The following extract is an essay from the collection Tomorrow is Too Late ed. by Grace Maddrell. Grace has collected testimonies of activism and hope from young climate strikers, from Brazil and Burundi to Pakistan and Palestine. These youth activists are experiencing the reality of the climate crisis, including typhoons, drought, flood, fire, crop failure and ecological degradation, and are all engaged in the struggle to bring these issues to the centre of the world stage. Their strength and determination show the urgency of their cause, and their understanding that the generations above them have failed to safeguard their environment.
Tomorrow is Too Late
When we were living in Mihtarlam city, in eastern Afghanistan, we were lucky enough to at least have schools open. My previous school in the village, about twelve kilometres from my current house, was already destroyed, and insurgent groups had turned it into their stronghold. As unbelievable as it may seem, going to school in a turbulent atmosphere of actual bullets crossing the sky was almost a normal experience of my childhood. Sometimes, it was so dangerous that my mother would rather make us stay home than go to school.
Born and raised in one of the most war-torn sites of Afghanistan, I developed a deep understanding of the problems that the young generation of a nation at war goes through. Climate change was nowhere near an issue of my concern. Therefore, unbeknown to me, deadly cyclical floods, a significant decrease in average rainfall, an increase of 0.6°C in the average annual temperature and in the frequency of hot days and nights, as well as harsh droughts, were already foreshadowing a death sentence. One that was to come soon, as a result of climate change, for this landlocked country right in the heart of Asia.
People in my country, despite being on the front lines of the devastating impacts of climate change, happened to know little to nothing at all about it. This was due to a lack of awareness, that, in many ways, stemmed from the absence of adequate education. Though crucially, it was also indisputably important to prioritize other issues more pressing, such as finding ways to save our lives: to find a piece of food to survive or find something to bandage our injuries. And so we were unaware of the fact that climate change greatly inhibits the solutions to all these problems.
Afghanistan has been named one of the countries most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change. I have heard so many elders bragging about how they were able to get much greater yields from crops in the past, because they were more hard-working than today’s farmers, but, in fact, there isn’t half the moisture available in the soil during the growing season today as compared with those times past. Crop failure is more frequent than ever before.
The decrease in rainfall during cultivation, and crop failure due to these water shortages, has made such conflicts far more common and most frequent in the west of the country. Many of these conflicts lead to some of the worst human rights violations, most notably child marriage and related forms of violence. This happens as farmers often believe they have no other option but to exchange their young daughters to landowners as a means of compensating for the lost income.
I have personally witnessed conflicts between landowners and farmers in my village, where some families have had to sell theirhousehold assets, often their only means of transportation, usually a motorcycle – an essential item in rural areas.
With 80 per cent of Afghans relying on agriculture for their livelihood, and 70 per cent of the country’s irrigable land predominantly relying on run-off water, increased water scarcity due to fast snowmelt, severe droughts and, in a different season, soil erosion due to flash flooding, all contribute to a disastrous level of food insecurity.
And when scientists predict an increase in the number of hot days and nights, and a 4.0°C overall increase in the country’s temperature by the 2060s, it scares me to think of what this will mean for a country where barely one in three citizens has access to twenty-four-hour electricity and where thousands of lives are still lost from curable conditions like diarrhoea.
Here in Afghanistan, it’s not about the coral reefs dying or bush fires, and of course, this landlocked country, surrounded by tall mountains, won’t be wiped out by sea-level rise, but instead, we will be dead inside.
In Afghanistan, the impact of climate change goes way beyond ecological factors. It fuels insurgency, escalates conflicts, exacerbates starvation, increases displacement, encourages child marriage and blocks our prospects for peace.
In many ways, climate change has been destructive to the Afghan cultures, civilizations and traditions that have evolved throughout the centuries. Take the river of Oxus for example, which has been the cradle of civilizations for thousands of years, or the river of Panjshir, which occupies a few stanzas in almost every poem from northern cultures, or maybe think of the Helmand river basin, where almost every legendary mythical Afghan couple has secretly dated. These rivers, or, as known by my people, the precious blessings of the divine, have turned into real and tragic monsters, taking lives by the hundreds of those residing alongside them, washing away their land, shelter and almost anything they have. Such disasters have become far too commonplace, and more cyclical than ever before.
Life is beautiful listening to the Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazara women singing folklore with their daf hand drums, celebrating the ancient tradition of carpet weaving. But it brings great sadness to me to say that this is not any more, either. The mass starvation of animals, a completely disastrous loss of livestock due to severe droughts, has led to a shortage of wool, and their artistic fingers are not able to weave any carpets, which, besides being an integral part of the culture, is also a primary source of income for many families. Afghan carpets have received prestigious recognition in world markets and are among the most expensive in the world.
If it’s spring, thankfully it does still mean that our vast deserts are dressed in colourful tulips, welcoming families for picnics and traditional dance parties. For Afghans, the value of tulips goes beyond simply aesthetic beauty, well past being attractive spots forsightseeing. These flowers are deeply rooted in our culture, they are symbols of the start of a new, peaceful and prosperous year ahead. However, with the rising temperatures, climate science experts are increasingly worried that tulip bulbs are not going to survive this shift to temperatures for which they are not adapted. This concerns us that this will signify further desertification, and will turn our tulip-dressed deserts to plantless ones of only sand and rock all year round.
If world leaders are listening to my voice, and are yet doubtful as to whether climate change is a real catastrophe or invented propaganda, it’s understood that they have probably been born into relative luxury in a decorated house, growing up miles away from the daily negative impacts of climate change. It’s hard to even try to believe in a crisis that has never really touched you, so therefore, as a climate activist from Afghanistan, I invite you to pay a short visit to where I grew up. Together we will lift the door to a tent of the nomadic people or, as we call them, the Kochi people, of Afghanistan. These are the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in our nation. They live in these tent-like homes and engage in pastoralism as their main source of income. We will listen to the stories of more and more of their animals’ untimely deaths, as well as their forced sales due to the severe drought conditions that have meant a lack of vegetation in their feeding spots.
I understand some leaders are angry at climate activists for ‘catastrophizing’ this process of change, but while climate change may not be the end of the world for the entirety of humanity any time soon, it is ending the worlds of people like the Kochi in the mountains of Afghanistan, as well as residents near the beaches of distant island nations. Where these people meet is where the whole idea of climate justice comes into existence.
This movement is to raise awareness of those in lower-income, less developed places that are dying, losing their homes, their sources of income and their ways of life. It is to protest loudly, in order that we all come to understand that this is in significant part because the very rich, and many big corporations and leaders in more economically developed countries, are denying the crisis of which these oft-forgotten people are the victims.
I was involved in climate activism for about three to four years on a local level, and then, after the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg started the Fridays For Future worldwide movement, I also initiated a climate strike movement in my own country. But I can’t expect my country and its government to mitigate climate change on a global scale, because we are not the drivers of this phenomenon. It’s extremely important that the communities on the front lines of the devastating impacts of climate change receive the justice that they deserve.
It’s very promising, after all, to see that young people around the world, with a wide range of economic backgrounds, are realizing the need for urgent action and they are demanding it – breaking the old norms where people who were the most impacted were not in a position to raise their voices, and where those who were able to be heard went on unaffected and thus remained ignorant.
Planet Earth is home to all of us, regardless of our political affiliation, religion or skin colour. It’s time to join hands, listen to each other with open minds and accept each other with our hearts, to save our only home
Nasratullah Elham grew up in war-torn Afghanistan. It took Elham (born 2002) some time to realize that climate change, as well as war, was affecting his people. But once he did, he knew he had to act. He was a local activist for a few years before hearing about Greta Thunberg and initiating Climate Strike Afghanistan, a strike movement in his own country. As well as fighting for the climate, Elham is the founder and president of Laghman Peace Volunteers (LPV), a group fighting for a peaceful Afghanistan. He is also a feminist and human rights advocate. Basically, he always speaks up for the issues that matter. When he went to study in Thailand, thanks to a United World College scholarship, Elham didn’t stop acting. He helped Climate Strike Thailand, by being their coordinator with other organizations, and organized climate gatherings in Phuket. When his studies were over, Elham was ready to head back home, but then he got stuck in Thailand due to Covid-19. However, he continued to work, online, with the Afghan strike group. Elham became a climate activist after seeing the loss of human lives and livelihoods in his country, which is already being heavily affected by the climate crisis. Overall, there are so many issues facing Afghanistan, and Elham doesn’t want people to ignore them any longer. He is frustrated that many privileged world leaders continue to deny the climate crisis, thus causing the deaths of more of his people.By fighting for peace, climate justice and human rights, Elham hopes to make the future of Afghanistan, and the world, a much brighter one.
Facebook: Nasratullah Elham / Twitter: @NasraElham
Tomorrow is Too Late (ed. Grace Maddrell) is published by Indigo Press on 30 September 2021.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.