Afghan student made a plea for his uninvited homeland at U.N. climate summit


Hamidullah Nadeem was a lonely figure at COP28, the U.N. climate summit that just ended.

He was of only a handful of people from Afghanistan who attended.

Afghanistan is, according to the U.N., one of the ten countries most affected by climate change, with repeated droughts and flash floods taking a toll on local communities and the agrarian economy.

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But the U.N. has not invited representatives from Afghanistan to its climate summits since the Taliban took power in 2021 — and in 2022 deferred a decision on future Afghanistan representation. U.N. representatives have not responded to journalists who’ve asked for an explanation.

Nadeem. a 26-year-old from Afghanistan who’s currently studying business at Australia’s Monash University, came as part of his school’s delegation, with his travel expenses covered. (A number of universities sent delegations.)

He literally went from booth to booth, talking to country representatives and nonprofit groups. He organized a “side event” –- an unofficial meeting — to raise concerns about Afghanistan’s climate crisis.

“We need people from Afghanistan to come and discuss their issues, share their concerns, tell the world what they need and want,” he said.

But in the end he was a frustrated messenger. “I think it [climate change] has already impacted our people and all I can say is that it will get worse if Afghanistan is excluded from such an important platform,” he said.

A discouraged farmer

Prolonged droughts have led to a massive deficit in food production that has pushed over 15 million Afghans — about 35% of the population —to live in a state of acute hunger, according to the World Food Program (WFP).

Taaj Mohammad, a 40-year-old who grows vegetables in Helmand province, knows firsthand how tough it’s been to farm with a serious decline in rainfall.

“I don’t know exactly what climate change is but it seems like it is what is causing our drought and water shortages. We are losing crops because of it,” he told NPR over the phone.

In an October report, WFP predicted a “marginally better harvest” in the coming months that could lower food insecurity. But Mohammad, who cultivates an assortment of vegetables, said the current harvest is looking very bleak. “We got some support from NGOs in form of seeds, but there isn’t enough water to cultivate them. I only grew basil this year, and even for that I couldn’t get sufficient water since our wells have run dry,” he said.

“I had to buy some of the water and borrowed some from our neighbors since I cannot afford to dig deeper wells or operate stronger pumps to get the underground water,” he added. Many farmers in Afghanistan rely on underground water reserves that are replenished during seasonal rainfall and snowfall.

Efforts to remedy the situation have been stymied by a lack of aid. Following the Taliban takeover, several donor countries and agencies withdrew financial support from Afghanistan, including some $800 million that would have gone to 32 projects to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

A man with a mission

Nadeem has been speaking out about climate change since 2018, when he cofounded a small NGO called Peace Garden to educate Afghanistan’s youth about climate issues through campaigns and workshops. Since the Taliban takeover in 2021, however, their activities have moved online. Many of the group’s climate activists, who were vocal on issues critical of the Taliban, left the country fearing for their safety, says Nadeem.

With the support of his school, Nadeem organized the only “side event” at COP28 on Afghanistan. An eager crowd of over 100 attended, both in person and online, with Afghan youth joining in. Their participation was “a testament to how deeply Afghans feel for the situation in the country,” Nadeem said.

“Climate crisis is not limited by borders. Ignoring Afghanistan at such an important platform has already had devastating consequences — there are droughts, floods, internal displacement ongoing in Afghanistan,” he said. “Continuing to exclude Afghanistan will only worsen the tragedy for its people and the region.”

His words were echoed by Afghan scientist Najibullah Sadid, who participated in Nadeem’s event from Germany, where he is an associate researcher at the University of Stuttgart with a focus on water resources. “Absence of Afghanistan means Afghans remains isolated and deprived from accessing the funds not only for the losses they are sustaining but also from accessing support for adaptation to climate change.

“Afghans suffer from the climate change that the others caused for them” – a reference to the fact that emissions from wealthier countries are blamed for much of climate change – “and now left to deal with such a large-scale disaster themselves. This is unjust and unfair,” he said. The World Bank estimates that climate change has led to millions of dollars lost from crop failures and damage to infrastructure.

Feeling frustrated

At the side event, Nadeem distributed a pamphlet with a Youth Policy Statement put together by a coalition of Afghan NGOs, offering suggestions for solutions gathered through surveys of university students in Afghanistan who are working on climate change.

But he left COP28 disappointed as many of the nonprofit groups he spoke to continue to struggle with how to address the Taliban problem.

Dan Norton is a spokesperson for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), established by COP in 2010 to help developing countries counter climate change. Since GCF adheres to guidance from COP, they “do not currently have a recognized partner organization on-the-ground in Afghanistan,” he told NPR.

“The international community is looking at ways to respond to the multitude of challenges that Afghanistan currently faces and the modalities for how that help and assistance is delivered,” he added.

And that just means more delays – and more frustration — for Nadeem, for whom climate change is a personal issue. “My family depends on water from our wells for daily use, and we have had to dig deeper well, use stronger pumps to access water. We have our own grape orchards, and we were not able to grow what we wanted because of the lack of water. It is harder for those farmers can’t afford to dig deeper wells or pumps, or even the electricity to operate those pumps,” he said, speculating that yields in their family orchards have dropped by almost 30%.

He’s hoping for more collaborative efforts that help Afghanistan cope but isn’t optimistic.

For Sadid, the professor now living in Germany, the absence of an official Afghan delegation at this year’s summit was a lost opportunity:

“Afghanistan’s participation [in COP28], not necessarily its government but climate activists, water and agriculture experts, could have opened a dialog on how vulnerable communities in the country can still be helped in mitigating the impact of climate change.”

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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