Problems

Afghanistan’s varied topography has created a diverse number of habitat types, with temperature and precipitation changing considerably at different elevations. The species that occupy these habitats are uniquely adapted to their ecosystems [1]. According to an analysis of species records in UNEP (2009), Afghanistan is home to an estimated 3,500-4,000 native species of vascular plants, 428-515 bird species, 137-150 mammal species, 101-139 fish species, 92-112 reptile species, and 6-8 amphibian species [1], [2]. The number of endemic species is relatively low for vertebrates (7 species), but relatively high for plants (possibly more than 1,000 species). Wild biodiversity resources have historically been primary sources of food, medicine, building materials and trade items, and continue to be important at all levels of the economy. Landraces of crop and livestock species are critically important elements of Afghanistan’s agricultural biodiversity, being adapted to the often severe environmental conditions across the country and providing the basis for rural livelihoods. Fodder and forage plants in particular sustain an estimated 30 million strong goat and sheep flocks [2].

However, recent studies suggest that biodiversity loss is accelerating across the country [1]. Large scale remote sensing analysis suggests that nearly 8,000 km² of land was degraded between 1981 and 2003. Satellite image analysis and assessment of commercial wood volumes show that forests, both closed forest and open woodlands, are rapidly disappearing, while overgrazing and shrub collection for fuel is markedly reducing plant biomass and altering plant communities. Diversion of water and increasingly frequent drought is drying wetlands and rivers with unknown effects on aquatic biodiversity. The ubiquity of weapons following years of war is leading to the loss of large mammals throughout much of the country. Footprint analysis shows that Afghanistan’s per capita bio-capacity is declining [2].

Unsurprisingly this has threatened much of Afghanistan’s wildlife. For example, flamingos have not bred successfully in Afghanistan for about ten years; Siberian cranes have not been observed for over 20 years. Several mammalian species, such as the Caspian tiger or cheetah, are on the verge of global extinction and have not been seen in Afghanistan for decades. Other threatened species include the markhor (Capra falconeri), which is endemic to Afghanistan and adjacent territories. Much of Afghanistan’s biodiversity is highly dynamic with cross-border and seasonal migration being the norm. As entire ecosystems disappear and or degrade, these migration routes disappear with them. The Wakhan Corridor in the east is one of the few intact high mountain ecosystems, home to populations of endangered snow leopards and other mammals, including the Marco Polo sheep [3].

Biodiversity has been termed “the wealth of the poor” because the poor tend to be rural people living close to the land and dependent on nature for the goods and services provided by biodiversity, e.g., productive crop and grazing land, fuel, building materials, wild fish and game. Land rich in biodiversity is a form of wealth, even if that wealth cannot be measured in strictly monetary terms. Without the basic goods and services provided by biodiversity it is not possible for rural people to make a living from the land. Poverty and emigration are the only options. Afghanistan needs to manage its biodiversity well in order to develop into a vibrant and economically secure nation [2].

Causes

Faced with overwhelming poverty and a lack of alternatives to the use of natural resources, Afghans have no option but to exploit biodiversity unsustainably, leading to conflicts among resource users, degradation of habitats, unsustainable hunting practices, and illegal trade. Unless this issue is more effectively and more rapidly addressed, biodiversity in Afghanistan faces a bleak future.

Threats to Afghanistan’s biodiversity have worsened in recent years, and include natural disasters such as flooding, over-hunting, deforestation, overgrazing, shrub collection, dryland farming, water diversion, climate change and desertification [2].

Responses

Key policies and governance approach

The Environment Law, enacted in 2007, assigns the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) the responsibility for coordinating and monitoring conservation and rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s environment. This mandate gives NEPA overall responsibility for implementation of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) and other government organizations, and with the technical and financial assistance of international organizations and non-governmental organization partners. Afghanistan’s NBSAP aligns with other national environmental strategies that are in place, including the Environment Sector Strategy 1387-1391 (2007/08-2012/13) and the National Priority Programme 1: National Water and Natural Resources Development Programme [2].

The National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan (NBSAP) is a sectoral national strategy covering the period of 2014-2017. Its main objective is to conserve all aspects of Afghanistan’s biodiversity and ensure that the country's biodiversity resources are used sustainably in the future [2], [4]. The overall strategy aims to develop and implement a viable, cost-effective, and long-term framework for the conservation and management of Afghanistan's biodiversity, based on the mobilization and effective use of available national human and financial resources, as well as international partnerships. The Action Plan attempted to identify and implement short-, medium-, and long-term actions, institutional responsibilities, and (to the extent possible) budgetary requirements for implementing the identified actions [2]. The NBSAP includes 11 preliminary targets, mainly dedicated to environmental conservation, such as Target 1: “At least 10% of each ecological region effectively conserved, and areas of particular importance to biodiversity protected”. It also includes targets related to agriculture and food in conjunction with the environment (Target 4 and Target 8), and measures related to climate change (Target 7) [4].

In addition, the Government of Afghanistan has made efforts to make sustainable agriculture and livestock production, and natural resources management top priorities in the country’s development. It has issued a National Natural Resource Management Strategy (2017-2021), promoting the concept of Community-Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM), and formulated a National Comprehensive Agriculture Development Priority Program (2016-2021) and an associated Interministerial Implementation Plan (2019-2023) [3].

 

SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES

Much of the information available about Afghanistan's biodiversity is outdated and unreliable. Additionally, an ongoing challenge for monitoring and evaluation of biodiversity is physical access in some areas of the country [5].Years of ongoing warfare have certainly taken a toll on the nation’s biodiversity resources, but the extent of biodiversity loss and degradation remain largely undocumented [2]. Therefore, there is a need to compile and update data in order to mobilize support for the most critical areas and interventions [3]. Additional survey work, focussed monitoring efforts, and continued external support for biodiversity management are required to ensure the effective conservation of Afghanistan’s biodiversity resources [2].

Overall financial and human resources capacity for effective biodiversity conservation and management remain relatively low [2], [5]. The need to strengthen administrative and technical capacity and adequate funding to the government has challenged governmental implementation of biodiversity policy and programmes at the field level. Institutions and NGOs had stepped in to fill this gap but, by necessity, have expended most of their time and resources on developing the conceptual, legal, and policy structures that will provide the foundation for future implementation, which has been most lacking in terms of field-level protection of biodiversity [5].

One of the biggest challenges in the implementation of the articles and decisions of the CBD remains the coordination of responsibilities and activities across the range of relevant agencies in the country. Responsibility for management of biodiversity resources at the national level is currently split between two agencies: NEPA and MAIL, and both agencies have a presence at both the national and provincial levels. In addition, there are also a number of national and international NGOs, community-based organisations, and international organisations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental, that play an active role in biodiversity conservation in the country [5].

There is also a major reliance on international financial support through bilateral and multilateral sources, including GEF. Afghanistan does not prioritise biodiversity management, with a number of major social and economic challenges to address. While the natural environment is a vital tool in assisting to overcome these issues, it is still not sufficiently recognised by many government bodies. Donor funding requirements therefore need to allow for such challenges in demonstrating the successful impacts of conservation intervention [5].

The development of Afghanistan’s NBSAP highlighted the need and opportunities for enhanced cooperation and coordination, and every effort should be made to ensure that all relevant stakeholders know and understand their roles. The minimisation of duplication of effort and competition for limited financial resources, as well as human capacity, is imperative [5].

Opportunities

[2], [6]

  • Research needs to be undertaken on biodiversity issues as much of the recent information on biodiversity is recycled old material without citing original sources, making it difficult to assess the validity of data.
  • Afghanistan should adopt and implement practical community-based natural resource management, capitalising on local and indigenous knowledge and practices.
  • A medium-term goal should be to restore at least 15% of existing degraded forests and rangeland areas, but even greater forest cover may be possible in the future.
  • Enabling legislation is required to provide for the establishment and management of protected areas and remove the uncertainty related to the current legal status of protected areas.
  • Afghanistan's protected areas system should be designed to protect representative areas with high biodiversity in all major ecoregions, based on extensive surveys of current status and suitability for inclusion.
  • A good starting point is a national red-listing process for Afghan mammals to determine the current status of priority species. National and international researchers should be encouraged to create an extensive flora map of Afghanistan, possibly using citizen science approaches that have proven effective in other countries.
  • Donor support is required for ecoregional floral and faunal studies and implementation of the NBSAP and development of a data base system.