A Planet at War With Itself
Poor sanitation, water shortages, climate change and
environmental destruction - Afghanistan grimly illustrates
the fate of many nations if we do not act
By John Vidal
September 14, 2010
Sala Khan Khel, 40 miles outside Kabul, looks like a rural
paradise at harvest time. Women and children play behind the
high mud walls of the old houses, the men thresh the wheat,
teenagers pick walnuts and the water coming straight off the
snowy mountains high above the village gurgles through the
A shortage of clean water and no proper sanitation are two of
the most severe problems affecting refugees living in the
Parwan-e-duo slum, Kabul, Afghanistan. But the rural idyll hides conflict, deep poverty
and growing environmental degradation. Most families here say
they have been uprooted by war in the last 20 years, and that
climate change means the seasons have become shorter. Also,
the population has grown so much there's not enough land to
grow food for everyone. On top of that, they say, the water
is polluted and is now a source of conflict.
"We can't earn nearly enough. Compared to 20 years ago we are
now much poorer. We have new crop diseases we cannot treat,
there's conflict between the herders and the settled farmers,
and people are cutting down the forests for fuel," says
Mahmoud Saikal, a village elder.
Sala Khan Khel's problems mirror those seen all over
Afghanistan  and the prospects of this war-torn, hungry
country getting anywhere near meeting millennium development
goal 7 - which covers water, sanitation and the environment -
is zero in the next decade and probably for far longer.
Afghanistan is not just one of the poorest countries in the
world, it has some of the very worst human development
indicators, comparable to Sierra Leone and Angola. Its
development has been tied closely to conflict for decades and
it only signed the Millennium Declaration in 2004.
Since then, its situation has worsened. Millions of people
have flooded into the capital Kabul, either to escape
conflict or increasingly to find work or food. The city, with
an estimated five million people, is believed to be the
fastest-growing capital in the world and new, illegal shanty
towns creep up and over the hillsides every year. More than
75% of the whole of the urban Afghan population live without
water, electricity or secure ownership. In Kabul, the figure
is almost certainly higher.
Government statistics, which are sparse and unreliable, are
shocking: in rural areas, it is estimated that 80% of all
Afghans are drinking contaminated water. A similar proportion
of hospital patients in Kabul suffer from diseases caused by
polluted air or water. The burgeoning city generates nearly
2,000 tonnes of solid waste a day but only has the capacity
to handle 400 tonnes.
It is one of the only capital cities in the world without a
sewage system and last year a survey found that it had only
35 public toilets. The authorities say only one in 10 or 20
households have access to clean water via the city water
system, with everyone else sharing communal water pumps.
In rural areas, where people rely on timber for fuel, the
forests are disappearing. This, says a spokesman for the
environmental protection agency, "is an ecological disaster.
With the loss of forests and vegetation, and excessive
grazing, soils are being exposed to serious erosion from wind
and rain. Land productivity is declining, driving people from
rural to urban areas in search of food and employment."
Like many other developing countries, Afghanistan has strong
environmental laws but no money to implement them. An EU
review of MDG 7 statements from more than 60 countries
earlier this year shows that monitoring and reporting, for
the most part, have not been undertaken systematically.
The result is that the cycle of poverty, ill health and
environmental destruction continues worldwide, say observers.
Although the world is ahead of schedule in meeting the MDG
2015 target on drinking water, in 2008 some 13% of the
world's population, or 884m people, still depended on
unimproved water, sharing it with animals from lakes, rivers
On sanitation the situation is desperate. "If current rates
of progress go on, MDG 7 target will take more than 200 years
to be achieved in sub-Saharan Africa and countries like
Afghanistan. Globally, 4,000 children die from diarrhoea a
day and in Africa it is now the biggest killer of children
under five. Even if the MDG 7 sanitation target were
achieved, more than 1.7 billion people would still be without
sanitation," says a spokesman from campaign group WaterAid.
Progress on the environmental targets has been the slowest of
all MDGs. Worldwide, forest deforestation and fish-stock
depletion rates are higher now than they were in 2000. The
target to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss has been
missed by all 192 countries who have signed up. Climate
change emissions in developing countries are soaring and rose
overall nearly 30% between 1990 and 2005.
Bright spots include slums. In 1990, UN Habitat could report
that 46% of urban populations in developing countries lived
in slums, a fall of more than 10% thanks to rapid industrial
growth in China and India. Equally, while millions of acres
of forest continued to be lost in Latin America and south -
east Asia, the rate of replanting worldwide increased
dramatically in the last decade.
Worryingly, the pressure on biodiversity - the wealth of
nature that is the base of all economies - is increasing. No
country has reported progress since 1990, and the need to
produce more food and materials for a rapidly increasing
global population is threatening most developing countries'
Most indicators are negative. No government claims success.
Some 17,000 plant and animal species are threatened now with
extinction. The world's fisheries are not satisfactory - more
than half are fully exploited and 28% are overexploited, says
a UN report.
(c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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