Climate change threatens Bamiyan's archaeological treasures



A man last November 19 rides his motorbike during sunset in front of the empty seat of one of the two Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 in Bamiyan Province. [Mohammad ALI SHAIDA / AFP]

BAMIYAN -- After bearing the brunt of dynamite from militants and looting by thieves, the archaeological treasures of Bamiyan Province are facing a new and possibly more daunting threat: climate change.

Nestled in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, the Bamiyan Valley's picturesque cliffs -- where the Taliban destroyed centuries-old Buddha statues in 2001 -- still contain a network of caves housing temples, monasteries and Buddhist paintings.

The valley is also home to the Silk Road-era Shahr-e Gholghola fortress and the Shar-e Zohak citadel to the east.

A pattern of dry spells followed by heavy rain, and larger-than-usual spring snow melts, is putting this historic art and architecture at risk of destruction, say analysts.


Remnants of the ancient settlement of Zohak in a valley on the outskirts of Bamiyan are pictured last November 18. [Mohammad ALI SHAIDA / AFP]


A man carries water in a wheelbarrow near caves where he lives with his family in Bamiyan last November 28. [Mohammad ALI SHAIDA / AFP]

The structures "may collapse and suffer from severe erosion" from conditions directly linked to climate change, warned Afghan officials in a 2016 United Nations report.

'Erosion is increasing'

"The erosion processes are much faster, the rains more devastating and the wind erosion stronger, which has an extremely harsh impact on the sites," Philippe Marquis, the director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, told AFP.

Afghanistan "is very fragile geologically, especially as vegetation cover has greatly diminished" because of deforestation, said Marquis, who has explored the region for decades.

Shar-e Zohak is "very fragile" because of erosion that has increased considerably over the last 30 years, concurred the French imaging company Iconem.

For Baqe Ghulami, 21, who hails from Sayghan District in northern Bamiyan, climate change has long been a reality that residents have had to confront.

"The weather is changing -- now summers are warmer and winters colder," he said while overlooking the empty spaces where the two towering Buddha statues once stood.

Many of the artefacts predate the arrival of Islam to the region, and even though they come from another religion, the residents who spoke with AFP proudly defended the area's history as their own.

From the empty caves, visitors can see the Cultural Centre, which began construction in 2015 but has yet to be completed.

It aims to educate visitors about the urgent need to preserve the area's heritage.

"There is no benefit if people just see [the sites] without information," said Ali Reza Mushfiq, 26, director of the department of archaeology at Bamiyan University, complaining that a dearth of funding has left many in the dark -- including his own students who lack access to books.

The archaeologist readily admits that "erosion is increasing", but says the real danger comes from "human influence at the site", including looters, who are rampant.

The Shar-e Gholghola Fortress and other key sites are now guarded to protect against such issues.

Educating local residents

The removal of land mines from the area has spurred thousands of visits in recent years, but the influx of visitors has done little to change the reality on the ground.

"We must start training... [the] local people to teach them how not to destroy the site," said Mushfiq, adding that some residents continue to store feed and house livestock in the historic sites.

A stone's throw from the cave of the great Buddha, Ammanullah, 37, said he and his family have moved into one of the caves, building a home inside made of odds and ends with plastic sheets for windows.

He is not alone. Many other poor families have sought shelter next to ancient artefacts and structures.

"There are 18 families here… we didn't have other options," said Ammanullah. "We would go if we were given a house."

However, for Marquis, the director of the French Archaeological Delegation, the greatest threat does not come from local residents encroaching on the site or from theft.

"Even if it is dramatic, it is much less damaging than ... erosion," he said.

Mitigating the impacts of erosion and the effects of climate change would cost billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and the country has little ability to shoulder such a burden.

The Global Adaptation Initiative, run by the University of Notre Dame in the United States, ranks Afghanistan 173rd out of 181 countries in terms of a nation's vulnerability to climate change and its ability to adapt.

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If Zuhair, the slave of Iran is there, he will not only destroy historical monuments, but also will ruin Bamyan including all its wealth and treasures.