Spotlight on the First National Park in Afghanistan

Although natural conservation hasn’t been a top priority for Afghanistan over the last few decades, now that the country is enjoying greater stability and prosperity, that has begun to change. The Afghan government is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of safeguarding the country’s natural heritage. With the support of a variety of international NGOs, it has taken some significant steps in recent years to protect and preserve key natural areas.

A major victory came in 2009, when Afghanistan celebrated the creation of its first ever national park. The Band-e-Amir lakes in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan have long been recognized as an area of natural beauty. Now that they have been designated as a national park, it will be easier for the country to manage sustainable tourism more effectively, preserve and protect at-risk species, and work to reverse environmental damage already done in the area.

Visitors agree that Band-e-Amir is so breathtaking that it has to be seen to be believed, but you can still get a feel for the park with these five facts:

 

  1. Band-e-Amir is one of the world’s most spectacular travertine systems.

Located in a desert area high up in the Hindu Kush mountain range, the six stunning, sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir were formed by mineral-rich water gradually seeping out of faults and cracks in the surrounding mountains. Over time, the water deposited layer upon layer of travertine, or hardened mineral, at different points on the lake bed. These layers eventually grew into the massive natural dams that now contain the lake water.

Interestingly, local lore gives an alternative explanation for how these mineral dams came into existence. Legend says that the dams that hold the lakes in place were thrown into their positions by the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. The high mineral content of the water is also responsible for the incredible colors of the lakes, which can range from light turquoise to a deep, icy blue.

Band-e-Amir Lakes | Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

  1. The dams of Band-e-Amir’s lakes all have names.

All of the five dams that contain Band-e-Amir’s six lakes have names. There is the Groom’s Dam, the Mint Dam, the Dam of the Slaves, and the somewhat puzzlingly named Dam of Cheese. The most famous and most visited dam, however, is Band-i-Haibat, or the Dam of Awe. This dam is 1,500 feet wide and two miles long, and its waters are believed to have healing properties (that is, if you can withstand their icy temperatures!).

 

  1. Band-e-Amir has long been a popular tourist destination.

These beautiful lakes have been a popular destination for travelers ever since the 1950s. The area experienced a peak in visitor numbers during the 1970s. Naturally, tourism was virtually non-existent during the conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. However, more and more people, domestic and foreign tourists alike, have been visiting Band-e-Amir in recent years. People are drawn to the region not only by the lakes, but also by nearby tourist magnets like the valley of Bamiyan.

The national park designation proved to be a significant boost for tourism. At present, the park can receive as many as 5,000 visitors a day in the high season. While there are some facilities currently in place for tourists, including restrooms and recreational paddle boats that can be rented for use on the lakes, the Afghan government hopes to establish more extensive amenities in the future, including guesthouses and shops.

Band-e-Amir

Band-e-Amir | Image by Afghanistan Matters| Flickr

  1. Band-e-Amir is home to plenty of wildlife.

Although habitat destruction and poaching have certainly taken their toll on the flora and fauna of Band-e-Amir, the park is still home to an impressive array of wildlife. More than 150 species of birds have been recorded – including the Afghan snow finch, which is thought to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan – leading to the designation of Band-e-Amir as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Additionally, wild goats known as Ibex and wild sheep known as urials as well as wolves, foxes, and fish are all common sights within the park. But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Band-e-Amir is home to more species of wildcat than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, including some extremely rare examples. In 2015, a sensor-activated camera captured a photograph of a Persian leopard, which was long believed to be extinct in the region.

 

  1. The Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting Afghanistan in managing the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has played an important role in helping Afghanistan successfully implement and manage its first-ever national park. WCS staff members have provided support with tasks like delineating the boundaries of the park, conducting preliminary wildlife surveys, developing a park management plan, and hiring and training local rangers.

As for the rangers themselves, a big part of their responsibilities involves working with local communities and the provincial government to mitigate the impact of park residents on the fragile natural habitat. For example, 500 fuel-efficient stoves have been distributed to families living in and near the park area, which greatly reduces their need to chop down park trees for firewood.

DAI in Afghanistan – Spotlight on 5 Important Projects

A global company wholly owned by its employees, Development Alternatives, Inc. has been working to bring fresh ideas and alternatives to the field of international development since its incorporation in 1970. Known today simply as DAI, the company partners with development agencies, private corporations, national governments, and philanthropies to create and implement innovative solutions to social and economic development challenges in some of the world’s most vulnerable nations.

At present, DAI has more than 3,300 employees worldwide, and it has active projects in more than 80 countries. In Afghanistan, DAI works with international funders on a broad range of development projects, from agricultural initiatives to programs that support small businesses. Projects currently in progress include:

  1. The Regional Agricultural Development Program (RADP-East)

This initiative is focused on the agricultural sector in eastern Afghanistan. Farmers and agribusinesses in this part of the country could stand to benefit significantly from Afghanistan’s growing economy and expanded opportunities for international trade. However, many of them still face considerable challenges like unreliable irrigation, inadequate cultivation techniques, and a lack of knowledge about how to connect with new markets. All of these have a negative impact on productivity and profitability.

The RADP-East program aims to address these issues with a value chain facilitation strategy that uses value chain analysis and training initiatives to help improve crop yields and identify new markets where rural Afghan farmers can sell their harvests.

Sample activities conducted under RADP-East include conducting a rigorous evaluation of regional agricultural value chains; leveraging strategies like SMS marketing, radio publicity, and “farmer field day” initiatives to increase awareness of regional agribusiness and connect farmers to new buyers; and providing financial support to organizations that work with farmers to improve business management and operations practices, like farm service centers, agricultural depots, and grower associations.

Afghanistan farm

 

  1. The Agricultural Credit Enhancement Program (ACE)

For over 25 years, farmers in Afghanistan could not access agricultural credit, and this severely restricted the expansion of the farming sector. Under the auspices of the ACE program, DAI helps to manage a major international grant awarded to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. It makes credit available to farmers during the farming season, with repayment due after the harvest.

A wide range of farming participants are eligible for these loans, including small commercial farmers, high-value crop producers, agricultural product processors and exporters, and agriculture-related businesses. The ACE program also offers technical assistance and support, as well as learning and advocacy initiatives around agricultural finance, to ensure that farmers who receive loans have the best possible chance of success.

  1. The Strong Hubs for Afghan Hope and Resilience Program (SHAHAR)

Afghanistan’s municipal governments will play a critical role in building civil society and providing a better future for Afghanistan in the years ahead. However, although many municipalities have improved over the last decade, few are currently performing at the level necessary to support their citizens during a time of ongoing change.

The SHAHAR program aims to change this by providing targeted financial assistance to municipal governments, municipal advisory boards, and Afghanistan’s General Directorate of Municipal Affairs (GDMA). This assistance specifically supports improvements to municipal financial management, citizen consultation, and service delivery in urban areas.

Additional activities include organizing national, regional, and district conferences where municipalities can share best practices and lessons learned as well as working with municipal officials to prepare and implement capacity building plans. SHAHAR’s central goal is to create well-governed, fiscally sustainable municipalities that are capable of meeting the needs of Afghanistan’s growing urban populations.

  1. The Assistance to Legislative Bodies of Afghanistan Program (ALBA)

Designed to help both of Afghanistan’s houses of Parliament increase their self-reliance, the ALBA program provides issue-based assistance, training, and capacity-building support to members of Parliament (MPs) and staff as they address current bills and policies.

This support aims to boost outreach work done by Parliament and increase dialogue between MPs, citizens, civil society, and media; enable parliamentary staff to enhance their work in the areas of budget analysis and legislative research; and improve Parliament’s capacity to serve as an effective and independent oversight body for the executive branch.

  1. The Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Development Enterprise Program (ABADE)

The ABADE program is focused on economic growth in Afghanistan. Specifically, its focus is on increasing domestic and foreign investment, stimulating employment, and increasing sales of Afghan products. There are three main components to ABADE.

The first is the provision of grants to small- and medium-sized businesses and business alliances. This financial support allows businesses to plan more effectively and to take calculated risks on innovative ideas. The second component is the provision of technical support and business advice to growing companies. The third aims to incite broader improvements to the business environment.

DAI’s involvement with ABADE falls under this third component. DAI works with partner businesses and alliances to identify specific regulatory and procedural barriers, then collaborates with relevant ministries to remove or ease those barriers.

This Is How Wheelchair Basketball Improved Orthopedic Treatment in Afghanistan

A growing sports program is providing people affected by regional conflict in Afghanistan with dignity, confidence, and hope for the future.

Since the first wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 2012, rehabilitators have found that developing organized sports programs for people in wheelchairs can change lives. Leisure activities are not always emphasized in Afghanistan, but therapists are bringing sports into the forefront of treatment.

History of Wheelchair Sports in Afghanistan

wheelchair sportsPeople in wheelchairs in Afghanistan began organizing to play basketball before an official organization existed. In 2009, a new team asked for someone from the United States to teach them how to play, and Jess Markt, a player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, responded to the request. In November of that year, he went to Afghanistan with plans to work with the team for one week.

Markt, who became a paraplegic at age 19 after his spine was severed in a car crash, said the experience in Afghanistan was life-changing. He subsequently deepened his involvement with the new wheelchair basketball team there. He collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Motivation UK to have basketball wheelchairs sent to Afghanistan and publicize the new sport nationwide. The work became known as the Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project.

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” Markt told the online magazine Folks. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Therapy through Leisure

Since 2011, Markt has worked with Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopedic program in Afghanistan, to integrate wheelchair basketball and therapy for people who have lost limbs or can no longer use limbs due to injury. Cairo, a physical therapist from Italy, helps people learn to use prosthetic limbs or re-use their limbs.

Cairo recently told NPR that in Afghanistan, people with disabilities are often fiercely protected by their families. While that means families are vigilant about caring for loved ones with disabilities, they may shield them from developing outside hobbies careers, or friendships. For many, developing skills on the basketball court has provided them with new purpose that spills into other parts of their lives. Many look forward to basketball practice, which provides fun and an otherwise unheard-of opportunity to play a sport.

Markt described one Afghan man who was injured as a child in the war and had “no active life” as an adult because his family did not expect him to contribute. At age 29, the man began playing wheelchair basketball and eventually joined the national team.

Wheelchair basketball helped the man envision a new path for himself. He took out a microloan through a Red Cross program and opened an automotive parts and repair business. He is now a key member of his community, and he returned his relief card that entitled him to a monthly food allocation because of his disability. He stated he no longer needed it because he had a job.

This man is not alone. Markt said that wheelchair basketball has given many players the confidence to start businesses or find jobs.

Taking on the World

wheelchair sportsThe ICRC organized the first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan in 2012, an event that Cairo said at the time would have been “unimaginable” before. Cairo noted that the players had been transformed physically and psychologically, becoming “much stronger in many ways.”

Now, more than 500 people now play recreational basketball in seven Red Cross rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan. Players compete in tournaments across the country, and the national teams have traveled to other countries such as Japan to compete and take part in international wheelchair basketball training. The national teams are hoping to compete in the Paralympics, even though they haven’t won any international tournaments yet.

In the 25 years that Cairo has worked in Afghanistan, he has hired several hundred patients to assist in ICRC’s rehabilitation centers. Cairo has helped more than 100,000 people, including more than 150 patients who have learned to play wheelchair basketball.

The Future of Rehab

Cairo and Markt continue to partner to advance rehabilitation efforts for citizens of Afghanistan. They recently toured the United States to talk about their work, including the latest technology in their field and their expanding work in other countries in the developing world.

Innovations are being made in wheelchair design, spinal cord regeneration, and prosthetics. Additionally, the ICRC is still building centers around the world to meet a “relentless” demand for prosthetics, treatment, and rehabilitation.

In Afghanistan, ICRC centers treat thousands of patients each year while also addressing issues with security and on-going conflict. Even with these challenges, ICRC’s innovations, including its home-based therapy and wheelchair basketball, are transforming lives across Afghanistan.