There’s a popular saying in Afghanistan reflecting the value of water: “Let Kabul be without gold, but not without snow.”
Living in a refugee camp across the border in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, my father, who worked as a doctor in Samangan, Bamyan, Kunar, and Balkh provinces, used to tell me about the importance of our country’s natural wealth. He was optimistic that it was Afghanistan’s land, water, forests, and minerals that would help the country re-emerge as a strong nation. However, he also knew that the mismanagement of our natural resources is partly to blame for the instability, insecurity, and vulnerability that have gripped our country for so many years. This is the paradox of the natural resource wealth in Afghanistan.
In June 2013, during my Masters in Environmental Management at Montclair State University in New Jersey, I returned to Afghanistan to work with the UN Country Team on how better natural resource management could support wider peacebuilding in my country. The UN Environment Program recently released a major report on natural resource management and peacebuilding that finds land and other scarce resources are often sources of coercion, influence, illicit revenues, and grievances against the government. Creating pathways to peace through these resources, rather than conflict, is a major challenge.
Who Owns the Land?
After the arrival of international forces in 2001, many Afghans were hopeful that the international community would lay down a new path to economic recovery. Refugees returned in hopes of starting a new life. Land rapidly increased in price, particularly in fast-growing urban areas, and was recognized as an increasingly important asset. This increase in land prices has led to increased competition, corruption, and conflict in some places. Meanwhile, continued uncertainty over rights, mainly due to a lack of clear land titles, has impeded development in many areas, both urban and rural.
Many Afghans are worried about the future of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw, scheduled for the end of next year. So far, the government and the international community have not succeeded in addressing the country’s many land disputes or in creating a functioning and equitable land system, an important element for long-term stability. Meanwhile, anti-government insurgents, very powerful in some districts, are manipulating the situation by weakening the role of traditional structures and the government for resolving conflicts over land.
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