The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.

How America’s war devastated Afghanistan’s environment

Part V

Groundwater wells are the main source of drinking water in Afghanistan. A report from 2017 published in the scientific journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment mapped water quality for half of the country, finding a range of potentially toxic substances, including boron, as well as high levels of arsenic and fluoride in several areas. Although some of these substances can be naturally occurring, they are also associated with industrial use. Other water quality studies conducted at select locations in Afghanistan found nickel, mercury, chromium, uranium and lead — heavy metals that can cause serious harm to the body, from impairing children’s mental and physical development to kidney damage. A few minutes’ drive from Rahman’s field is a wide dirt road that runs parallel to the JalalabadTorkham highway. On the other side are open fields. Here, I meet Khan Mohammad as he navigates his way through a carefully landscaped field in District 9 of Jalalabad, about 100 yards from the base. Mohammad stops under the shade of a small almond tree and sits down, folding his legs beneath him. He has been working in these fields for 20 years and remembers how the contractors’ trucks from the base would carry two types of waste and dump them where he was planting crops. “One was colored green-blue, which would destroy the plants. The other was a white-gray milky substance, which had a very bad smell, like acid. Sometimes they would dump a mix of both,” he tells me. A group of six farmers from neighboring fields joins us under the tree. “These were tankers full of American toilet waste. At one time, the tankers were dumping twice a day, in the morning and evening,” says 30-yearold Omar Hiaran, recalling how this continued until the Americans left the base in 2021. “It was white soapy water and had toilet paper in it.” Hiaran’s father, also a farmer, has had health problems for the past nine years. “After he became ill, he told me to wear gloves when I was working in the field so that I didn’t touch the sewage like he had,” Hiaran says. While waste from local residents is also dumped into the city’s canals and smaller landfills along the roads, it cannot compete with the sheer amount of hazardous waste that comes from the airfield. The blue liquid Mohammad saw was a dye used in the portable toilets at the base. The chemicals used in these toilets can be toxic to human health in high doses. According to an article by Matthew Nasuti, a former U.S. Air Force captain who advised on environmental cleanups, the washroom facilities at the American bases generated both gray and black water. The gray wastewater came from sinks and showers; they carried soap residue that contained phosphates and other chemicals. Black water pollution came from the toilets. While the American military has to adhere to strict rules regarding the disposal of toilet waste on home turf, he said that it faced no restrictions in Afghanistan. When Mohammad and other villagers confronted the contractors driving the tankers, they were told that the sewage would “benefit the crops and would bring a good harvest, and they reminded us that using the sewage was cheaper than buying fertilizer and was good to use as water also,” he says. A 2021 report by the Sierra Club and Ecology Center found that even the sewage sludge found in American fertilizers can contain a harmful array of chemicals, including dioxins, microplastics, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and alarming levels of toxic PFAS — also known as “forever chemicals” — that can take decades or even centuries to break down naturally. PFAS are also present in several substances that were commonly used by the U.S. military, including foams used to combat petroleum-based fires. By mid-2022, the U.S. military had reportedly still not begun cleanups at any of the hundreds of DOD sites across the United States identified as highly contaminated with PFAS. Studies have linked higher levels of PFAS exposure to an array of health problems, including liver damage, cardiovascular diseases, increased risk of kidney cancer, increased risk of thyroid disease and immune system dysfunction. In July 2023, a federal study proved, for the first time, a direct link between PFAS and testicular cancer in thousands of U.S. service members. Pregnant women exposed to PFAS have an increased risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. Babies in the womb and infants are also vulnerable, as studies have found that PFAS can affect placental function and be present in breast milk. PFAS exposure has also been linked to decreased infant birth weight, developmental dysfunction among infants and increased disease risk later in life. Even if such sewage goes through a treatment process, research has shown that PFAS and other toxic chemicals cannot be removed. In 2017, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, or NEPA, said that 70% of the underground water in Kabul was not safe for human consumption and was contaminated with harmful bacteria, microbes and chemicals. Other major cities, including Jalalabad, faced the same problem, the agency said. Afghanistan’s capital had one public facility for sewage treatment, the Makroyan Wastewater Treatment Plant, which processed at least 21,000 gallons of raw sewage each month from portable potties at the U.S. Embassy and 12,000 gallons from those used by U.S. and coalition troops. All of this was piped into the Kabul River, according to Afghan officials and Malika and Refa Environmental Solutions, the company that serviced the NATO headquarters in Kabul and at Bagram airfield. The plant stopped working in 2018 and the untreated wastewater was dumped into the river, before flowing into the city drains, endangering the health of thousands of residents around. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that pollutants found in wastewater include phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia, which promote excessive plant growth — something that Mohammad and the other farmers saw in their fields. The sewage dumped in the fields around Jalalabad airfield did not go through treatment processes on the base, according to an Afghan engineer named Faridun (he gave only his first name) who had worked on the base for 12 years At his home on the edge of the field he farms, Mohammad explains that his two youngest sons are suffering from serious kidney issues. “But we do not know about the exact cause of their diseases, whether it’s pollution or something else,” he says. He suspects the sewage dumping. His eldest son Farooq, who has issues with his bladder, emerges from the home with a thick stack of papers and folders cradled in his slim arms. Mohammad combs through the mountain of documents — there are 44 doctor reports alone for his 7-year-old son Umar, who sits crouched at his feet. Umar has had kidney problems since he was 1 year old, Mohammad says. I look through the reports: Doctors in Afghanistan and Pakistan had diagnosed him with a pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs), moderate ascites (fluid in the abdomen) and chronic kidney and liver disease. His 5-year-old brother, Ameen, has kidney damage and his blood tests show he is also anemic. Both boys help their father work the land every day, along with Mohammad’s mother, Bibi Haro, 60, who shows me her skin condition, which she has had for eight years. At first, it was red and leaking pus but it has now settled into a source of permanent itch. Umar, she says of her grandson, has been going to the doctor for four years. “He is still in pain now. Every day he is suffering. Last year he went to a kidney center hospital in Pakistan. And just a week ago, we returned to the doctor with him,” she says. His cousins Bibi Ameena and Hamidullah, who also work the fields by home, have both had kidney problems for the past five years. Mohammad looks down at Umar, nestled under his arm. “When he coughs, there is blood,” he says. “The only thing I owned was a tractor and I sold it for his treatment. Now, the doctors in Peshawar say they need 5 million Pakistani rupees [about $16,000] to replace his kidneys, but I don’t have that much money.” As tears of anger stream down her face, Bibi Haro tells me how her brother is deaf as a result of an American drone crash in the field by the home. “They would fly low every night and scare us while we slept,” she says. “They bombed Nangarhar for years and their smoke-filled our sky. They have infected every part of Afghanistan.” From the New Lines Magazine

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.