Just south of Afghanistan’s parched capital, Kabul, you can turn off from the clogged and battered traffic of the Logar road, drive through an unimposing metal gate with a faded wooden sign, and suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re at the edge of a lake.
This is Kol-e-Hashmat Khan, a wetland area of around 200 hectares squeezed between Kabul’s mud and cement-block houses and the ring of mountains that surrounds the city. Once a hunting ground for Afghan royalty, on this summer morning, the area is almost deserted – a quiet oasis hidden inside a brown, polluted maze of dusty roads.
Vital rest stop
A simple concrete watchtower stands at the edge of the lake – for the handful of bird enthusiasts who brave insecurity to come here from across Afghanistan, and even abroad. A nearby path leads down to the shore, where you can take a bathtub-sized boat – out through the reeds to get a closer view of the ducks, waders, swallows and many other species that flock here every spring.
Though small and polluted, the marsh provides a critical resting spot for thousands of birds as they make their way from winter homes in India and Pakistan to breeding grounds in Central Asia and Siberia.
Once they’ve reached Kabul, the birds still have to make it over the Hindu Kush, whose mountains rise to more than 7,000 meters. To pull this off, they have to rest before making the hardest part of their journey, and Kol-e-Hashmat Khan is a welcome opportunity to do this.
Yet there is a danger that their stopover might disappear, because Kol-e-Hashmat Khan is threatened on all sides.
Much of the water from the lake and the Logar River which feeds it is drained off to irrigate nearby farmlands, or to supply Kabul’s mushrooming population, which has quadrupled since 2001.
Over the same period, new houses have sprung up all around the lake. Some are sizeable concrete properties put up by powerful land grabbers, who have moved in under cover of the chaos produced by 40 years of conflict. Others are mud homes built by refugees returning from years abroad and desperate for a place to live.
There are new businesses, too. Everything from grocery shops to a rash of car-washing stations that suck the water from the lake and replace it with dirty run off, plastic bags and other rubbish, adding to the trash that flows in from the Logar river and medical waste dumped from nearby hospitals.
New protected area
In recognition of the wetland’s importance, the Government of Afghanistan has just announced Kol-e-Hashmat Khan as the country’s newest protected area.
The wetland has been given special status before – Afghanistan’s former kings tried to keep it pristine, and later governments provided guards to prevent hunting and pollution – but these protections have since been eroded.
UN Environment has played a key role in helping the government develop plans for how the new protected area will be run. The plans include security, clean-ups, relocation for people who live and work around the lake, and rules for public access that ensure a balance between conservation and the park’s huge potential for environmental education.
“The wetland isn’t just vital for migratory birds – it’s also a fantastic resource for the people of Afghanistan to better appreciate their natural heritage and learn how to protect it,” said Andrew Scanlon, UN Environment Country Programme Manager. “Since Kol-e-Hashmat Khan is right next to Kabul, it should be possible to get local people – especially students – involved so that restoration and education go hand in hand.”
Initial plans are in place, but they will be refined and expanded through consultations with authorities, local people, non-government organizations and everyone else who has a stake in the wetland.
“Kol-e-Hashmat Khan wetland is an important part of the natural heritage of the people of Afghanistan,” said Jalaludin Naseri, Director of the Natural Heritage Division of the National Environmental Protection Agency. “Our work here is important for social, historical, ecological and economic reasons.”
Drawing on 15 years of experience in Afghanistan, including helping establish Band-e Amir National Park, Afghanistan’s first, a couple of hundred kilometres to the west, UN Environment is training officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Environmental Protection Agency on how to implement the new management plan.
“There are challenges, but this is also a success story waiting to be told,” said Scanlon. “The government is committed to protecting the environment for future generations, and we will do everything we can to support them in that.”