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Afghanistan Harbors Environment Woes

March 25, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ The sewage started seeping out of the ground more than two years ago after the pipeline clogged. Now there’s a small, rancid pond of waste in Kabul where children play.

For all its other problems, Afghanistan has some serious environmental issues _ sewage treatment among them _ that are only now getting attention after 23 years of war and neglect.

A U.N. team arrived last week to start a countrywide assessment of the environmental threats, which include deforestation, water contamination, desertification, overuse of chemical pesticides and no waste disposal to speak of.

Separately, experts in the international peacekeeping force have started work in Kabul, testing air, water and soil samples for chemical, biological and nuclear agents.

They have come across some troubling findings: two canisters believed to contain Soviet-era chemical agents, gas mask filters found in an al-Qaida safehouse, and a missing Cobalt-60 source, a highly radioactive material, from a hospital’s cancer-treating radiation machine.

Capt. James Cameron, who heads the 35-member team of experts in the peacekeeping force, says the environmental threat in the capital is significant.

``There is a terrorist threat to (international) troops, but there’s also a clear and present danger for people stumbling into something that was left behind or purposefully abandoned,″ he said.

The algae-filled pond in the Yakatout neighborhood of Kabul is one such danger. When the sewage first started oozing above ground more than two years ago, a nonprofit group cleaned it up but didn’t fix the source of the problem, residents said.

The sewage returned, and now has become a gunk-filled pond housing several rusted out pickup trucks that children use as a jungle gym.

``We say to our children to not play here,″ said Abdul Wakil, as he watched swarms of children jump from truck to truck across the sewage and over a dead dog floating on the water’s edge.

``It’s dangerous, and when the weather will get hot, the children will get diseases from it,″ he said.

Beyond Kabul, environmental conditions are just as grave.

About half of Afghanistan’s natural forests _ cedars, pines and oaks that once covered about 3 percent of the country _ have been cut over the years for firewood and illegal timber exports, said Nassery, the director of environmental protection at Area, an Afghan nonprofit group.

The clearing has led to increased desertification, while the conversion of grasslands to agricultural fields has aggravated soil erosion, said Nassery, who uses only one name.

Chemical pesticides and fertilizers have contaminated soil and water supplies because of overuse and misuse, experts say.

Perhaps the gravest threat to Afghanistan’s environment is the four-year-old drought, which has decimated agriculture and helped reduce the use of arable farmland from 10 percent to 6 percent, said Nassery.

What water still exists is often contaminated _ mostly as a result of waste washing into rivers or seeping into wells, said Dr. Sarwar Abbassi, director of environmental health in the Ministry of Health.

Currently, 18 percent of patients in Afghan hospitals are treated for waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, which stem from improper water treatment, he said.

Henrik Slotte, head of the assessment unit at U.N. Environment Program, said by telephone from Geneva that the Afghan authorities had identified ``major, chronic environmental problems″ for his teams to investigate.

Despite Afghanistan’s environmental woes, Slotte said they could be remedied _ as long as the world continues to focus it attention and money on Afghanistan.

``We know from experience that this is exactly the moment when you can turn the page and start over again,″ he said.

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