting the physical mobility of women; thereby intensifying their dependency on agriculture. This will make it tougher to secure food, water, and rangeland pastures. Though the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid on 17th August 2021, vowed to respect women’s rights within the gambit of Islamic Sharia Law, many remain sceptical as the previous rule of the Taliban witnessed horrific human rights violations against women.
Taliban likely to aggravate climate-security risks rather than addressing them
The future of climate security in Afghanistan looks bleak in light of the Taliban seizing political power. Afghanistan will continue to remain ill-equipped to undertake effective climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, and it will be more difficult to attract climate financing from international donors. Over 40 years of persistent armed conflict has severely damaged the country’s infrastructure and weakened institutional mechanisms that ought to address climate-related risks. Afghanistan is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world and urgently needs to build respective capacities to lessen the impacts of climate change. However, building up disaster-resilient infrastructures is additionally hampered by the grim economic outlook. The Taliban seized power in the world’s seventh poorest country, where international funding accounts for 75% of the government’s annual budget. US, EU, and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) among many others have temporarily frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. With the Taliban also having no access to Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, they are likely to resort to other foreign actors like China or Pakistan and increase their reliance on opium poppy cultivation.
All in all, the extreme socio-economic conditions of Afghanistan, coupled with the impacts of climate change are bound to seriously disrupt the stability of Afghanistan’s economy, food security and natural resource capacity. The security crisis emerging as a result of the impacts of climate change can no longer afford to be overshadowed by the history of enduring conflict in the region.
By Harman Singh