Warm, dry winter signals escalating climate challenge in Afghanistan

Warm, dry winter signals escalating climate challenge in Afghanistan
NGOs raised the alarm over the lack of snow during the 2023-24 winter. / ArmyAmber via Pixabay
By bne IntelliNews February 18, 2024

The warm winter and lack of snow are alarming indicators of escalating climate challenges in Afghanistan, which is already grappling with its most severe drought in three decades.

Five international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have issued a warning that water scarcity in Afghanistan will persist, exacerbating the country's ongoing humanitarian and developmental crises. Drought has already continued to the stagnation in the economy over the last two years, following the slump in GDP caused by the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 2021. 

A consortium of humanitarian organisations including Action Against Hunger, International Medical Corps (IMC), Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), Save the Children International (SCI), and World Vision International (WVI) highlighted concerns over the lack of precipitation during the current winter season. This shortage raises fears of prolonged water scarcity, compounding the existing humanitarian crisis that has plagued Afghanistan for years.

Afghanistan's vulnerability to climate change is undeniable, with 25 out of its 34 provinces currently grappling with severe or catastrophic drought conditions, affecting over half of the nation's 40mn population. 

An Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report revealed that approximately 4mn pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under five years old are currently suffering from acute malnutrition. Among them, 875,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, while 2.3mn are enduring moderate acute malnutrition. 

The ongoing drought exacerbates these challenges, with children often forced to forego education to help their families fetch water from increasingly distant sources.

The NGOs called for urgent international intervention to avert further catastrophe. The recent earthquakes in October have compounded the long-term effects of drought, exacerbating food insecurity in Herat province.

A recent UN Development Programme (UNDP) report points to drought as a significant burden on Afghanistan's economy, hindering its recovery following the deep recession triggered by the Taliban's return to power. 

The UNDP expresses grave concerns about the economy's trajectory if the current policies of the de facto government persist. Despite signs of stabilisation, the economy has failed to rebound from the cumulative 27% contraction since 2020, according to the UNDP report titled "Two Years in Review”, covering the period from August 2021 to August 2023. 

The economic challenges in Afghanistan stem from a convergence of factors, including conflict, corruption, the COVID-19 pandemic, and droughts, creating a perfect storm of adversity. The macrofinancial crisis has severely hampered productive capacity, with industrial output plummeting and the crucial agriculture sector grappling with the dual impact of severe droughts and adverse climate events. 

The recession during 2021-2022 followed an already eager growth rate averaging 1.6% from 2014 to 2020. The Taliban's takeover in 2021 triggered an immediate 20.7% GDP decline, with a further 6.2% contraction reported by the National Statistics and Information Authority in 2022. Industrial production declined by 17.8% during 2021-22, while the agriculture sector contracted by 15.7% over the same period due to the harsh environmental conditions.

The underperformance of the agriculture sector, primarily attributed to drought, has severely affected livelihoods, particularly in rural areas where agricultural activities are central to sustenance. The agricultural sector's performance, heavily contingent on weather conditions, plays a pivotal role in Afghanistan's economy and the well-being of its populace. Severe droughts and adverse climate events in 2021 and 2022 resulted in a 9.8% reduction in agricultural output in 2021, followed by an additional 6.6% decrease in 2022, culminating in a total decline of 15.7% over the two-year period, the UNDP said. 

Afghanistan's agrarian output remains vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, evident through recent occurrences of droughts and floods. In a country where nearly 80% of the population depends on agriculture, the severe consequences of climate change and water scarcity exacerbate hardships on livelihoods. These challenges have significantly worsened subsistence conditions for more than half of the population, underscoring the urgent need for climate-resilient and sustainable recovery measures, especially from the international community.

According to the UNDP's baseline scenario, unless there is a resilient improvement in agricultural output following the drought, the GDP growth rate is projected to hover around zero in 2023, significantly lower than the population growth rate anticipated for 2024.