In Afghanistan, a Drought Highlights the Climate Crisis

A reservoir on the outskirts of Kabul offers a glimpse into the country’s past and its possible future

In Afghanistan, a Drought Highlights the Climate Crisis
An Afghan youth sells corn at Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul / Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

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I have come to think of Qargha, a reservoir on Kabul’s outskirts, as a mirror for our country’s soul. So much of our recent history seems to reside in its waters and the hills and mountains that surround it. There is beauty and hope in the reflection, but there are also the scars of old wounds that have yet to heal and the worry lines of our uncertain future. While decades of war have left their mark on the lake, the worst damage may yet be done by something we Afghans are ill-prepared for: the global climate crisis.

A drought has afflicted Afghanistan for almost two years, crippling food production, killing livestock and plunging the country into a humanitarian emergency made worse by international sanctions imposed on the Taliban government. The water levels at Qargha — some 10 miles outside Kabul — are now pitifully low, exposing the cracked earth and trash that normally lies beneath the surface. Once again, then, we must ask ourselves what the lake says about us. Perhaps people in the West should ask themselves that same question too.

The reservoir and dam at Qargha were built in 1933, during the reign of Afghanistan’s last king, Zahir Shah, to provide water for Kabul. By the 1950s and 1960s it had become a popular picnic spot for Afghans and a tourist resort for the capital’s burgeoning expat community. The king’s prime minister, Daoud Khan, was said to enjoy visiting Qargha to ruminate and relax. But it would be wrong to think of these prewar years as a time of innocence. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were already eyeing Afghanistan as a strategic battleground in the Cold War, using the soft power of economic aid and infrastructure development to gain political influence. In the early 1970s, another drought ravaged the Afghan countryside, displacing thousands of people. As social unrest grew, Khan overthrew the king in 1973. He went on to establish a brutal autocracy that radicalized communists and Islamists alike.

During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, music concerts were televised live from Qargha. People went there to swim, ride in paddle boats and eat “shor nakhod” — a dish of chickpeas, potatoes and mint — that was served at the lakeside restaurants and food stalls. But even before the reservoir was built, Afghan soldiers had been stationed at a military base nearby, and with the country at war, Qargha became another battlefield. Under the communists, the base was used by the Afghan Army’s 8th Division, while the mujahedeen roamed the surrounding hills and orchards. Inevitably, Qargha started to feel less secure. The military base was repeatedly hit by mortars, and in August 1986, a huge explosion occurred in its ammunition depot, lighting the night sky with flames that were visible in the city.

After the mujahedeen toppled the Afghan communist regime in 1992, Qargha — like Kabul itself — fell into disrepair. The main road to the lake was cratered with shell holes and blocked by the checkpoints of rival militias. In February 1993, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war occurred in the neighborhood of Afshar, on the way to Qargha, when houses were looted, women raped and hundreds of people forcibly disappeared during an operation by two mujahedeen parties, Jamiat-e-Islami and Ittehad-e-Islami. Afterward, a relative of mine saw the naked corpses of several women tied to trees nearby, rotting in the sun.

Under the first Taliban government, Afghans began to return to Qargha for picnics and to enjoy the scenery. But then we had another drought, and the water of the lake began to disappear. This drought, too, lasted for years and devastated the countryside. Much like now, the United Nations pleaded for international donors to send aid, only to be met by casual indifference. I remember visiting the lake and walking across its dry bed to touch a stranded boat that was rumored to belong to Ustad Farida Mahwash, an Afghan singer who had become famous here in the 1980s before she fled to Pakistan and later the U.S. In January 2001, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid, called for three days of prayer to end the drought. By the time the rains came, the U.S. had invaded, and the Taliban seemed destined to fade into obscurity.

During the U.S. occupation, a small golf course was built on the hill leading up to the lake. A children’s playground opened. Eventually, Qargha came under private ownership, and we had to start paying an entrance fee just to sit next to the water and gaze at the horizon. On June 21, 2012, the Taliban attacked the Spogmai hotel and restaurant, which had been one of the main attractions in Qargha for decades. They accused foreigners and Afghan government officials of using it for illicit activities and killed at least 20 people. In 2013, a U.K.-funded military training academy, clumsily dubbed “Sandhurst in the Sand” by the British, was opened at the former communist base. It soon became the target of insurgent attacks. The official name of the new academy was Marshal Fahim National Defense University, in honor of a Northern Alliance warlord and former vice president disliked by millions of Afghans. On Aug. 5, 2014, a member of the Afghan Army opened fire on a group of dignitaries visiting the academy. He shot dead Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, the highest-ranking U.S. service member to be killed in hostilities since the Vietnam War. On the way to the lake from the city, meanwhile, a refugee camp for people displaced by the fighting in the south of the country had taken on a permanent appearance.

The current drought has been going on since early 2021. On Dec. 25 last year, the Taliban again called on people to perform the “istisqa” (rain-seeking prayer), and thousands of worshipers obliged in the city of Kandahar alone. But while March saw rainfall that was above average levels, it was still not enough.

In May, the U.N. warned that 19.7 million Afghans, or 47% of the population, face high levels of acute food insecurity and need urgent help. Of these, almost 6.6 million are in an emergency situation, with the worst hit provinces mostly in the center and north of the country. According to the U.N., the main causes of the food insecurity are lower household incomes, increased food prices and reduced international aid, which have become features of life since the Taliban retook power last summer, as well as the drought. It predicted that the conflict in Ukraine would also hinder wheat supplies to Afghanistan.

At present, the reservoir at Qargha is still privately owned and the Spogmai Hotel is again open for visitors. For a few cents, it is possible to ride a horse on the shore or take a turn on the Ferris wheel at the children’s playground. Every Friday families head to the lake to relax and enjoy themselves in the early summer sunshine. But we all need water to survive and, no matter how hard we try, Qargha will not let us forget our problems for long.

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