By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Severe air pollution in Afghanistan’s major cities will lead to an environmental disaster unless measures are taken to avert the looming crisis, a senior official said on Sunday.
Three decades of war and severe drought have already damaged the country’s environment with widespread desertification and deforestation and loss of vegetation and wildlife, deputy head of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency said.
But now, overpopulation in Afghanistan’s cities, the burning of poor quality fuel, thousands of imported old cars, no proper waste management or sewage system and a boom in construction, have worsened air pollution, Jarullah Mansoori said.
"Afghanistan is always facing a lot of problems. Economic challenges, security problems and government challenges," Mansoori told Reuters in an interview.
"But the most dangerous challenge is environmental pollution and the environmental pollutants are the silent killers," he said.
Set up in 2005, Mansoori’s agency recently formed an emergency body, with international donors agreeing to give $100 million towards equipping and training government departments to tackle the crisis in the short-term, Mansoori said.
With the funding, authorities will be able reduce some of the problems within two to three years, he said, adding the agency was also starting a public awareness campaign.
While the capital and Afghanistan’s largest city, Kabul, was worst affected, other major cities like Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz in the north, Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west, were also suffering, he added.
Millions of Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan from neighbouring countries since the overthrow of the Taliban by U.S.-led and Afghan forces in late 2001, most of them flocking to the cities in search of work.
"For example, Kabul is a city built for 500,000 people, but now five million live here ... Currently, there are 800,000 vehicles as opposed to 50,000 (previously) ... Afghanistan is a dumping ground for expired vehicles," said Mansoori.
Air pollution as well as unclean drinking water were contributing to people’s health problems, he said.
"The current health problems are asthma and 22 types of cancer, the most common being leukaemia. Out of every 100 people, eight are suffering. We have to take this issue very seriously," Mansoori said.
Compared to the capitals of neighbouring countries such as Iran, India and Pakistan, said Mansoori, Kabul was the worst affected.
"We are three times more polluted than the other capitals in the region. If everything is left as it is now, after two or three years, we will not be able to live in Kabul, said Mansoori.
"We will have to leave for another place, where we can find clean air, clean water and clean food. This is called environmental migration. When environmental migration takes place then it’s a huge social problem," he said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)