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From the Factbook: Climate change, water and Taliban recruitment in Afghanistan

Kabul Dam, Naghlo Dam, Sarawbi, Afghanistan

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops, there has been considerable discussion on how climate change has played a role in Afghanistan’s ongoing crises, both from climate-focused news sites as well as mainstream media outlets, including CBS News and the New York Times. A case study from the Climate Diplomacy Factbook explores the issue from the perspective of water, and how it may have driven the Taliban’s recruitment since 2001.

Several reasons drive the Taliban’s growth in strength. Aside from religious and ideological factors, the Taliban has been able to capitalise on the country’s limited economic opportunities, especially among the youth in rural areas. For many, joining the Taliban offers a more viable employment option – in some cases, salaries for Taliban fighters were higher and more regular than what soldiers of the Afghan national army and police used to earn.

Many Afghans have also had a long-standing distrust in the government, particularly those in rural areas where service provision and infrastructure are generally poor. Along with high corruption levels, the country’s public administrations have struggled to deliver the security and essential services that many rural Afghans have longed for, creating further incentives to join the Taliban.

Water plays a key role behind many of these aspects. It is an essential resource for agriculture – a sector that employs the majority of rural populations. Furthermore, access to safe drinking water is particularly important for health and sanitation – many Afghans have reportedly had to spend a substantial portion of their income solely on healthcare due to poor sanitary conditions. And as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of water to the health sector becomes ever more critical.

In addition, the capacity to manage water effectively has been limited due to the lack of hydrological data as well as overlapping governance structures. While urban water resources are managed by water boards and municipalities, rural regions are typically managed by customary authorities or ‘Mirab’. These differences in management systems have frequently created confusion over the distribution of tasks and responsibilities, compromising the effectiveness of both systems in providing water to the public.

Adding to these challenges are the impacts of climate change. As Afghanistan grapples with its second drought in four years, it could see such extreme events become more frequent as glacial melt changes and seasonal water flow patterns become more unpredictable. Temperatures are also expected to warm by as much as 7°C by the end of the century, which could aggravate water scarcity and desertification in arid and semi-arid areas. Climate change thus puts even more pressure on the precarious conditions faced by many Afghans in what could be seen as a ‘vicious circle’ of poverty, recruitment and violence.

With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, and with the Afghan people’s climate-induced humanitarian needs as acute as ever, the need to promote resilience among the Afghan population is as urgent — and more complicated — as at any time in the past two decades. For both the international community and the powers-that-be in Afghanistan, the effective provision of water is a critical humanitarian issue with historical links to stability. As Oli Brown, author of the Climate Security Expert Network risk brief on Afghanistan, told Climate Home News, “If the Taliban care about the Afghan people, they are going to have to care about water.”


Read the full Factbook case study.