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Cablegate: Band-I-Amir Lakes, Afghanistan's First Natural Protected

VZCZCXRO9665
RR RUEHDBU RUEHIK RUEHPW RUEHYG
DE RUEHBUL #2357/01 2041035
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 231035Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY KABUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 9241
INFO RUCNAFG/AFGHANISTAN COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 KABUL 002357

SIPDIS

OSD WASHINGTON DC
JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
CIA WASHINGTON DC
DIA WASHINGTON DC
DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC
USEPA WASHINGTON DC

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR SCA/FOR, SCA/RA, AND SCA/A
DEPT FOR S/TAS and OES/STC
DEPT PASS USTR FOR GERBER
USDOC FOR DEES, CHOPPIN, AND FONOVICH
CENTCOM FOR CG CJTF-82, POLADDEPT PLEASE PASS TO
USEPA/INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
OSD FOR SHIVERS

E.O. 12958 N/A
TAGS: SENV TBIO PGOV EIND AF
SUBJECT: BAND-I-AMIR LAKES, AFGHANISTAN'S FIRST NATURAL PROTECTED
AREA

REF: KABUL 2069

SUMMARY
-------

1. The GoA and the international community are laying the groundwork
to establish Afghanistan's first natural protected area at central
Afghanistan's Band-i-Amir lakes in Bamyan Province. A recent visit
there showed that the current circumstances at the lakes--one of the
world's few large travertine lake complexes--appear to support the
case for protecting the area. Embassy personnel met with local
community leaders to hear their thoughts on the prospective
protected status and how protection might affect the livelihoods of
the people in the area. Given the uniqueness of the lake complex,
the area may merit eventual designation as a UNESCO World Heritage
Site--a designation that depends on Afghanistan's ability to protect
the area. End summary.


AFGHANISTAN'S FIRST NATIONAL PARK
---------------------------------

2. Through the Embassy Science Fellows program, Embassy has been
working with Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency
(NEPA) on a number of projects, including the protection of areas of
extraordinary environmental value (reftel). The main protection
effort is focused on the travertine lakes of Band-i-Amir. The
Band-i-Amir lakes are situated in central Afghanistan, about 75 km
west of Bamyan, and they comprise one of the world's most uniquely
beautiful landscapes. The system comprises a chain of six lakes
situated within a valley surrounded by steep 300-m cliff walls. The
distinguishing feature of these lakes is their naturally formed
travertine dams, which occur when gaseous carbon dioxide from
calcium-rich spring water is fixed by bacterial or algal activity.
The calcium gradually builds up in particular spots and ultimately
dams the running water. There are very few locations in the world
where this phenomenon occurs, and Band-i-Amir is a striking example.
The travertine dams at Band-i-Amir approach 10 m. in height and
several hundred meters in length. The lakes attract local and
foreign tourists and could be an important destination for
eco-tourism, if provided the proper management and community
support.

3. The lakes at Band-i-Amir appear to be in good hydrological
condition and, despite a recent long series of drought years in
Afghanistan, water levels appeared to be normal to high. Water
clarity appeared excellent. Despite obvious human activity on the
travertine dams, they appear to be structurally sound. However,
increased tourist activity could jeopardize the natural structures;
the most heavily visited dam features motorcycle, horse, and donkey
rentals below the dams, as well as brightly colored fiberglass swan
boats and a power boat (the "Donald Duck") in the lake itself. It
is clear that the area will need active management to protect water
quality and the integrity of the natural dams.

4. There are a few small villages scattered within the watershed of
Band-i-Amir. These communities earn their livelihoods from
livestock grazing and subsistence farming of wheat and potatoes,
using gravity-fed irrigation. Although we had previously been
informed that the area was overgrazed, only the areas in the
immediate vicinity of the communities appeared to be experiencing
noticeable plant and soil degradation from grazing pressures. The
grazing pressures in the watershed appear to be localized, so it
will be important for the health and integrity of the Band-i-Amir
watershed that the grazing be appropriately managed. All of the
villages we saw were located at least 400 m. from the shores of the
lake.

5. Evidence of the presence of native megafauna was scant, but local
community leaders indicated that such wildlife is present within the
watershed, and that it has been under pressure from hunting. This
is further reason for protecting the area.

6. It is clear that the GoA and its partners have much to do in the

KABUL 00002357 002 OF 002


way of building local awareness of what park status will mean, and
they will have to set realistic expectations. A leader of the local
shura (informal council) expressed concern about efforts to move a
small bazaar a couple of hundred yards further away from the
travertine dam--a concern that may be conditioned by his ownership
of the bazaar building. Locals also indicated that they thought a
large luxury hotel or two, full of rich Western tourists, would
arrive shortly after the park is created. (NOTE: Band-i-Amir is a
hard, dusty three-hour drive on dirt tracks from Bamyan, 75 km away.
Bamyan itself is a 10-hour drive over bad roads from Kabul, the
nearest significant population center with an international airport.
While Bamyan residents make the trek to Band-i-Amir for weekend
recreation, the broader tourism potential depends on better roads
and better security in Kabul, the air portal for foreign tourists.
END NOTE.) There appeared to be little awareness of the possible
impact of protection on grazing and other agricultural activities on
the more remote parts of the lakes' watershed.


ASSISTANCE AND SUPPORT
----------------------

7. Embassy has been working with NEPA, the United Nations
Environmental Program, the Asian Development Bank, the USAID-funded
Wildlife Conservation Society and others to put the framework in
place to protect areas of significant environmental and natural
heritage value in Afghanistan. A Band-i-Amir Coordinating Committee
composed of representatives from the donor community, NGOs, and GoA
agencies is currently working on an interim park management plan
while waiting for the Parliament to approve draft legislation
declaring Band-i-Amir a protected area. In addition to the effort
to protect Band-i-Amir, NEPA and the international community are
working to identify wetland resources for conservation and
protection under the Ramsar Convention. Part of this effort, in
which the Embassy Science Fellow has been involved, is the
development of a draft law on protected areas. Indeed, passage of
this law and implementing regulations is necessary both to protect
Band-i-Amir and to lay the groundwork for designating the area as a
UNESCO World Heritage Site. Embassy has also advised the GoA on
involving local communities and including economic development as an
integral part of the protection plans. For Band-i-Amir, essentially
the test case for the GoA's protected areas efforts, there will be
more opportunities for USG assistance once the GoA has passed the
appropriate legislation and adopted implementing regulations. At
that time, the USG could help with training the management and staff
that will administer the protected area.


COMMENT: WORTH THE EFFORT TO PROTECT
------------------------------------

8. The visit to Band-i-Amir, a rare foray into Afghanistan's natural
areas, confirmed that the country has natural assets worth
protecting. At least some of those assets, like Band-i-Amir,
benefit from sparse population, inaccessibility, and apparent
absence of exploitable natural resources. Other assets, such as the
cedar forests of Nuristan or the ibex herds of the Hazarajat, are
not so lucky, and they have been depleted with astonishing rapidity
over the past 25 years. From a purely economic point of view, these
assets are worth preserving, if only because they have some
potential for generating tourism revenue. Embassy would argue that
it is also worth preserving whatever fraction of Afghanistan's
natural heritage that still remains. Based on our conversations
with ordinary people here, it appears that the notion of natural
patrimony is very much a part of Afghan culture, and that the GoA
would do well to show itself doing something to preserve that.

WOOD

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