Resources & Climate
Commentary

Environmental Factors Driving Migrants Into Afghanistan’s Cities

in Program

By Zachary Weiss – Each day, 400 people are displaced within Afghanistan, and the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country recently exceeded 500,000. Drawn by the perceived economic opportunities and security, most rural families migrate to Afghanistan’s national and provincial capitals. In fact, more than 90 percent of IDPs living in or around Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat originated from rural areas. According to a UN Refugee Agency survey (conducted in May 2011) displacement within Afghanistan is caused predominately by two factors: (1) a lack of security in rural settings (cited by 65.13 percent of survey participants in Kabul), and (2) a lack of available arable land (cited by 60.53 percent of participants).

Establishing security in remote areas is recognized by stakeholders as an important factor in slowing population migration, yet, as the survey demonstrates, environmental conditions have proven to be an equally significant factor in driving displacement. As Afghanistan’s central government works to ensure national security and development over the coming years, officials should incorporate environmental considerations into domestic policy planning as one means to reduce the pressures generating internal population displacement. Devising a comprehensive approach to providing security in the countryside and prioritizing agricultural development initiatives can help increase stability in rural Afghanistan, and prevent already overburdened urban areas from absorbing additional waves of migrants.

Arable land possesses sufficient soil nutrients and water, and is situated in a climate capable of sustaining crops. Over the last decade, multiple environmental factors have rendered land “non-arable,” pushing farmers to relocate to cities. Currently, a full two-thirds of the male workforce living in urban IDP sites formerly worked in agriculture. Beginning in 2000, drought has ruined eight harvests, depriving families their means of survival. Following the last drought season in 2011, 80 percent of the wheat crop in 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces was destroyed. While last winter’s heavy snowfall provided Afghan farmers with much-needed relief, salvation was accompanied by hardship for the 35,000 IDPs living within Kabul’s city limits: winter temperatures and poor housing inside the city’s 30 IDP camps led to the deaths of at least 28 children from exposure. Meanwhile, desertification – caused by over-grazing, deforestation, and poor land management – continually threatens 75 percent of total land in the northern, western, and southern regions of Afghanistan.

Overwhelmed by adverse environmental conditions and a lack of security, families have migrated to urban areas only to discover that conditions are scarcely better than those faced in rural settings. Within Kabul, air pollution poses a greater threat to the city’s population than terrorist attacks. The Afghan Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3,000 Kabul residents die every year due to air pollution. (In 2011, civilian deaths caused by pro-government and anti-government forces across the country totaled 3,021 according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.)

Inadequate infrastructure imposes further health risks on citizens. Ninety percent of Kabul’s sewage is released untreated into local waterways, contaminating surface- and groundwater, and only half of the population has access to safe drinking water. According to Amnesty International, residents of IDP camps are not allowed to dig wells as a result of government efforts to prevent permanent settlements. The government transports potable water to the camps via tanker trucks, restricting water availability to 10 liters per person per day.

Such scenarios highlight how vulnerable Afghan IDPs are to environmental conditions. Pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, climatic extremes, and other environmental factors contribute not only to the displacement of Afghans, but also can endanger citizens’ welfare following relocation. The Afghan government, lacking the capacity to provide for IDPs within cities, must address the drivers of displacement from rural settings. The problem of poppy cultivation highlights the importance of including agricultural infrastructure investments in a comprehensive security policy. Insurgents and drug traffickers exploit both economics and insecurity to profit from the poppy harvest. The effective reclamation of a region by the central government necessitates both eliminating the poppy crop and providing alternative rural livelihoods. In the Helmand River Valley, former poppy eradication efforts experienced the greatest success among farmers with irrigation networks, who were able to grow surplus wheat and invest the profit. Wheat requires more water to grow than poppies, an important consideration for farmers in the arid climate of Afghanistan. Consequently, the failure to provide adequate water to farmers undermines efforts to reduce the poppy harvest, which, in turn, erodes government authority despite the heightened presence of armed forces in the countryside.

According to a 2010 public expenditure review conducted by the World Bank, 47 percent of the Afghan national budget was allocated to security. Yet, even though 80 percent of the Afghan population depends upon agriculture or herding for survival, only nine percent of the national budget was devoted to agricultural development. The expansion of irrigation networks within Afghanistan would offer a substantial return in terms of security, while providing stability for citizens at risk of being displaced by drought and other environmental factors. Afghanistan must place a higher priority on agricultural development through an increased allocation of funds, and continue to encourage investments by the United States, China, India, the United Nations, and others into agricultural infrastructure.


Photo Credit: Basetrack via Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/basetrack/5778221186/

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