- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

As a scarred Afghanistan crawls toward peace, Western scientists plan to examine the desolate landscape, punished by war, drought and more war.

The United Nations is leading the first environmental assessment of Afghanistan in 25 years, a task that will tally damage done to everything from crops and water supplies to endangered animals.

The Geneva-based U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) is still recruiting Western scientists and exiled Afghan researchers willing to take on the risky job. The work won't begin for several weeks.

The environmental review will be the first comprehensive look inside the country since Western scientists last had access in the late 1970s.

It also will be the second such postwar environmental effort led by the United Nations, the first being the 1999 survey of the Balkans after the NATO air campaign. But officials say the Afghan assessment will be a more wide-ranging one.

U.N. officials are negotiating with local warlords and the interim national government to ensure the researchers' safe passage. After a generation of anarchy and five years with little rain, there is almost no firsthand knowledge of environmental conditions. But experts say refugees and videotaped news footage describe a disaster-in-waiting.

"We are ready to go in as soon as there is a green light," said Henrik Slotte of the UNEP. "It is still a very dangerous and difficult place in which to work."

Afghanistan's environment is as complex and untamed as its politics.

To the west, golden sand dunes get less than 3 inches of rain a year. Gale-force winds pummel the city of Herat for 120 days every spring.

To the north and east, the snowcapped Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain belts soar nearly four miles above sea level and flood the central plains with icy spring melts. They rumble with earthquakes and landslides as subterranean continental plates grind in an endless tectonic struggle.

Temperature extremes range from 20 below in the mountains to 120 degrees in the deserts. Lately, war and drought have made conditions unbearable, even by Afghan standards.

Refugees talk of rivers turning to sand, orchards stripped and hillsides eroded, grain fields and pastures gnawed to thorny scrub. Herds of shaggy, black-hooded karakul sheep that provided wool for clothing and carpets were eaten long ago, or have starved.

In the rubble of Kabul, scientific casualties include a gene bank for vital crops, seed banks and collections of native plants, most of the zoo's native species, a dairy research center, and laboratories and archives at the university.

"The groundwork has been laid for an environmental disaster," said University of Massachusetts wildlife biologist Peter Zahler, who has mapped watersheds and done species counts in Central Asia.

"You've got a terribly poor country, and you're doing big damage that will last a long time," he said. "Perhaps even centuries, in some cases."

Nature has been a hidden casualty of war around the world for thousands of years. But the past century of bloody conflicts has been particularly hard on the environment.

Only recently have scientists begun to seriously examine war's effect on ecology.

Six decades after World War II, farmers and road builders in Europe still unearth unexploded bombs. Coral reefs in the Pacific have not yet recovered from amphibious landings.

In Vietnam, U.S. aircraft sprayed 20 million gallons of defoliants to deny cover to communist forces. Thirty years later, the carcinogen dioxin persists. Roughly 1 million people have suffered cancers, birth defects and miscarriages blamed on the spraying.

In tiny Kuwait, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein's messy retreat during the Persian Gulf war necessitated a $700 million cleanup.

The UNEP's 1999 field assessment of the Balkans is the blueprint for what is being planned in Afghanistan.

The damage in Yugoslavia involved more chemical destruction than experts expect to find in Afghanistan. At the destroyed industrial complex near Belgrade, airborne measurements of vinyl chloride, an ingredient used in plastics, were thousands of times over safety limits.

Oil and hundreds of tons of mercury and nitric acid spilled into the Danube river. "Yugoslavia was a highly industrialized country, and we knew there would be major environmental damage," said Mr. Slotte. "[That country] claimed it was nationwide, while NATO claimed the bombing was well-targeted. We found the truth was somewhere in between."

•Forests: Slow-growing woodlands made up just 3 percent of the landscape, and half might be gone now. A timber mafia and merchants have been smuggling wood to neighboring Pakistan. Since 1979, artillery and jets have pounded forests. Refugees have turned to the same woods for survival.

"Imagine 20,000 people wandering around with nothing to eat or burn," Mr. Zahler said. "How long do you think a 400-year-old patch of juniper is going to last?"

•Water: The normal rainfall cycle is two dry years in every five. Some villages haven't seen a soaker since the mid-1990s. Wheat and barley fields are scorched. The water table could take centuries to recharge.

The network of irrigation tunnels, known as karzees, has largely collapsed or been blown up. American aircraft damaged the Kajaki Dam and the hydropower station guarding the Helmand Valley.

Afghanistan's illegal drug trade is based on drought-tolerant poppy fields; officials say irrigation is essential to restoring food crops.

•Wildlife: Landlocked Afghanistan is a melting pot for desert, northern and tropical species. In the late 1990s, desert antelope and gazelle in the Lashkar Gah were indiscriminately hunted. Among endangered species, fewer than 100 snow leopards remain in the mountains. Falcons and other wildlife are smuggled live to wealthy Arab and Pacific Rim customers.

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