Date: 2/22/2004


This is Islam: The Taliban Banned Weather Forecasting!


Weather forecasting, banned by Taliban, makes a comeback in Afghanistan


Canadian Press

Thursday, February 19, 2004

KABUL (CP) - Afghanistan's weather office is still strewn with rubble from the day Taliban supporters sacked it and put an end to weather forecasting, a science they considered sorcery.

The main floor of the Afghanistan Meteorological Authority is filled with smashed equipment and charred sheets of paper, the remains of 100 years of weather records. In his office two floors up, Abdul Qadeer, head of the country's weather forecasting agency, explains that he is still reeling from the day in 1996 when Taliban decreed he could deliver today's weather, but not the forecast for tomorrow.

"They were allergic to the word 'prediction,' " Qadeer said of the Taliban's extreme interpretation of Islam.

"They said God only knows prediction, only God knows these things. We tried to explain that meteorology is not prediction, that it is forecast based on science. It didn't work."

The ban on weather forecasting had serious consequences. A severe drought ravaged the countryside in the late 1990s. Farmers, who account for most Afghan workers, went into each growing season blind.

In 1998, 45 people died when an Ariana Afghan Airlines flight crashed into a mountaintop en route from Kandahar to Kabul. The plane flew into an unexpected bank of cloud, rain and sleet about 15 kilometres from the capital.

"They never listened to us and that was the cause of this crash, or at least part of the cause," Qadeer said.

However, weather forecasting in the country was under siege before the Taliban. During the civil war in the early 1990s, the weather agency's compound near the airport was turned into a battlefield. Spent shell casings litter the ground, along with burned-out vehicles and pockmarked buildings.

Two years after the Taliban were ousted in a U.S.-led effort, the Afghan weather centre has a long way to go.

Qadeer was able to collect new copies of Afghanistan's 100-year-old weather records which were stored by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.

While offices boast some new chairs still covered in plastic film, Qadeer said he has no money for cleanup, equipment or forecasters.

Even a simple Internet connection that would give him quick access to a wealth of free weather data from worldwide agencies is out of reach. Every week international delegations appear with promises of cash and other assistance.

"They promise us many things, but we are waiting," Qadeer said. "I hope the way opens soon."

The weather centre has started from scratch with centuries-old technology. The French have financed the construction of 15 simple weather stations around the country. They are basic white boxes mounted on legs about 1.5 metres off the ground. The stations are a basic tool used by weather forecasters to give uniform readings from the thermometers and barometers inside. Each station also has a rain gauge.

"Our equipment is very cheap," said Ezad Ullah Arefi, the director of weather observations.

"They are very easy to buy, but we have no money. We need everything. We need more thermometers, more barometers, more hydrometers, more everything. And that will just get us started with the basics."

For now, more sophisticated information is collected by Canadian forecasters at Camp Julien, who launch weather balloons from their mobile station and measure the upper atmosphere conditions that are vital to accurate forecasting. Qadeer gets the information by fax from the NATO operation in Afghanistan.

In an old army truck loaded with high-tech forecast gear, Canadian army meteorologists launch weather balloons twice a day, the only upper-air survey that is done in all of Afghanistan.

The balloon travels 15,000 metres into the air and delivers information on air currents, freezing points and relative humidity as it rises. The information is key to creating accurate weather maps and forecasts. The balloons eventually pop, landing as far away as China.

"I never thought I'd exercise my craft in a country like this," said Cpl. Pierre Drouin from Quebec City.

The Canadian forecasters feed their information to NATO, and the U.S. and German militaries. Eventually the information is printed and lands on Qadeer's desk.

While the information is vital for NATO pilots and Canadian artillery gunners, Qadeer also uses the data to put together a daily forecast.

"And we use their information too," said Drouin, pulling up a screen that shows basic weather information for the Kabul International Airport, the location of the Afghan weather office.

Even in good times, the Afghan weather experts have relied on foreign assistance. At the height of the Afghanistan Meteorological Authority under Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Qadeer had one of the most advanced weather stations anywhere. The agency employed 600 forecasters and support staff, compared to 120 today. They were assisted by about 80 Soviet experts.

With the Soviet withdrawal and the civil war that followed, most of the well-educated staff fled abroad. Most of Afghanistan's weather experts stayed away after the Taliban fell.

But Qadeer refused to leave. Although he was barred from making forecasts under the Taliban, he once travelled to a conference of weather experts in Japan. He wore a long beard, as required by the Taliban. Japanese newspapers ran his photograph as a novelty, describing him as a Fidel Castro look-alike.

The remnants of the Soviet glory days are scattered around the weather agency's compound. A beige radar unit sits on top of a building that was shelled. A portable unit once used for mobile weather balloon launches, such as those done today by Canadians, is burned out and shot up.

"It was a very beautiful piece of equipment," sighed Arefi, who has worked at the weather office for 33 years.

The only functioning piece left from the Soviet era is a simple gauge to measure rainfall. Its stand has a bullet hole.