Afghanistan is divided into 34 separate provinces, each governed locally by provincial government departments that answer to the national government. WCS is able to conduct much of its work in the field and with rural communities in Badakhshan and Bamyan through working alongside these provincial counterparts. However, the country’s ability to manage its natural resources effectively in the long term and improve local livelihoods across Afghanistan is largely dependent upon the human and institutional capacity at the central level.
As the center of Afghan politics and home to the country’s largest university, Kabul City is the main focus of WCS's national capacity-building program and is also where WCS has its country headquarters. WCS has been based in Kabul since 2006, funded primarily by USAID. Through various cross-cutting technical objectives, WCS aims to continually build capacity for natural resource management at all levels, and to create and strengthen laws, policies and governance institutions. Staff at the WCS Kabul office are themselves constantly engaged in baseline data collection and protected area planning activities – a key theme in WCS’ work across the world – and are also helping to provide the residents of Kabul with a possible protected area of their own, Kole Hashmat Khan Waterfowl Sanctuary.
The largest challenge that underlines the very basis for WCS’s activities in Kabul is the lack of capacity the country has to sustainably manage its own natural resources. With over 80% of the country’s population economically dependent on the land, the resources are being exploited at an increasing rate through overhunting, deforestation, land encroachment and intensive agricultural activities, leaving the landscape severely depleted and unproductive. The situation will become irreversible unless urgent management measures are put in place that are sustainable and beneficial to local communities and the land itself. With the Central and Provincial Government being largely responsible for developing and implementing these critical measures, the lack of equipment and science-based technical skills within these institutions is a significant challenge to the country’s future in terms of its rural livelihoods, economy and natural resources.
Another key conservation challenge is the limited effective contact between the centers of power and local communities. Society in Afghanistan has always functioned more around the idea of self-governance, where issues are taken up at the local tribal level and resolved by means of consultation (or “shuras” as these consultations are known in Islam). Often those in the countryside who are directly dependent on natural resources do not feel in any way connected to the administrative powers back in Kabul. This presents a significant challenge to conservation, with policies that set out extensive protection measures not being implemented or even understood on the ground, and the environmental situation getting ever worse in the meantime.
In terms of environmental threats in the city itself, Kole Hashmat Khan lake is the only remaining water body of an extensive wetland that once stretched across the city’s plains, and seeking formal protection status for the area has become increasingly difficult in recent times. There are high levels of pollution, extensive wetland drainage, increasing agricultural activity, housing encroachment, and heavy marshland grazing that impact the area. Kole Hashmat Khan wetlands are completely drained of water by late summer nowadays because of water diversion to irrigate crops. This is also compounded by waterfowl hunting that is very difficult to both monitor and control.
With the relatively low levels of capacity within institutions such as the national government, Kabul University, and the Central Veterinary Laboratory, focused and continuous training from organizations such as WCS is absolutely critical if there is to be any hope of developing sustainable resource management. This capacity building is done by WCS through a variety of means including conducting short- and long-term training courses in the office and out in the field, study tours, and educational and outreach programs in local schools. Through conducting targeted needs assessments at key ministries, WCS provides technical assistance for policy development and ongoing mentoring in preparation for multilateral conventions. WCS also assists the Government directly by providing substantial data on the wildlife trade and timber trade in and around Kabul, and advising the staff when direct action is needed against wildlife traders operating in the city.
A major goal for WCS throughout its work is also helping the Government to extend its rule of law to all corners of the country. We train central government staff in the core principles of public outreach and education, and how to design policies that will both involve and benefit fairly the local communities who depend on these natural resources. With such a long-standing feeling of mistrust and suspicion from both sides, this is a delicate and painstaking process but is key to achieving adequate protection for Afghanistan’s natural resources. Important conservation and management principles that are taught to the Central Government must, in turn, filter down the line to Provincial Government and District authorities, and then finally to the local people themselves. This is an integral part of WCS’s work in Afghanistan, with our staff often acting as the main facilitators during formal and informal meetings in Kabul involving ministry staff and local group representatives.
In Kole Hashmat Khan, WCS has been carrying out seasonal bird monitoring surveys, recording species presence and numbers, and documenting water levels compared to use. Given that the last scientific survey completed here was almost 30 years ago, this work allows for an objective evaluation of the condition of the site and its potential as a protected area in the future. WCS has gathered a range of data, particularly regarding sightings of several rare bird species such as the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and the Eastern Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), which help the case for formally protecting Kole Hashmat Khan. As well as its obvious contribution towards Afghanistan’s biodiversity, Kole Hashmat Khan is also one of only a handful of recreational sites for Kabul’s residents.