According to WHO estimates, death due to environmental risks constitute 26% of all deaths in Afghanistan [1].

In accordance with the WHO’s guidelines, the air quality in Afghanistan is considered unsafe [2]. According to the Afghan Health Ministry, in 2020, nearly 5,000 people died in Afghanistan due to respiratory and heart diseases considered to have been caused by air pollution, with around 10% of those deaths reported in the capital, Kabul [3]. Indoor air pollution using biomass (crop residues, dung, straw and wood) and coal poses a serious threat to health by production of high levels of indoor air pollution in households of the country. Afghanistan continues to have one of the highest percentages of death and disease linked to indoor air pollution in Asia [4].

In addition, water pollution and the limited access to improved water sources in Afghanistan is thought to be a causal factor in high levels of child mortality [5]. In 2016, the Central Statistic Organisation (CSO) integrated a Water Quality Test (WQT) Module in the ongoing Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) to assess the current water quality situation in rural and urban communities at source and household level. The results showed that 64% of water samples taken directly at the water sources were contaminated with E. coli, and 80% of the water samples tested at the household level were contaminated with E. coli with more than half of those (47%) falling into the very high risk/high risk category [6].

Alongside Afghanistan’s air and water pollution, the country also faces severe issues with solid and hazardous waste management. Municipal waste management is underdeveloped in major cities with an ongoing reliance on informal and unsanitary dumping; waste dumped in streets contributes to urban flooding, while areas with high levels of waste see increased rates of diarrhoea and respiratory infections [5]. According to the State of Afghan Cities report [7], Kabul is estimated to generate 653,557 ton of waste per year (1,790 ton per day). The collection and proper sanitary disposal of this quantity of solid waste would cost close to 41% of the city’s entire budget [5], [7]


Fast urbanization and population growth are associated with major environmental issues including, but not limited to, air, water, and soil pollution; access to clean water; and solid waste management [8].

Contributors to poor air quality in Afghanistan include industrial pollution, burning of waste, vehicle emissions, and poor-quality fuel. Pollution can increase during winter months (December to February) due to increased use of polluting fuels (wood, coal, kerosene) and inefficient technologies to heat homes [2]. Industrial brick kilns have come under particular scrutiny in recent years [5], as a major contributor to pollution across the continent [9]. In 2017, there were 700 active brick furnaces in Kabul [10]. Other contributing factors are a combination of rapid population growth coupled with inadequate urban planning, and the limited provision of green spaces [5].

Drinking water pollution in Afghan cities is mainly caused by a lack of rainfall, irregular groundwater use, and insufficient infrastructure [11]. In many areas in the country, Afghanistan faces high levels of naturally occurring water pollution, including high levels of arsenic, boron, fluoride and sulphate. Levels risk being worsened in areas with high levels of mining activity, the majority of which is informal and unregulated. Alongside naturally occurring pollution, the main sources of groundwater pollution include agriculture, poorly constructed domestic septic tanks, and leachate from domestic and municipal wastes in informal unlined landfills [5].


Key policies and governance approach

In recent years, notable progress has been made in Afghanistan in the development and promulgation of a range of new environmental laws, policies, regulations and standards related to pollution, including the Environment Law, National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP), National Waste Management Policy, Waste Management (Bio-Medical Wastes) Regulation, National Pollution Control and Management Policy, the Pesticide Law, the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for Afghanistan, and emission standards for select industries, such as Vehicle Mass Emission Standards [12], [13]. In addition, for the first time, NEPA announced in 2017 that air quality monitoring equipment had been purchased for the monitoring of air quality in Kabul [5], [10]

The Environment Law is based on 13 fundamental principles and consists of nine chapters and 78 articles addressing all the country’s main environmental concerns. Chapter 4, specifically, addresses the regulatory provisions for pollution control and waste management. Overall, the Environment Law defines the functions and powers of NEPA and reflects the role of the agency as the apex body for the formulation, implementation, regulation and monitoring of Afghanistan’s environmental policies and also as the coordinator for international environmental cooperation. To promote further integration and coordination of environmental matters with other government agencies, the Environment Law established Afghanistan’s Committee for Environmental Coordination (CEC) and the National Environmental Advisory Council (NEAC) [13].

Afghanistan is also a signatory to several conventions pertinent to pollution and wastes. In accordance with its commitments under the Stockholm Convention, the country prepared its First National Implementation Plan on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2017. In addition, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Action Plans have been prepared which involve a number of responsible ministries and agencies, and include ongoing strategies to reduce air pollution and to improve management of solid waste. They also include setting standards for products and materials that exclude POPs, and the development of Tariff Codes by the Customs Service to identify commodities liable to contain POPs [13].



Since the development of the Environment Law, with very clear articles on air pollution, the use of wood and coal in the country has dramatically decreased according to NEPA, as a result of the legislation and related efforts. One notable development being that most bakeries in Kabul have switched from wood to natural gas for their ovens [14].

Despite these achievements, the policies proposed to address pollution in the country still require very large investments, that are at present, beyond the Government's budgetary resources. For instance, Afghanistan’s National Implementation Plan on POPs identified the required total funding for projects specific to the reduction or elimination of POPs at US$70.450 million [13]

In addition, for the effective management of pollution, a coordinated effort is required across Government and relevant sectors. However, enforcement agencies are often understaffed and under-resourced, and the data they collect is not computerised in a way that gives adequate information for management. As a result, as with many other environmental issues facing the country, Afghanistan lacks quantitative environmental data on pollution to guide effective decision-making [13].


Initiatives and Development Plans

Initiatives to combat air pollution in Kabul include tighter vehicle emissions and a proposed green belt [5]. In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL) announced the start of the Kabul Greenbelt Project. Over 10 years, the project aims to create more than 10,000 hectares of green space around Kabul, including 4,000 hectares of forested area [15]

The government also launched an environmental awareness campaign on the impacts of pollution and steps to reduce pollution. The campaign included ads on TV, programs at schools and universities, and sermons at mosques [16].

  • NEPA needs to be strengthened with the support of government and legislative bodies, as well as provided with adequate budget and human resources.
  • While industrialisation and factories are an inevitable part of economic development they should be kept out of residential areas through effective urban planning. 
  • The country’s cities should copy or adapt successful approaches from other sustainable city programmes, including avoidance and retrofitting of illegal settlements, installing proper water management and drainage systems, improving public transport, and planting trees and other vegetation. 
  • Households and businesses need to be made aware of the devastating effects of indoor and household air pollution, the need to switch to clean fuels, and to abide by strengthened environmental standards.
  • Private sector investment should be encouraged [14].

[1] EMRO/WHO (2021). [Online]. Available:

[2] IAMAT (2020). [Online]. Available:

[3] Gandhara (2021). [Online]. Available:

[4] Delegation of the European Union to Afghanistan (2017). Specific Contract No . 2016 / 377924 COUNTRY ENVIRONMENT PROFILE FOR AFGHANISTAN.

[5] Conflict and Environment Observatory (2018). [Online]. Available:

[6] UNICEF (2019). WASH FIELD NOTE FN/21/2019: Piloting a field-based Water Quality Test for E. coli – lessons from Afghanistan.

[7] Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2015) The State of Afghan Cities 2015. GoIRA: Kabul.

[8] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2021). AFGHANISTAN VOLUNTARY NATIONAL REVIEW (VNR) 2021.

[9] Climate & Clean Air Coalition (2020). [Online]. Available:

[10] Office of the Chief Executive, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2017). [Online]. Available:

[11] Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat (2020). [Online]. Available:

[12] UNEP (2011). The UNEP Programme in Afghanistan: Annual Report 2010.

[13] Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2017). NATIONAL IMPLEMENTATION PLAN for the STOCKHOLM CONVENTION on PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS.

[14] United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2015). [Online]. Available:

[15] Elizabeth B. Hessami (2016). [Online]. Available:

[16] Rahim Faiez for The Associated Press (2019). [Online]. Available: