Fighting a different war in Afghanistan

March 8, 2012
Raina Delisle
Tags: newsalumni
Kevin Rumsey

It’s not easy waving the environmental flag in a warzone.

A passion for environmental protection and an eagerness for challenge led Kevin Rumsey to Kabul, Afghanistan, as NATO’s first environmental protection officer dedicated to a multinational military airbase.

“There is almost no awareness of environmental issues by the general Afghan public,” Rumsey says from the Kabul airbase, which is home to more than 5,200 personnel from more than 40 countries. “Decades of war have left the country with next to no environmental governance or institutional capacity to properly manage or protect their natural resources let alone enforce any standards.”

Rumsey is trying to changing that.

The 2009 graduate of the Human Security and Peacebuilding program is on a yearlong contract with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). He took a leave from his job as a water strategy officer for the Government of Canada in the Yukon, where he was working on a national program that builds capacity for aboriginal drinking water and wastewater operators and managers. He previously volunteered in Afghanistan for Action Against Hunger as co-ordinator for water, sanitation and hygiene.

Rumsey’s job with NATO involves developing a foundation for environmental management and providing expert environmental advice to senior military leadership on all issues related to environmental protection on the airbase. He is primarily involved in issues of raw water supply and water treatment, sewage treatment, solid wastes, petroleum fuel storage, spill response, hazardous waste and air pollution. He also undertakes inspections and writes environmental policy.

The work is not easy. Most people don’t think about environmental protection in a time of war.

“The war has also resulted in a severe lack of public infrastructure to manage domestic wastes, hazardous wastes, sanitation and drinking water,” Rumsey says, adding that 90 per cent of sewage produced in Kabul is untreated and allowed to contaminate precious ground water or is directed into surface waters. Air pollution alone kills about 3,000 people a year in Kabul. 

“Challenges for me have been numerous: raising environmental awareness and enforcing protocols among the multinational troops and contractors, documenting all the problems and dealing with NATO bureaucracy, finding the gaps and writing policy to close the gaps,” says Rumsey, noting that the perception of environmental issues is quite different among the many NATO countries.

The personal challenges Rumsey faces on a daily basis are also numerous. “I live and work next to a French hospital thus I witness all the horrible causalities of war (soldiers, Afghan civilians and children) that arrive almost daily by helicopter ...  this has been difficult to experience. Also living in a desert with not even a single tree is depressing. But the biggest challenge is missing my family, my fiancée and my dog.”

“Knowing that Kevin is in Afghanistan, taking his Royal Roads learning to the ground and making real change for the environment is amazing,” says Nancy Wilkin, director of the Office of Sustainability at Royal Roads. “It is what everyone at Royal Roads hopes for and here it is happening.”

“Kevin is a tremendously inspiring example of combining passion and practice in areas of human justice, peace and the environment to make a meaningful contribution to our world,” says Paul Corns, associate vice-president of Community Relations and Advancement. “We are proud to count him among our inspiring alumni community.”

Rumsey says his Royal Roads degree has opened many doors for him. “The degree has given me significant confidence, leadership ability and academic credibility, which has helped in finding exciting work in Indonesia (as an environmental scientist) and now twice in Afghanistan,” he says. “My world view has become much broader on many different issues. I can view and assess complicated issues with several different lenses.”

Rumsey will return home in April and hopes the work he has started in Kabul will be followed through. When he leaves the airbase, he will carry with him many life lessons.

“War is a business and a lot of people and corporations make a lot of money. Life is cheap among the Afghan population,” he says. “I have a greater sense of empathy for the victims of war. I can personally function effectively in a dynamic insecure environment. I have an enormous appreciation and love for family, peace and security, clean water, clear air and green vegetation.”