Climate change threatens Afghanistan's crumbling heritage
After bearing the brunt of jihadist dynamite and looting by thieves, the archaeological treasures of Afghanistan's Bamiyan province are facing a new and possibly more daunting threat: climate change.
Nestled in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, the Bamiyan valley's picturesque cliffs – where centuries-old Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – still contain a network of caves housing temples, monasteries, and Buddhist paintings. The valley is also home to the silk-road era Shahr-e Gholghola fortress and the Shar-e Zohak citadel to the east.
Experts say that a pattern of dry spells followed by heavy rain and larger than usual spring snowmelts is putting this historic art and architecture at risk of destruction.
Afghan officials warned in a 2016 United Nations report that the structures "may collapse and suffer from severe erosion" due to conditions directly linked to climate change.
"The erosion processes are much faster, the rains more devastating and the wind erosion stronger, which has an extremely harsh impact on the sites," Philippe Marquis, the director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, told journalists.
Where once the Buddhas kept watch
Internationally Bamiyan tends to be associated with the tragedy surrounding its empty Buddha niches. But in recent years the central Afghan province has also been an island of stability in a country worn down by war. Marian Brehmer visited the region
The province of Bamiyan has an area the size of Schleswig-Holstein and lies at the geographical heart of Afghanistan with a population of around 400,000. The panorama of the city of the same name, which lies at an altitude of 2850 metres, is dominated by reddish sandstone cliffs
Surrounded by the foothills of the Hindu Kush and the sheer sides of the Koh-e-Baba range, Bamiyan has long been an isolated mountain region. Unlike many of its neighbouring provinces, the region has enjoyed security and stability since the fall of the Taliban in 2001
- Bamiyan is the heartland of the Shia Hasara, one of Afghanistan's main ethnic groups. In the years preceding 2001, the radical Sunni Taliban regime persecuted and murdered hundreds of Hasaras, also with the intention of defeating the armed resistance of the people of Bamiyan
Bamiyan is theoretically only three hours by car from Kabul. However, parts of the 180 kilometre stretch are controlled by the Taliban, so that locals are reluctant to travel to the capital by land
Little of the suffering of the civil war and the Taliban years can still be felt today, but with a poverty rate of almost sixty percent, Bamiyan remains one of Afghanistan's least developed provinces
In Afghanistan, about 65 percent of the population is considered illiterate. The proportion among women is significantly higher. With almost three-quarters of the Afghan population aged under than thirty, this is naturally of particular concern
A large section of the local population is employed in agriculture. Around 60,000 farmers in the province make their living from the potato harvest. While potatoes are also exported to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan or Tajikistan, green vegetables are generally imported from other provinces
By far the greatest economic potential of the province lies in tourism. The Band-e-Amir Lakes are Afghanistan's first national park and are visited by tens of thousands of local tourists every year. Only a handful of foreigners visit the region, however
The clay-built tourist office at the Buddha niches is unsurprisingly deserted. Visitors may view the gaping rock holes upon request
In March 2001 the 2500-year-old statues were blown up by the Taliban. To date the UNESCO project to rebuild the Buddhas with the participation of international partners remains a theory. Moreover, the hundreds of caves in the vicinity of the niches are also threatened by decay, many of the Buddhist murals have already been destroyed
Were the overall security situation in Afghanistan were improve, Bamiyan would be the first address for international tourism: the clay-built fortress "Shahr-e Zahak" from the 3rd century BC 17 kilometres from the city centre offers challenging climbing paths combined with a picturesque mountain panorama
Marquis – who has explored and worked in the region for decades – explains that Afghanistan "is very fragile geologically, especially as vegetation cover has greatly diminished" due to deforestation.
French imaging company Iconem concurred, saying Shar-e Zohak is "very fragile" due to erosion that has increased considerably over the last 30 years.
For Baqe Ghulami, 21, who hails from Saikhand district in northern Bamiyan, climate change has long been a reality residents have had to confront. "The weather is changing, now summers are warmer and winters colder," he says, while overlooking the empty spaces where the two towering Buddha statues once stood.
Many of the artefacts pre-date the arrival of Islam to the region, but despite the fact they come from another religion, the residents who spoke with journalists proudly defended the area's history as their own.
From the empty caves, visitors can see the Cultural Centre, which began construction in 2015 but has yet to be completed. It aims to educate visitors about the urgent need to preserve the area's heritage.
"There is no benefit if people just see (the sites) without information," says Ali Reza Mushfiq, 26, director of the Department of Archeology at Bamiyan University, complaining that a dearth of funding has left many in the dark – including his own students who lack access to books.
The archaeologist readily admits that "erosion is increasing", but believes the real danger comes from "human influence at the site", including looters, who are rampant in Afghanistan.
The Shar-e Gholghola Fortress and other key sites are now guarded to protect against such issues.
The removal of landmines from the area has seen thousands visit in recent years, but the influx of recent visitors has done little to change the reality on the ground.
"We must start training... (the) local people to teach them how not to destroy the site," says Mushfiq, adding that some residents continue to store feed and house livestock in the historic sites.
A stone's throw from the cave of the great Buddha, Ammanullah, 37, says he and his family have moved into one of the caves, building a home inside made of odds and ends with plastic sheets for windows. He is not alone, many other poor families have sought shelter next to ancient artefacts and structures.
"There are 18 families here... we didn't have other options," says Ammanullah. "We would go if we were given a house."
For Marquis, however, the greatest threat does not come from local residents encroaching on the site or from theft. "Even if it is dramatic, it is much less damaging than the destruction caused by erosion," he said.
Mitigating the impacts of erosion and the effects of climate change would cost billions of dollars in Afghanistan, but the war-torn country has little ability to shoulder such a burden.
The Global Adaptation Initiative, run by the University of Notre Dame in the United States, currently ranks Afghanistan 173 out of the 181 countries it scored in terms of a nation's vulnerability to climate change and its ability to adapt. (AFP)