Saturday, September 29, 2007

Kabul security

I've had a few people write to ask about the security situation here in Kabul and where I'll be travelling in Afghanistan.

The facts about abductions are interesting and not as bad as people seem to think.

In Afghanisan so far in 2007 there have been 142 abduction cases involving 350 people. Twenty seven of those people have been foreigners but 23 of those should be discounted. Those 23 were the special case of the South Koreans who were traveling in a known dangerous area with few security precautions, illegally evangelizing their Christian faith, and in the country without the blessing of their own government. (The Afghan government is also to blame for giving them visas.) I am extremely sorry that two of them were killed and relieved that the others were released but we can discount them from the representative statistics. In 2007 there have been four other international abductions - all of whom were released (although one died of a heart attack).

My organization is being careful not to provide a fifth victim. I think our rules are very appropriate - neither over reactions or carelessness. We do not have a curfew because it would not be relevant - the problems seem to happen in the daytime. We are not allowed to walk around Kabul and are not allowed in taxis. (We rely on our own driver or a reliable minicab company.) The rules in the other towns I've been to vary by situation - I was free to walk alone around Bamiyan but not Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat or Jalalabad. We get excellent reports and alerts from both a private security company and an international agency. We are careful but realistic - we need to be able to breathe to do our jobs.

I am touched by all the caring messages and encourage everybody not to worry. I'm enjoying my work and life and I'll be safe.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Crackbook photos

Like zillions of people and many of my friends I have succumbed to Crackbook (also known as Facebook).

Now I am uploading my snapshots of my crackbook friends. Here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From my Afghan photo archives part I

Young teacher in Hazarajat, in the central highlands of Afghanistan at her school. June 2005.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Optimum population

I recently read this article in The Guardian. I've reproduced it without permission, but I don't think they would mind and I'm sure the author wouldn't.

The main point, which I really embrace, is that population and population growth is a dangerously neglected aspect of the world's troubles. The author does not directly mention peace and conflict issues but I think they are as worrisome as the environmental issues he describes.

If you find this interesting you might like to follow the link at the bottom to the author's affiliation. I'm glad I did.

The simplest truths are sometimes the hardest to recognise. According to the UN the world population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050. The economist Jeffrey Sachs devoted this spring's Reith lectures to a planet "bursting at the seams". Meanwhile the Gaia scientist James Lovelock has been warning about ecological collapse and world resources able to support only 500 million people.

In the midst of all these alarms is a very quiet place where the green lobby should be talking about human population growth. You will not see any of the big environment and development groups mounting a campaign on population. Indeed you will be lucky if they even mention the P-word. Earlier this year Nafis Sadik, the former director of the UN's population fund, berated such non-governmental organisations for being more concerned with fundraising than advocacy. Their silence on population, she observed, was "deafening".

So why isn't the green movement talking about population any more? In its early days, back in the 1960s and 70s, population growth was a mainstream concern. Groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), WWF and Oxfam took well-publicised positions on population issues, endorsing the Stop at Two (children) slogan, supporting zero population growth and publishing reports with titles such as Already Too Many (Oxfam). These days, Greenpeace declares that population is "not an issue for us" and describes it as "a factor [in] but not one of the drivers of" environmental problems.

FoE last year tried to answer some "common questions" on the subject, including: "Why isn't Friends of the Earth tackling population growth?" Oxfam, which as recently as 1994 published a report entitled World Population: The Biggest Problem of All, now does not list it among the "issues we work on", and nor does it figure in the "What you can do" section of WWF's One Planet Living campaign.

The green lobby's main argument is that numbers do not matter so much - it is how we live and consume that counts. FoE even remarks that "it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers. The key issue is the need for the government to implement policies that respect environmental limits, whatever the population of the UK". It is a statement that seems to treat population and environmental limits as entirely separate subjects.

There are two powerful counter-arguments. One is common sense: that consumption and numbers matter and that if a consumer is absent - that is, unborn - then so is his or her consumption. The second is the weight of evidence. Sir David King, Britain's chief scientist, told a parliamentary inquiry last year: "It is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor."

The increase in global population over the next 40 years, for example, is roughly what the entire world population was in 1950. The UK, which currently numbers about 61 million people, is on course for 71 million by 2074, by which time England's densities will have outstripped those of South Korea, which, by some measures, is currently the world's second most-crowded country, after Bangladesh.

Ironically the world now views climate change as the greatest environmental threat but sees the solution in primarily technical terms. Yet expert bodies routinely identify human numbers as one of the main engines of climate change. Of the various social and technical factors involved, for example, the UN says: "The link to population is clearest: the more people there are, the higher emissions are likely to be."

Many suspect other motives for the green lobby's neglect of the population issue. It is a sensitive subject, bound up with issues on which the progressive left, with which most environmental groups identify, has developed a defensive intellectual reflex. These include race and immigration, reproductive choice, human rights and gender equality. Calls for population restraint can easily be portrayed as "anti-people". It is far easier to ignore the whole subject.

This often involves intriguing verbal contortions. The 70s organisation Population Countdown, having morphed into Population Concern, in 2003 rechristened itself as Interact Worldwide, under its former name, consultants told it, its funders, and future, would dry up.

How to categorise such reactions? Pragmatism? Cowardice? Sensible tactics? Or an overdose of organisational self-preservation? Whatever the reason, it is infectious: the media (and politicians) take many of their awareness cues from NGOs so the silence on population becomes society-wide. As a result family size is seen as an exercise in individual lifestyle choice: few people consider the consequences for the planet of their fertility decisions. That means fertility rates in the UK rise, and the population keeps on growing.

It was Mark Twain who observed that those who refused to share vital information with others were guilty of a "silent lie". The green movement needs to start telling us the truth.

David Nicholson-Lord is a research associate for the Optimum Population Trust

Monday, September 17, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the way to Mazar-e-Sharif

Characteristically decorated Pakistani truck on road to Mazar

A funny thing happened on the way to Mazar-e-Sharif last week: We missed the plane. It wasn't our fault - we were misinformed about the reporting time (domestic Afghan flight times are never announced until the day before ... but that's tricky if on that day the office closes due to the start of Ramadan) and so we drove instead. I've already shown one picture from that expedition and here are some more.

Over a hundred people died during flooding in this village a few months ago. Note the washed away restaurant at right.

The Halo Trust remains visible in Afghanistan as it tackles the immense task of clearing landmines and UXO.

President Hamid Karzai is popular in most of the parts of Afghanistan I'll be working in. Less so in the Taliban controlled areas...

Northern mouth of the 2.6km Salang Tunnel at 3,400m altitude.

Nomadic Kuchi caravan

Roadside baker's shop. Shopkeepers are very often children and while I wish they were in school they are perfectly able business people.

The white tick mark on the shop wall indicates that the structure has been cleared or found clear of landmines.

Roadside grave

When this power line is finished in 2008 it will bring the first reliable power from Tajikistan to Kabul and much of Afghanistan.