Amir Beg Khusrawi still has vivid memories of a flash flood that swept through his village in Afghanistan’s rugged northeast a decade ago.
“[It] destroyed about 20 houses, claimed livestock and damaged our farmland so that even now we are not able to use it,” says Khusrawi, 61.
His experience is not unique. In the isolated settlements of Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, in the heart of Central Asia, residents have long struggled with landslides and floods.
In recent years, however, both have worsened due to low rainfall, made worse by climate change, and overgrazing and firewood collection have stripped the land of greenery that once served as a barrier against the elements.
For many, the cocktail of floods, landslides and persistent drought has compounded the challenges of life in Afghanistan, a country deeply impoverished and mired in conflict for decades.
In parts of the Pamirs, however, the slopes are leveling off.
This includes the Deh-shahr watershed, a 60 km2 strip of Afghanistan’s rugged Badakhshan province that is home to 3,000 people.
There, local residents, with the support of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Aga Khan Foundationreplanted native trees and shrubs on steep slopes, built earthworks to slow runoff, built small dams to control gullies, and renovated leak-prone drainage channels.
The effort, funded by the European Union, helped protect communities from floods, landslides and avalanches by restoring vegetation cover and improving soil stability.
“Often the best solutions to problems like floods and landslides are a hybrid combination of natural and built infrastructure,” said Hassan Partow, program manager at UNEP’s Disasters and Conflict Branch. “They are cost-effective and readily available, which is crucial in a country like Afghanistan.”
Forty years of armed conflict and political instability have created a storm of widespread deforestation, unsustainable agriculture and forced displacement in Afghanistan. This has combined with endemic poverty to lead to food insecurity, especially in remote communities.
The climate crisis has made matters worse. Most rural communities in Afghanistan depend on winter snow and ice for water. However, rising temperatures due to climate change have caused rainfall levels to fluctuate. This has led to both droughts and severe mountain floods that flood villages with debris, said Melad ul Karim of the Agha Khan Foundation.
To counter these challenges, some communities in Afghanistan are adopting what is called nature-based solutionswhich include everything from replanting trees to practicing sustainable agriculture.
In the Deh-shahr area, teams constructed a 1 km vegetation-reinforced dyke to protect farmland from flooding. “In the past, every spring, the flood washed away thousands of our fruit and non-fruit trees, as well as our land,” said Sher Mohammad Zafari, head of the natural resource management committee in Deh-shahr village. “But after the stream banks stabilized, people replanted thousands of trees and can now use their land.”
Residents have planted nearly 50,000 trees, including apricot, almond and willow saplings. In total, approximately 190 ha of land are being rehabilitated and 150 ha of rangelands benefit from special protection. This reduces soil erosion, helps the land retain moisture and supports local biodiversity.
“Many hectares of our sloping land are planted with thousands of fruit trees,” said resident Sayed Mohammad. “These lands used to be grazed by people’s cattle, but after this project they are kept by the people and are no longer used for grazing.”
Importantly, residents have planted trees not only on the valley floor, but also on steep slopes and mountain areas where the risk of landslides is greater. “The question is not simply to plant trees, but rather what species of trees, where they are planted and for what purpose,” Partow said.
The trees and their products have provided a source of income for local residents. Meanwhile, to help prevent community members from cutting down trees and depleting rangeland for firewood, teams have installed 125 solar water heaters in underprivileged homes, providing energy hot water for bathing, washing and cleaning.
“In conflict zones, such as northern Afghanistan, ecosystem restoration must go hand in hand with efforts to provide livelihoods for community members,” said Melad of the Agha Khan Foundation. “We need to break the cycle where locals are forced to overexploit the region’s natural resources just to survive.”
This is a vision shared by many residents of Deh-shahr.
“After the project started in our village, people pledged not to cut trees and bushes in the village,” said Malik Aman Hassani, a resident.
Now people from nearby villages visit Deh-shahr to learn from his experience and replicate similar restoration actions in their own areas, according to the Agha Khan Foundation.
*Hosted by Sweden, the theme of world environment day June 5, 2022 is #OnlyOneEarth – with a focus on ‘Living sustainably in harmony with nature’. Follow #OnlyOneEarth on social media and take transformative global action, because protecting and restoring this planet is a global responsibility. *