When mountains fall… How Afghans are dealing with climate change

September 26, 2019
Written by Kieran McConville

Vast areas of northern Afghanistan are on the move — literally. As the glaciers of the Hindu Kush begin to disappear and the mountain snows melt faster and earlier, the people below are facing a major crisis.

It’s getting warmer

The average temperature in Afghanistan has increased by more than 3˚F since 1950… and it’s getting warmer. While you’d think this might be welcome news for subsistence farmers in the chilly north, the U.N. says it has “potentially disastrous results for agriculture, food security, and nutrition.”

The topography of Badakhshan and Takkar provinces is spectacular at every turn – mountains, cliffs, plateaus, and valleys abound, with rivers, gorges, and ravines transecting the rocky landscape. One thing you won’t see much of here, however, is trees.

Mountainous terrain in Yawan, Afghanistan

Beautiful but deadly. The mountains and valleys of Yawan district. Photo: Kieran McConville

The highlands below the treeline have been continuously stripped of their natural forestry, as farmers clear land and isolated communities cut wood for fuel and construction. Bald, exposed hillsides are unable to withstand the annual snowmelt, and every gradient is crisscrossed with the scars of erosion. Below, vast rocky floodbeds have formed — dry and barren during the summer months and a gushing, tumbling, impassable, torrent of boulders, gravel, and sediment during the spring.

These mountains are slowly disappearing.

A tale of two villages

In many highland communities, you’ll find a new and an “old” village, the latter being little more than a collection of battered, overgrown hulks. “There were nine of us living in this house… seven of them were children,” Cuhofran says, squatting amid the ruins of his former home.

“We were very badly affected… and still are”

It’s one of a dozen that were swept away early in 2014, when a nearby ravine overflowed. The villagers had little option but to gather what they had salvaged and move to another site. “It was very hard,” Cuhofran reflects “We were very badly affected… and still are”

A man by the remains of his home in Northeastern Afghanistan, which was destroyed by a flash flood in 2014.

Cuhofran, by the remains of his home, which was destroyed by a flash flood in 2014. Photo: Kieran McConville

This a place where people survive. The growing season is short, winter is both long and harsh, and hunger is a constant. Many communities are cut off for as much as six months of the year and margins are slim. Concern Worldwide has been working here for 20 years, and for the past decade much of that work has involved environmental protection — or “watershed management” as the engineers like to call it.

Managing the environment

“It’s a hard sell — you really have to be persuasive and use evidence to make your case,” according to Concern’s program director, Gerry Ganaba. High on a steep hillside, he’s visiting a team who are busy measuring gradients, annotating locations, and hammering long metal rods into the rocky earth. “We’re measuring the exact amount that the land is degrading over the course of 12 months, to show farmers the difference between managed and unmanaged ground,” he says.

Setting measuring posts to gauge land slippage on a hillside

Setting measuring posts to gauge land slippage on a hillside in Yawan. Photo: Kieran McConville

Watershed management involves a lot of work — digging trenches, building giant rock walls, installing check-dams, planting bushes and trees, fencing off fragile areas… “It’s no joke,” Gerry admits, “so it has to be worth their while.”

Almond trees growing as part of a watershed protection scheme supported by Concern in Afghanistan.

The proof, they say, is in the pudding — and 10 slow, arduous miles away lies another village, in the lee of another steep hill. “The watershed project saved our lives,” Hayatullah says, looking upwards, “it is wealth for us.” A leader is his community, he explains how homes and livelihoods were constantly threatened by flash flooding and landslides. “Over 70 families were in danger, and many had to abandon their homes.”

“The watershed project saved our lives.”

With advice and resources provided by Concern engineers, local people built a series of gabion walls to divert much of the flood water, and set about rehabilitating the hillsides — using both new methods and their own local solutions. 2,500 almond, peach, and silver birch trees were planted in trenches, and grass was allowed to grow ungrazed. “We even hired a guard to protect the area,” according to Hayatullah. Today, the valley floor has transformed, as families return and build houses and gardens on land that was once ravaged by landslides.

A panorama of the watershed management area. Photo: Kieran McConville

And a bonus of the project is that each family gets a share of the harvest from the trees, to eat or sell for extra income. Now, the community development committee has set its sights on another water-based project —a micro hydro-power plant, to harness the flow of mountain water for electricity. Currently, there is no power here, except for privately owned generators.

“Out here, we can’t do a lot to stop climate change,” Gerry Ganaba reflects, “but we can certainly help people cope with the effects and become a little more resilient.”

Wheat in Afghanistan

A field of wheat in the highlands of Yawan district. Photo: Kieran McConville

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