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Greening Kabul

Tree-planting ceremonies and campaigns carry much symbolic hope. But too often, the saplings do not survive due to vandalism and lack of maintenance, or are stunted due to weather extremes and pollution. Can the…
21.05.2012  |  Kabul
Symbols of hope: Saplings are being intensively planted after many years of environmental destruction. But tending them to maturity is a much harder task. (Photo: ISAF Media)
Symbols of hope: Saplings are being intensively planted after many years of environmental destruction. But tending them to maturity is a much harder task. (Photo: ISAF Media)

Every New Year, politicians with shovels gather in open spaces to plant trees and make solemn speeches about a brighter future. This March, the International Security Assistance Force joined the chorus, donating 420,000 almond, pine and other trees across the country, a few hundred of them in the capital Kabul.

Then-ISAF-commander General David Petraeus said at the planting ceremony, "Today, by helping to change Kabul, we are helping to change the country."

But few people ask what happens to the symbols of hope once the politicians and generals have brushed off their shoes and gone. 

Fazluddin Fazl, a professor of agriculture at Kabul University, has a guess. He estimates that more than forty per cent of them might be dying for various reasons, including lack of care, choosing the wrong type of trees or not planting them in a proper way. 

Millions of new saplings for the capital  

Mohammad Younas Nawandish disagrees. The mayor of Kabul is a man with a plan. "My aim is to have a dust-free Kabul," he recently told the BBC. To reach this aim, he has initiated a massive campaign, planting 1.7 million trees last year alone. Another one million are in the waiting.

"These saplings will be planted in 22 districts of Kabul," he says, beaming while he points on a map how many will go where. He even wants to plant 4,000 saplings on top of the Shir Darwaza mountain as symbols of hope. His list also includes the numerous parks of the city that the municipality looks after. The 56-year-old trained civil engineer says all new trees are registered and municipal staff are in charge of caring for them and reporting any damages.

Dar-ul-Aman Street, leading to the now derelict palace of the same name, used to be covered by a canopy of giant trees. Mayor Nawandish, pictured in main story photo during an earlier greening campaign, is planting 2.7 million trees across the city to beautify it again and eliminate dust build-ups. (Photo: Nawandish)

According to his statistics, only two per cent of the trees have died off. Nonetheless, the mayor complains that the municipality lacks staff and equipment, as it has only five watering tankers. 

Nawandish, though, is not as happy about ISAF's tree donations as the military might have thought. The mayor says the highest percentage of dieback is along the Pul-e Charki road that leads to ISAF's Camp Warehouse. He claims that a "foreign company"  assisted by ISAF took over the responsibility to water the plants donated by the military as a gesture to win hearts and minds.

"Unfortunately, this foreign company failed to take care of the trees," says Nawandish, adding that the municipality was forced to replace them. ISAF spokesman Dominic Medley rejects the charges. He says no such maintenance agreement was ever made. 

On the street to Qargha, three dozen employees of the municipality are busy planting saplings. They are middle-aged man in orange uniforms with sweating faces and calloused hands. Seeing them digging holes with shovels makes one wonder whether these men alone can shoulder the burden of making Kabul a greener city. 

Unfamiliar with an urban lifestyle 

Engineer Nasrin Sabri Salehi, the head of the greenery department at Kabul municipality, says the city has increased the staff in charge of the trees from 570 last year to 800 this year. She believes that many of Kabul's trees are damaged by residents who are not familiar with an urban life-style.

"Children should be educated that trees are living creatures." Nursery Owner

"Cattle, sheep, and goats that are herded through the streets of Kabul are one reason why trees die off. Another reason is school children who cut trees and flowers,” she says. The students do that for fun or to replant them in their families' gardens due to a lack of awareness.   

Older Kabul residents still remember that Dar-ul-Aman Street used to be one of the most beautiful alleys in the city during the reign of King Zahir Shah. The imposing old trees were so huge that their branches met on top and covered the street with shade in summer.

The civil war of the 90s turned the once green Kabul into an environmental desert. But despite large amounts of money spent on ecological issues, there has been only slow visible progress. 

Trees and inhabitants battle pollution

A sharp increase in the number of registered vehicles and the habit of burning plastic and other garbage in public have worsened air pollution, making Kabul one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Eeman, a resident of Kabul, has covered his mouth with a blue mask as many residents do these days. “The air is very dirty because of the big amount of traffic.” He complains that he frequently suffers from headaches and says that his doctor has advised him to stay away from polluted areas. But as a shopkeeper he doesn't have a choice. 

Green-fingered fighters: Afghan commandos planting a pine tree at a school in Uruzgan under a joint project with the Education Ministry. (Photo: ISAF Media)

The trees do not only play an important role for the environment, but also for the psychological health of the residents. No wonder at weekends Kabulis flock to the city’s more distant parks and green spots. At one of Kabul's various nurseries, 18-year-old Homa is buying a tree that she wants to plant for her sister's birthday. Many Afghans attach great cultural value to trees.

Homa, who has lived much of her life in exile in Iran, says the lack of flowers and trees in Afghan public spaces has made her depressed. That is why her father has turned to gardening and planted a wide variety of trees in the family's courtyard. 

The owner of the nursery, 44-years-old Yousuf, sells more than 150 saplings a day, indicating a motivation among Kabulis to improve their city's environment. But he suggests that the government should do more to enhance public awareness.

"Children should be educated that trees are living creatures," he says while rubbing his dirty hands on his clothes. "They should be told that they should not cut the limbs or hurt the trees in any other way."