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Image: Afghanistan and climate change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region
 Photo: from Wikimedia
Photo: from Wikimedia

Afghanistan and climate change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region

The snow and glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountains are a large source of freshwater, providing the basis for livelihood for an estimated 210 million people. Worryingly, research indicates that the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region, including Afghanistan, has seen temperatures rise faster than the global average.

By Farshad Tami, November 2013

Experts claim that the Hindu Kush-Himala (HKH) mountainous regions are experiencing above average warming in the recent years due to climate change.  This recent increase in temperature rate has been globally highlighted by governmental and non-governmental agencies; such as, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Kathmandu based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).  Both organizations state that if this warming continues at the same pace then this large source of freshwater will not be sustainably managed enough to protect the livelihood of millions of people.

About the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region

The HKH mountain ranges extend 3,500 km covering all or parts of eight countries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. These mountains are the source of ten large Asian river systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe) and Tarim (Dayan.)  For thousands of years, these rivers provided the basis for livelihood for around 210 million people in the region (Bhshal 2011).  They also supported the region’s unique and rich diversity of cultures, ethnic groups, food production, livelihood and biodiversity. It has also been the basis for income and employment, fuelling sectors as diverse as hydroelectricity, wood production and recreation (Sharma 2012, ICIMOD 2007 and ICIMOD 2011.)  The basins of these rivers provide water to one fifth of the world’s population, about 1.3 billion people. It is therefore no wonder that the region has been called both the “water tower of Asia” and the “roof of the world”.

Asia's ten largest river systems originate in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, providing water needs for about one fifth of the world's human population. Map source: ICIMODICIMOD, among many, states that the HKH regions are some of the most sensitive and fragile ecosystems in the world (ICIMOD 2011). These mountain ranges are prone to natural disasters and the communities living there are vulnerable to all sorts of hydrological and geological threats. Natural disasters have become both more frequent and more destructive during the past years (Singh 2010 and Sharma 2012). Adding to their vulnerability, many communities are located in remote areas, making any support and rescue operations both slow and expensive. In this rough and extraordinary landscape, the threat to the sources of livelihood and food security for hundreds of millions has local, regional, and global implications.

Melting glaciers

Glaciers serve as gigantic reservoirs of freshwater, holding the snow that falls in wintertime and releasing it as meltwater in the summer heat.  If more ice melts during the summer than what is added as snowfall during winter, the glacier will over time lose its mass and recede. This makes glaciers a good indicator of climate change. Receding glaciers are a visual representation of the continuous warming of the earth, although it can be very difficult to ascertain whether the cause is man-made climate change or if other factors are responsible for such changes (ICIMOD 2011).  Whatever the reason, there are clear signs indicating a global glacier recession, which is likely to accelerate in the future (UNEP 2010).

ICIMOD states that glaciers in the central and eastern HKH are shrinking, while changes in the western HKH are more uncertain. When glacier melting increases, it impacts river discharge and the availability of water downstream (ICIMOD 2011). UNEP expects an increase in extreme melting, as well as extreme events of rainfall, flash-floods and flooding in HKH (UNEP 2010).

Natural disasters

The HKH region is subjected to a variety of natural disasters and extreme weather, such as earthquakes, cyclones, drought, cloud bursts, glacial lake outburst floods, flash floods and landslides. The impacts of these natural hazards is dramatic on the population and their sources of livelihood.  Glacial melt is only one of the factors impacting the intensity and timing of floods. Other factors are include both the timing and intensity of rainfall, for example during the Asian monsoon, and land use practices, such as deforestation and overgrazing (UNEP 2010).

Recent flood events (until 2010) in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region.  Sources: ICIMOD, OCHA, and UNEP

Natural disasters are the direct cause of death of several thousand people every year. In addition, they adversely affect the lives of 100 million people annually. Natural disasters typically lead to decreased food security (loss of crops and livestock), damage on infrastructure (damage on roads, bridges, hydropower plants, and communication systems), and health issues (contamination of drinking water and waterborne diseases) (UNEP 2010). Two consecutive summers, in 2010 and 2011, the world witnessed how flash floods affected over six million people in Pakistan. Many were displaced, losing their homes, crops, livestock and other sources of livelihood.  There is a clear indication that not only the frequency of such hazards is increasing with time but also their intensity and impact (Singh 2010).

Food insecurity and poverty

Large communities in the HKH region depend upon the mountains and their predictable climate for food production and livelihood. Today their food security is threatened by the pendular swinging between drought and flood (UNEP 2010). ). Food security in HKH is further undermined by two main factors: Floods in the summer of 2010 washing away parts of a village in the Swat valley in Pakistan. Source: wikimedia.poor infrastructure and inadequate institutional support, representing a lack of credit, crop insurance, and storage and processing facilities (ICIMOD 2011).  In fact, solid infrastructure projects and flood control have proven to be vital for food security in the region (UNEP 2010.) Food insecurity is not the only manifestation of climate change in the region. Natural disasters also affect sources of income, from agriculture to tourism, which in turn increases poverty. 

Poverty in HKH has many facets. The effects include low income, poor education, poor health, poor access to health facilities, malnutrition, high dependence on the natural environment and high food insecurity (Ahlenius 2012).  In addition, recent or continuing conflicts further worsen the economic situation. 

Human resilience

The variability of the climate in the HKH region is predicted to increase. This implies that floods of different types and droughts will remain a challenge (UNEP 2010). A variety of local and traditional strategies help the communities adapt to a dynamic environment. Although they are now more frequent and more severe, natural disasters have always had an effect on the lives of people in the HKH region. Communities in this region have over time fashioned survival strategies, whereby they balance agriculture, animal husbandry, migration, increase in storage capacities, and other methods (UNEP 2010 and Singh 2010). However, government machineries in most of the HKH states do not yet have effective strategies to prepare for or mitigate the impact of natural disasters (Singh 2010).


A big branch of the Hindu Kush Mountains transcends Afghanistan’s geography. The country’s biggest rivers originate from th mountain range, including the Amu Darya, Helmand, Hari and Kabul rivers. 
Afghans in Faryab province rebuilding irrigation infrastructure after heavy rain and floods. Photo: Farshad Tami Afghanistan’s relatively dry climate further accentuates the significance of these rivers for people’s survival (ICIMOD 2007.)  The CPHD report states that water availability in Afghanistan is unequally distributed over space and over time. While some areas have an abundance of water, others are drier. And long periods of draught can be followed by intense rainfall with catastrophic consequences. This causes the country to suffer from two rather contrary threats: water shortages, often amounting to serious drought, and water excess, causing frequent destructive floods (Beekma et al 2011).

Afghanistan is a landlocked, mountainous country with a climate that ranges from arid to semi-arid.  Semi-arid regions are likely to be the most adversely affected by climate change (UNEP 2010). This is true of Badakhshan province, singled out among Afghanistan’s provinces because of its high risk of floods, earthquakes and landslides (NRC 2012).

According to the NRC report, there are a number of factors that make Badakshan province particularly vulnerable to hazards. It is one of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan, food security is poor and illiteracy is high, and most households have little access to basic social services. Widespread deforestation and overgrazing, along with the limited adoption of improved land use practices and mitigation measures increase the risk of natural disasters. And finally, disaster risk management institutions are weak or non-existent, leaving the response and mitigation capacity at a minimum.

OCHA's overview of natural disasters in Afghanistan, July 2013.  Kindly click on image for pdf version.

The NAC report states that Badakshanis consider floods to be the main threat to their livelihoods, followed by drought, landslides and avalanches. Notwithstanding several decades of conflict, the report estimates that the main causes of vulnerability to natural disasters are the lack of coordination among community members, and the limited physical infrastructure across the nation.  In order to boost the resilience of livelihood systems, there is a need for a multipronged approach to disaster risk reduction by integrating capacity building interventions with the strengthening of social and governance institutions (NAC 2012).

Many governments in the HKH region are still approaching mitigation measures from the impact of natural disasters with short-term strategies instead of a long-term one.  For example, the Hindu Kush is home to many rich mines. Afghanistan is riddled with mines that produce precious stones and minerals.  If not well maintained, these mining projects can increase the risk of possible natural hazards (Singh 2010.)


Strengthening certain HKH related policies and mechanism would help in the preparedness for and countering impacts of natural disasters in Afghanistan and other countries.  From the various quoted reports in this article, the following are few main objectives that will be of great use:

  1. To initiate policies that are sensitive to cultural contexts and norms;
  2. To adapt a holistic approach in covering issues such as strengthening agriculture systems, infrastructure and rehabilitation of forests that act as buffers against extreme climatic events;
  3. To capture and store excess water during periods of high water availability; and finally,
  4. To diversify the sources of livelihood.


Beekma, Jelle and Joel Fiddes (2011), Floods and droughts: The Afghan water paradox, a Research Paper, Center for Policy and Humane Development (CPHD);

Bhshal, Ramesh Prasad (2011), Threatened by climate change – an online article, The Himalayan Times Online;

ICIMOD (2007), The Melting Himalayas. Regional Challenges and Local Impacts of Climate Change on Mountain Ecosystems and Livelihoods – a technical paper, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Jianchu, X., Shresta, A., Vaidya, R., Eriksson, M., Hewitt, K. (eds.);

ICIMOD (2011), Climate Change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas: The State of Current Knowledge – a report, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Singh, SP; Bassignana-Khadka, I; Karky, BS; Sharma, E. (eds.);

Ahlenius, Nordpil Hugo (2012), Multidimensional poverty index (MPI) for the countries in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region – online report, Himalaya Climate Change Adaptation Programme;

NAC (2012), Baseline Study Report for Community Disaster Risk Management Project in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan – a report, Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC);

Submitted to: Norwegian Afghanistan Committee

Singh, Alka (2010), Climate Change and Disasters In the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region – a report, Agency For Multidimensional Research, Implementation, Training and Advocacy (AMRITA);

Sharma, Eklabya (2012), Chapter 2 Climate Change and its Impacts in the Hindu Kush Himalayas – an Introduction, Lamadrid, A. , Kelman, I. (eds.);

UNEP (2010), High mountain glaciers and climate change: challenges to human livelihoods and adaptation – a report, United Nations Environment Programme, Kaltenborn, B. P., Nellemann, C., Vistnes, I. I. (eds.);

Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
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