(Reissued as received.)
NAIROBI, 6 February (UNEP) -- The internationally significant Sistan wetlands -- shared between Afghanistan and Iran -- are almost completely dry, according to a new report presented to environmental leaders in Nairobi today.
Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, Afghanistan's Minister for Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, told the 100 environment ministers attending the Governing Council meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that satellite imagery has revealed 99 per cent of the wetlands have dried up since 1998. The findings come from UNEP's Afghanistan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment report, launched in Kabul last week.
Additional information released today shows the Helmand River, the main tributary of the wetlands which drains 31 per cent of Afghanistan's land area, has run as much as 98 per cent below its annual average in recent years. Four years of drought has compounded problems caused by uncoordinated management of the river basin's dams and irrigation schemes during two decades of conflict. Without a stable source of water, much of the natural vegetation of the Sistan basin has died or been collected for fuel. This has contributed to soil erosion and significant movement of sand onto roads and into settlements and irrigated areas.
The Iranian side of the wetland was designated a Ramsar site -- an international treaty designed to protect important wetlands -- in 1975. At that time, half a million waterfowl comprising 150 species were counted on Hamouni-e-Puzak -- - two thirds of which is in Afghanistan -- including eight globally threatened migratory birds such as the Dalmatian pelican and marbled teal. In central Afghanistan, the UNEP assessment team found the national waterfowl and flamingo sanctuaries at Dasht-e-Nawar and Ab-e-Estada were also completely dry. Flamingos have not bred successfully inside Afghanistan for four years, and the last Siberian crane was seen in 1986.
While renewed rainfall could restore river flows and wetland areas, their long-term sustainability would require proper and coordinated management of water extraction from dams, rivers and wells, and prevention of contamination from waste dumps, sewers and chemicals, the report shows. It will also need transboundary cooperation, a source of tension in the past, with Iran having accused the Taliban regime in 2001 of blocking flows of the Helmand River, the cause of which was later found to be drought.
"At the regional level, we have to increasingly work with our direct neighbours on water, forest and desertification issues", Mr. Nuristani said. "Afghanistan must find its place among the international environment community and start benefiting from the international conventions."
On the positive side, the assessment team found that Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park, is in good hydrological condition and supports populations of urial and ibix. The area contains six lakes of crystal-clear water, separated by white travertine dams and surrounded by spectacular red cliffs -- the best example of this landscape type in the world. It offers significant potential for nature tourism and meets the criteria for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but during 2001 was one of the front lines of fighting between Taliban and resistance forces, and some areas remain heavily mined.
Mr. Nuristani said snowfalls in the past week had replenished water levels at the Kole Hashmat Khan wetland on the outskirts of Kabul, which had been dry for much of the past five years. The wetland was declared a waterfowl reserve by King Zahir Shah in the 1930s and in the 1960s supported tens of thousands of ducks, as well as wintering and migratory birds. But protection was never formalized, game wardens have been ineffective, canals have been dug to divert water, the land encroached upon for housing, and even seized by military commanders for the resettlement of homeless people.
It is a situation repeated throughout the country. The report concludes that collapse of local and national forms of governance during Afghanistan's two decades of conflict has been one of the main contributors to environmental decline. It has also destroyed infrastructure, hindered agricultural activity and driven people into cities already lacking the most basic public amenities.
The drought has compounded a situation of lowered water tables, dried up wetlands, denuded forests, eroded land and depleted wildlife populations. And with1.5 million returning refugees expected this year, pressure on natural resources and environmental services will increase further.
Mr. Nuristani said: "The report makes it clear how conflict causes environmental destruction. Similarly, continued environmental depletion and scarcity of natural resources will cause further conflict. Effective environmental management is the key to braking this vicious cycle."
UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said "with the restoration of national governance in Afghanistan, we have an historic opportunity to create environmental laws and policies and build the capacity for sustainable management of natural resources. But long-term improvements cannot be expected without sustained technical and financial assistance from the international community".
The UNEP assessment was carried out last year by 20 international scientists and Afghan experts who examined 38 urban sites in four cities and 35 rural locations. The report contains more than 150 recommendations, including environmental legislation and enforcement, environmental impact assessment procedures, and capacity-building for public participation and education.
Mr. Nuristani said the Afghanistan Transitional Authority aimed to complete its first national budget by the end of next month. "I hope environmental considerations can be fully integrated into the reconstruction programme through the support of UNEP, the Asian Development Bank and the international donor community."
The information on Afghanistan's wetlands comes 44 days before the UNEP-led World Water Day on 22 March, which will focus attention on the many responses to water management issues being made around the globe.
For more information: The report can be downloaded from the Web site http://postconflict.unep.ch.
A summary of key findings from the report in relation to urban issues, forest and wildlife loss can be found in UNEP Press Release 2003/05 at http://www.unep.org/Documents/Default.asp?DocumentID'7&ArticleID=3201
More information about the agenda for the UNEP Governing Council meeting/Global Ministerial Environment Forum is available from www.unep.org/GoverningBodies/GC22/
More information about World Water Day 2003 is available form www.waterday2003.org
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