Respect and protect your environment

15 May 2009

Respect and protect your environment

KABUL - In an exclusive interview for UNAMA, the head of Afghanistan’s environmental agency calls for more trees to be planted in the country.

In May 2005 President Hamid Karzai issued a special executive presidential order creating the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), an independent body tasked with policy making on the environment for the Government of Afghanistan.

Prince Mostapha Zaher is the Director-General of NEPA and Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Italy, non-resident ambassador to Greece and Cyprus and special presidential envoy to the Balkans. He’s responsible for reporting to the president and to parliament on the situation of the environment in Afghanistan.

UNAMA’s Jamil Danish spoke to Prince Mostapha about the activities and achievements of NEPA and his concerns for the future of Afghanistan’s threatened environment.

Question: Recent reports have shown that Kabul is one of the most polluted cities in Asia and that has concerned citizens given the fact that they know very little about the environment. What is your view on this?

Answer: I know people are concerned and they have every right to be. Kabul is a good example of the collapse of the environment. It used to be a vibrant, dynamic and beautiful city with clean air, open green spaces and trees. One tree produces enough oxygen for 18 people. People used to come from thousands of kilometres away to breathe the crisp air of Kabul at this altitude of 1,800 metres, but now that air is not breathable.

We’re most concerned because almost 23 per cent of the total population of Afghanistan, which is estimated at anywhere between 27 and 30 million, is in Kabul. 75 per cent of the pollution is caused by cars using low quality and substandard diesel and by some 200,000 generators being turned on at the same time. We did a survey: we had 200 kids, we took blood samples from Kabul citizens on a voluntary basis, we categorised them into four, the police and the traffic police, people who work at gas pumps, the elderly and young students from primary schools. Believe it or not the level of lead that was found in the blood stream was three to four times higher than what is normally accepted under international standards and that is a source of concern for us.

Question: What is the percentage of low quality fuel? What steps have you taken to reduce the amount of low quality fuel entering the country?

Answer: I would say more than 80 per cent of the diesel and the petrol that enters Afghanistan are adulterated. It may not be adulterated at the source, it’s adulterated inside Afghanistan. Different chemicals are added such as lead, kerosene and water to increase the volume in order to sell more. But the people doing this do not have the heart to know what kind of harm this is doing, not just in Kabul but also in other large cities like Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz. Mazar-i-Sharif has one of the highest air pollution rates outside Kabul.

Question: Your agency and the Kabul municipality are planting trees every year. Can you give a figure of how many trees you are planning to plant this year and how many have been planted since your agency was established?

Answer: The planting is left in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture and the municipality. We were lucky that we planted some 3,000 trees on Maranjan Hill last year. What I would like to do is to have a programme where every youngster in primary school should plant a tree at home and then we can give him or her, the responsibility to look after it, to water it, to love it, to care for it and to see it grow. I want to instil the idea that every citizen of Afghanistan, especially the younger generation, has a responsibility towards the environment.

Question: What can you say in regard to the illegal tree-felling in Afghanistan which has been a problem for decades now?

Answer: Unfortunately as we speak, the timber mafia, as I call it, is mercilessly cutting down trees in Kunar province, they are cutting down our pistachio trees in Badghis province right up to the border of Herat province, and they are cutting down trees in Takhar province. The situation has improved but they are still cutting down trees in Samangan. In Paktika and Paktia they are cutting down the conifers.

Question: What is your concern and what has your agency done to protect water resources?

Answer: The water table has gone down by 12 metres, but it’s not because there isn’t enough water in Afghanistan. For instance, the source of the Amu River starts in the Little Pamir, but we only make use of two per cent of its water, Tajikistan uses about seven per cent and other neighbours make use of the rest. In Kabul the underground water can not be recharged and I’m worried that in five years, if we continue at the same rate, we will not have a single drop of water in Kabul. And even right now the little amount we have is almost undrinkable because it is not chlorinated.

Question: What is your message for the people of Afghanistan in regards to the environment?

Answer: My message for the noble, proud, beloved people of Afghanistan is that please have mercy on the jungles and animals, and on every living being that God almighty has created for a purpose. Have mercy on them and protect them. They are part of your heritage and if you lose them in this generation where will your children and grandchildren be?

I don’t want to see a day when my grandchild or great-grandchild comes and asks me what a certain tree looks like or what a certain animal looks like? I want them to see these things for themselves. My message to the people of Afghanistan is that this is our joint collective responsibility to protect the environment. It is an edict from the Holy Quran and part of our religion to protect things in the best possible manner that we can, not to waste things, to try to recycle things and to try to reuse materials.

If you cut down one tree, plant another three trees instead. Love your country, love your environment, respect your environment and protect your environment.

This article appears in the latest issue of the UNAMA Afghan Update magazine on the environment.

To download the magazine in English, Dari and Pashto please click here.

Website: United Nations Environment Programme