12 Apr 2019 Story Climate change

Skiing to freedom in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is home to a vast number of rugged, snow-capped mountain ranges. But instability and conflict still disrupt daily life, and the Taliban maintain their grip on at least 60 per cent of the country.  

Bamyan—Afghanistan’s skiing hub—sits opposite the cliffs where sixth century statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Yet local athletes continue to pursue their passion, making their own gear out of wooden planks, metal, plastic, and rope.

This is where Chris Shirley founded The Hiatus Foundation—an organization to support athletes in Afghanistan. He believes that winter sports contribute to mental health, environmental protection and gender equality, particularly among young people.

Skiierin in Kabul
Skiers group training in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Credit: The Hiatus Foundation

“Sports in post-conflict zones is associated with therapeutic benefits like improved self-image, mood and confidence; better communication and teamwork skills; attachment to positive role models and lowering of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for example,” he says. 

“Within Afghanistan specifically, sports are fast becoming a galvanizing force among the country’s young millennials of many different ethnicities. The shared experience of these endeavours is building a much more stable and cohesive society that is resilient to the ongoing security challenges.”

Shirley adds that while getting into nature most weekends is great for the associated health benefits, it ignites a passion to protect the environment and influence others to do the same.

Today, more people are skiing on donated rather than wooden skis. The Afghan Ski Challenge—an annual competition organized by the Switzerland-based non-governmental organization the Bamyan Ski Club—led Sajjad Husaini and Alishah Farhang, both in their twenties, to the world championships. Now they are training for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Sports are fast becoming a galvanizing force among the country’s young millennials of many different ethnicities. Photo Credit: The Hiatus Foundation

Yet the threats to this environment and lifestyle are many. Dirk Snyman, UN Environment’s Action on Climate Expert for Post-Conflict and Disaster Management in Afghanistan, said that growing interest in outdoors activities and nature experiences in Afghanistan is extremely encouraging.

“However, threats such as environmental degradation and climate change are likely to severely impact on the country’s potential for eco-tourism in the long-term,” he said.  

“Our climate change projections for the Central Highlands—where Bamyan is located—indicate that temperatures are likely to rise by more than 2.5°C by the end of the century. This warming is much higher than the expected average global rise in temperature over the same period.

“This means that the window of opportunity for skiing is likely to become much smaller as the snow will melt much faster,” he added.

“Besides this, the changes in temperature and precipitation patterns caused by climate change will have far-reaching and fundamental impacts on people’s livelihoods, given that 70 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture and livestock for meeting their needs.”

The window of opportunity for skiing is likely to become much smaller as the snow will melt much faster. Photo Credit: The Hiatus Foundation

Shirley is aware of the challenges. Kabul suffers from high pollution—believed to kill more people than the conflict does.  

“This is due to people burning wood, sawdust, coal, plastic, car tyres and anything else at their disposal just to keep warm through the challenging winters.

“When it’s combined with exhaust gases from the capital’s 6 million residents’ vehicles and a lack of rain; the associated health risks are catastrophic.”

“A few weeks ago, I climbed a mountain on the outskirts of the city and was awe-struck at how visible and dense the smog was that was hanging over the city. It was incredibly sad to think of the athletes that I was climbing with, that they were breathing that in every single day when I returned home to the United Kingdom.”

Yet Ali Shah Farhang is among those who believe skiing and winter sports must continue to bring benefits. One of the two top skiers in the country, he teaches children how to ski. “For young people, the only way forward is to come together and live a positive life,” he said.

For many young people, coming together for sport leads to a more positive life. Photo Credit: The Hiatus Foundation

“Our country is not powerful enough to fight the enemy and being in conflict every day is not the solution. Skiing is a powerful tool to make a positive change,” he added.  

The sport is also encouraging confidence among women. Afghanistan is ranked as the worst place in the world to be a woman.

Ana Tasic, a ski coach at the Bamyan Ski Club, notes that whilst girls have taken up skiing, they must train on separate slopes and that initially, convincing families to let their daughters ski was challenging. 

She said: “Some of the girls were verbally abused by family members or neighbours for their participation in sports. Some communities are still not happy to see a group of women coming to walk and ski in their backyard.

“There is a long way to go, but things are slowly changing—and at least in the bubble of Bamyan Ski Club, girls and boys are treated as equals,” she added. 

“When they see skis for the first time, they usually think skiing is ‘mission impossible’; but as they slowly learn to slide, stop and turn, they become more confident—not only in skiing but in their attitude outside the slopes as well.”

Despite conflict and climate challenges, these trail-blazers continue to raise awareness about the environment, bringing sport—and its many benefits—to their young peers in the hope of building a better future.