Day 6

Increasing conflict in Afghanistan related to ongoing climate change, experts say

Afghanistan has been wracked by decades of war and occupation. But former climate negotiator Samim Hoshmand says you cannot talk about the situation in Afghanistan without talking about the role climate change has played in making a bad situation worse.

'Climate change is not about natural disasters. It is a social disaster,' says former climate negotiator

An Afghan labourer digs trenches on a hill to help improve the city's water supply. The country is facing droughts related to climate change — an issue that experts say is leading to conflict. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Samim Hoshmand is supposed to be in Scotland. He was going to tell the world how climate change is making war and conflict worse in his country of Afghanistan.

Instead, he is in exile as a refugee trying to get a visa in Tajikistan.

"Currently, I am waiting for a miracle to happen," he told CBC Radio's Day 6.

Hoshmand was one of Afghanistan's top environmental officials. Then the Taliban swept back to power and he fled the country with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a cell phone.

So instead of attending the COP26 climate conference, he will watch it from afar.

"I feel frustrated because my colleagues are co-ordinating the meetings and I'm really suffering, sitting here and I cannot do anything," he said. "There is no one there to represent my country and my people. It's very hard, honestly."

Hoshmand's country has been wracked by decades of war and occupation. The Taliban retook control of the impoverished nation as Western troops pulled out this summer.

Samim Hoshmand was a climate negotiator for the Afghan government before the Taliban took hold of the country. (Submitted by Samim Hoshmand)

But he says you cannot talk about the situation in Afghanistan without acknowledging the role climate change has played in making a bad situation worse.

Drought has ruined what little farmland was available. That's made the whole country more susceptible to flash flooding and other natural disasters. Poor farmers are starving. Some have reportedly sold off daughters into arranged marriages.

"Climate change is not about natural disasters," said Hoshmand. "It is a social disaster. It means conflict, it means violence and it means the situation in Afghanistan, how everything changed quickly."

LISTEN | Samim Hoshmand speaks with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong:

Threatens lives and livelihoods

That intersection of climate and conflict is what Alec Crawford specializes in. He's the lead of the environment conflict and peace-building program at The International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Climate change, he says, is what military experts call a threat multiplier.

"Climate change in and of itself may not be the sole driver of conflict," he said. 

But a changing climate can play up against existing conflict drivers, such as history, poverty and ethnicity.

"And when it combines with those things, it can tip a tense situation toward violence," said Crawford.

WATCH | Officials temper expectations ahead of COP26: 

Officials temper expectations ahead of COP26

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
Ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in Scotland, some officials, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. climate representative John Kerry, are tempering expectations about what will be achieved because of disagreements about what to do and how quickly.

And every year it's getting worse. Crawford says that too often, people assume climate change means beaches and hotels being submerged by rising sea levels. But that misses the bigger picture, he said.

Slow-moving disasters such as drought open up entire regions to a higher threat level when sudden onset disasters like hurricanes or flash floods hit. Then an already vulnerable population can be manipulated by armed groups.

"It may not be the hurricane or the drought," he said. "But rather the violence that comes out of those events, that may be the [thing] that really threatens lives and livelihoods."

For years, environmental activists have warned about this confluence of violence and climate change. Earlier this year Sir David Attenborough told a UN conference that the world risks worsening conflict. He described climate change as a "threat to our collective security and the security of our nations."

In a letter to attendees of the climate conference in Glasgow, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, issued a stern warning.

"There is no doubt that people living in countries affected by conflict are among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis – globally," wrote Mardini. "They are also the ones most neglected in terms of appropriate funding and support."

That's why Hoshmand is so disappointed he won't be in Glasgow.

"At COP26 we wanted to raise our voice and raise the voice of other nations who are suffering like us," he said.

The eyes of the world are on the conference. The impacts of climate change have never been more clear. Hoshmand hopes the world will heed the lessons learned in Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, where climate and conflict are already deeply intertwined and making a difficult life harder by the day.


Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Subscribe to Peter's newsletter here: Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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