Climate Change Compounds Longstanding Displacement in Afghanistan


By Nasrat Sayed and Said Hashmat Sadat

Decades of conflict, political instability, and economic collapse have led to the displacement of countless people within Afghanistan, with 4.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of the end of 2021. Displacement “is a common coping strategy for many Afghans and, in some cases, an inevitable feature of life across generations,” the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre writes. Years of adverse environmental changes have compounded the drivers of displacement, aggravating food insecurity, underdevelopment, support for violent extremism, and other phenomena that contribute to internal and international migration in ways not immediately apparent to casual observers. Severe drought and flooding due to climate change have had a range of impacts, and have been especially brutal in driving hunger; almost half of the population in Afghanistan was considered acutely food insecure as of May 2022, meaning their lives or livelihoods were in immediate danger.

The already grim situation worsened dramatically following the chaotic mid-2021 withdrawal of U.S. and other international troops after two decades of presence and the freezing of the Afghan government’s finances amid the Taliban takeover. However, policies to respond to climate and other environmental changes had received little practical attention for years before the pullout—an especially significant oversight in a country in which nearly 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and 80 percent of livelihoods directly or indirectly depend on agriculture. National budgets have long focused primarily on combatting security challenges, leaving Afghanistan one of the least equipped countries to cope with the impacts of climate change. The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index, which analyzes and ranks countries’ vulnerability to extreme-weather events, listed Afghanistan as the sixth-most affected country in its most recent report, covering 2019.

The scant attention has translated most directly into poor management of water resources, which in practice means that violent flash floods are more common and difficult to control, and severe droughts leave rural communities and farmers unable to access water. Given that the economy has otherwise been ravaged by decades of war, struggling communities have few safety nets on which to rely, which may push residents to migrate either internally or internationally in search of income. The lack of focus also affected security, by creating an opportunity for the Taliban to expand their presence in rural areas by encouraging and recruiting jobless young farmers. However, it seems that the situation has changed now as the Taliban have control of Afghanistan and direct war is over.

The Taliban takeover amplified the country’s economic crisis and also led to a slowdown in funding from the international community, including for water resources development and climate change mitigation projects. This situation made farmers further vulnerable to disaster, discouraged the return of millions displaced internationally by years of war, and compelled others to migrate, either within the country or beyond its borders. It is unclear how—or if—the Taliban intend to mitigate the impacts of climate change and enact better water governance, or whether new leaders will follow the paths of the previous government. The prospects appear dim: In the months since seizing power, the Taliban have instead been busy forming their own government, enforcing their interpretation of Sharia law, especially on women, and have not yet been recognized by the international community. Whatever its plans, the unrecognized Taliban government is likely to face a lack of technical capacity, since most senior appointees are religious clerics and there has been an exodus of technical experts who filled positions in the previous government, including the head of the National Environmental Protection Agency. The Taliban also abolished the recently established National Water Affairs Regulation Authority as an independent governmental entity.

This article examines the climate and environmental linkages to displacement and international migration in Afghanistan, particularly as it relates to water resources management. Both internally displaced Afghans and those who have ventured to neighboring countries have been affected by environmental impacts before departure and upon arrival.

Environmental Drivers of Displacement and Migration

Environmental drivers of human mobility are often indirect and difficult to disentangle from other factors. Sudden-onset events including major storms and floods may prompt people to move quickly out of the path of danger, but slow-onset environmental changes such as varying rainy seasons and intermittent drought may also compel displacement by making livelihoods less profitable, increasing the costs of remaining in place, or otherwise affecting the general calculus of migration decision-making. Poor countries in particular often lack resources, strong democratic structures, political will, and civil-society engagement to mitigate some of the most severe repercussions of climate change for their populations. Migration can be an effective strategy to either abandon a place that has become unlivable or for one member of a family to earn money elsewhere and send funds back to bolster the community’s defenses. Such movement is often expensive, however, and the poorest individuals may not be able to afford to do so, leaving them exposed to continued environmental stress.

In landlocked Afghanistan, the key environmental drivers are an increase in drought (due to low precipitation and reduced snowfall), frequency of floods (due to heavy and uneven rainfall, which has increased by between 10 percent and 25 percent over the last 30 years, as well as rapidly melting snow), and warmer temperatures that are on average 1.8 degrees Celsius higher than in 1950. Droughts that affected two-thirds of the country in 2018 prompted mass movements and left about 4 million Afghans in need of support for food and livings. In 2018, Afghans were displaced more often due to environmental and natural disasters than conflict (see Figure 1).

Worsening climate conditions cause environmental change of varying degrees in regions across Afghanistan, affecting farmers and pastoralists in particular. For example, in Badghis and Balkh provinces in the northwest and north, recent severe drought caused livestock to die, crops to wither, and fields to be ruined. Changes such as these have affected the livelihoods of many rural Afghans and have caused food insecurity. Farmers often lack the equipment and resources to cope with the impact of a changing climate, prompting some to take desperate measures. Some have considered selling their young daughters into marriage, for example. Others have migrated to big cities within Afghanistan. Yet others have gone to neighboring countries to seek out new lives and safety.

Violent flash floods, meanwhile, destroy crops and homes, and take the lives of hundreds of people every year. For example, a day of floods killed more than 70 people in Parwan province just north of Kabul in August 2020, and in the eastern Nuristan province, a week of flooding killed more than 100 people the following year. Unlike with drought, people who survive these types of floods tend to be displaced temporarily; once the waters recede, they gradually return.

Migrants’ Experiences and Impact on Environmental Sustainability

Afghans who are able to migrate to neighboring countries tend to be young males, and they usually end up in Pakistan (home to nearly 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees as well as large numbers in irregular status) and Iran (home to 780,000 registered Afghan refugees, plus potentially millions more without legal status), among other places. These migrants typically hope to find work and send back remittances to support their families in Afghanistan.

However, those without legal status often face numerous challenges entering and living in neighboring countries. In May 2020, Iranian border police reportedly tortured and forced at least 70 Afghan migrants into the Harirud River, where many of them were drowned. On the other hand, nearly 600,000 Afghans were returned from Iran and Pakistan during the first half of 2021. Once at destination, Afghans also face climate fragility, rapid urbanization, and water scarcity, which can complicate their integration.

Meanwhile, Afghans who remain internally displaced within Afghanistan often travel as families and live in informal settlements in or near big cities. Yet farmers and others from rural areas typically lack the skills needed to find employment in urban centers upon arrival, which can present multiple challenges. A very high share of IDP households is led by someone who cannot read or write. The displaced also often lack access to formal education and face discrimination from host communities and providers of health care and other services. As a result, they often end up in jobs that are considered dirty, difficult, and demeaning.

Wherever they end up, the presence of these new arrivals affects the environmental sustainability of the destination cities. Within Afghanistan, Kabul, Herat, Mazār-e Sharīf, Jalalabad, and Kandahar are the country’s fastest growing cities, due in part to the return of millions of Afghans from Iran and Pakistan as well as the arrival of large numbers of internal migrants during the last two decades. Kabul, the capital and by far the country’s most populous city, has dozens of camps inhabited by IDPs. Yet this and other cities in Afghanistan lack proper environmental governance, which has come under strain amid the presence of migrants. People in informal settlements tend to engage in poor waste management, burn plastics to cook and keep warm in the winter, pollute water, and cut down trees for firewood, among other environmentally destructive behaviors. Since its takeover, the Taliban has overseen the return of thousands of IDPs, especially war-affected, to their places of origin. However, those who are displaced due to long-term climate change impacts such as drought are unlikely to return, yet the Taliban government does not seem to have a clear policy for responding to their future needs.

At the same time, disputes over water rights have led to renewed tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbors, which both affects residents’ environmental resources and has led to hostility towards Afghan migrants. Afghanistan’s dam construction projects in the Harirud and Helmand basins ignited fury from downstream Iran, which among other steps has allegedly forcibly returned Afghans who had been residing the country. Similarly, proposed dam development in the Kabul basin has fueled fears in Pakistan about limits on its future access to water. The neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, lack a transboundary water treaty with Afghanistan to resolve these kinds of disputes.

Failure of Policies to Address Climate Impacts and Climate-Induced Migration

Despite failing to work to mitigate some of the impacts of climate change, the former Afghan government and international community have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades to develop and manage water resources. For instance, the former Afghan government built two storage and diversion dams to regulate the flow of water and provide irrigation to farmers in the south and southwestern parts of the country, particularly during the dry season. The government and its partners also developed several plans and policies to manage migration, environmental resources, and reduce the impact of natural disasters.

However, officials often neglected the linkage between climate change and migration in Afghanistan. The Comprehensive Migration Policy (CMP), which was developed in 2019, is the only policy that rectified this oversight. The CMP includes some policy responses to address the impacts of climate change, displacement, and migration. Additionally, the recent Afghan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF-II) covering the 2021-25 period has recognized that climate change poses a severe threat to the Afghan people and natural resources. However, due to lack of security and political will, the previous government could not adequately implement these plans, and it is unclear whether the Taliban leadership remains committed to them. At the same time, the previous Afghan government was unable to initiate transboundary water treaties with its neighbors—or even to properly operationalize the 1973 treaty with Iran over the Helmand River—and it seems unlikely that the Taliban will be any different. This has contributed to diplomatic tensions that can lead to stigma and hostility towards Afghan migrants and aggravates water scarcity that may compound the drivers of migration.

As such, the practical effect of the previous Afghan government’s efforts to address the impacts of climate change have been minimal. Neighboring Iran and Pakistan meanwhile remain on edge over their own populations’ access to water and take little notice of how efficiently they consume it. This kind of short-sighted behavior in the region by local authorities leaves communities ill prepared for droughts and other effects of the changing climate, which can have devastating consequences. Migration is just one of many possible responses to these impacts, but as injustice, economic precarity, and environmental volatility persist, it is likely that many more Afghans will continue to leave their homes to seek out safety elsewhere.