Facing floods and landslides, Afghans turn to nature for protection

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 around 20 houses, claimed livestock, and damaged our agricultural lands so that even now we are not able to use them,” says Khusrawi, 61.

His experience is not unique. In remote settlements across Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, deep in the heart of Central Asia, locals have long struggled with landslides and floods.

In recent years, though, both have become worse as flagging rainfall, worsened by climate change, and both overgrazing and fuelwood collection have stripped the land of the greenery that once acted as a barrier against the elements.

For many, the cocktail of floods, landslides and persistent drought have compounded the challenges of living in Afghanistan, a country that is deeply impoverished and has been mired in conflict for decades.

In some parts of the Pamirs, though, slopes are stabilizing.

That includes the Deh-shahr catchment, a 60 km2 swath of Afghanistan’s rugged Badakhshan province that is home to 3,000 people.

There, local residents, with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Aga Khan Foundation, have replanted native trees and shrubs on steep slopes, constructed earthen works to slow water runoff, built small dams to control gullies, and renovated leak-prone drainage canals.

The effort, funded by the European Union, has helped buffer communities from floods, landslides and avalanches by restoring vegetation cover and improving soil stability.

“Often, the best solutions for problems like floods and landslides are a hybrid combination of natural and built infrastructure,” said Hassan Partow, a Programme Manager at UNEP's Disasters and Conflicts Branch. “They are cost-effective and readily available, which is crucial in a country like Afghanistan.”

Forty years of armed conflict and political instability has created a perfect storm of widespread deforestation, unsustainable agriculture and forced displacement in Afghanistan. That has combined with endemic poverty to breed food insecurity, especially in remote communities.

The climate crisis has made matters worse. Most rural communities in Afghanistan rely on winter snow and ice for water. However, temperature rise due to climate change has caused precipitation levels to fluctuate. That has led to both droughts and severe mountain floods that swamp villages with debris, said Melad ul Karim from the Agha Khan Foundation.

To counter these challenges, some communities in Afghanistan are embracing what are known as nature-based solutions, which include everything from replanting trees to practicing sustainable farming.

In the Deh-shahr area, crews built a 1km dike reinforced by vegetation to protect agricultural land from flooding. “In the past, each spring the flood would wash out thousands of our fruit and non-fruit trees, and our lands,” said Sher Mohammad Zafari, Head of the Natural Resources Management Committee of Deh-shahr Village. “But after the stabilization of the torrent banks, people have replanted thousands of trees and are now able to use their lands.”

Locals have planted almost 50,000 trees, including apricot, almond and willow saplings. In total around 190ha hectares of land are in the process of being rehabilitated and 150ha of rangeland are receiving special protection. This is reducing soil erosion, helping the earth conserve moisture and supporting local biodiversity.

“Many hectares of our slope lands are planted with thousands of fruit trees,” said resident Sayed Mohammad. “These lands used to be grazed by people’s livestock in the past, but after this project, they are conserved by people and are not used for grazing.”

Crucially, residents have planted trees not only on the valley floor but also on steep slopes and upland areas where landslide risks are greater. “The question is not simply one of planting trees, but rather of which tree species, where they are planted and for what purpose,” said Partow.

The trees and their produce have provided a source of income for local residents. Meanwhile, to help prevent community members from chopping down trees and depleting rangelands for firewood, crews installed 125 solar water heaters in disadvantaged homes, providing hot water for bathing, washing and cleaning.

“In conflict zones, like northern Afghanistan, ecosystem restoration must go hand-in-hand with efforts to provide livelihoods for community members,” said Melad from the Agha Khan Foundation. “We need to break the cycle where residents are forced to overexploit the region’s natural resources just to survive.”

That’s a vision that many in Deh-shahr share.

“After the project started in our village, people have committed to not cut trees and bushes in the village,” said resident Malik Aman Hassani.

Now, people from neighbouring villages are visiting Deh-shahr to learn from its experience and reproducing similar restoration actions in their own areas, according to the Agha Khan Foundation.

*Hosted by Sweden, the theme of World Environment Day on 5 June 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.