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Physical & Human Geography of Afghanistan

Written by AfghanSite Network. Posted in Afghanistan History

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Afghanistan's shape has been compared to a leaf, of which the Vakhan strip forms the stem. The outstanding geographic feature of Afghanistan is its mountain range, the Hindu Kush. This formidable range is a barrier between the comparatively fertile northern provinces and the rest of the country, it creates the major pitch of Afghanistan from northeast to southwest. The Hindu Kush, when it reaches a point some 100 miles north of Kabul, spreads out and continues westward under the names of Baba, Bamyan, Safid Kuh (Paropamisus), and others, each section in turn sending spurs in different directions. One of these spurs is the Torkestan Mountains, which extend northwestward. Other important ranges include the Kasa Murgh, south of the Hari River; the Hesar Mountains, which extend northward; and two formidable ranges, the Mazar and the Khurd, extending in a southwestern direction. On the eastern frontier with Pakistan, several mountain ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from the rain-laden winds that blow from the Indian Ocean, accounting for the dryness of the climate. The Hindu Kush and subsidiary ranges divide Afghanistan into three distinct geographic regions, which roughly can be designated as the Central Highlands, the Northern Plains, and the Southwestern Plateau. The Central Highlands, actually a part of the Himalayan chain, include the main Hindu Kush range. Its area of about 160,000 square miles is a region of deep, narrow valleys and lofty mountains, some peaks of which rise above 21,000 feet. High mountain passes, generally situated between 12,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level, are of great strategic importance and include the Shebar Pass, located northwest of Kabul where the Baba Mountains meet the Hindu Kush, and the Khyber Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent, on the Pakistan border southeast of Kabul. The Badakhshan area in the northeastern part of the Central Highlands is the location of the epicentres for many of the 50 or so earthquakes that occur in the country each year. The Northern Plains region, north of the Central Highlands, extends eastward from the Iranian border to the foothills of the Pamirs, near the border with Tajikistan. It comprises 40,000 square miles of plains and fertile foothills sloping gently toward the Amu River (the ancient Oxus River). This area is a part of the much larger Central Asian steppe, from which it is separated by the Amu River. The average elevation is about 2,000 feet. The Northern Plains region is intensively cultivated and densely populated. In addition to fertile soils, the region possesses rich mineral resources, particularly deposits of natural gas and oil. The Southwestern Plateau, south of the Central Highlands, is a region of high plateaus, sandy deserts, and semi-deserts. The average altitude is about 3,000 feet. The Southwestern Plateau covers about 50,000 square miles, one-fourth of which forms the sandy Rigestan Desert. The smaller Morgowb Desert of salt flats and desolate steppe lies west of the Rigestan Desert. Several large rivers cross the Southwestern Plateau; among them are the Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandab. Most of Afghanistan lies between 2,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation. Along the Amu River in the north and the delta of the Helmand River in the southwest, the altitude is about 2,000 feet. The Sistan depression of the Southwestern Plateau, 1,500 to 1,700 feet in elevation, was the seat of a flourishing ancient civilization that was ended in the 14th century by Timur (Tamerlane).


Practically the entire drainage system of Afghanistan is enclosed within the country. Only the rivers in the east, which drain an area of 32,000 square miles, reach the sea. The Kabul River, the major eastern stream, flows into the Indus River in Pakistan, which empties into the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. Almost all the other important rivers of the country originate in the Central Highlands region and empty into inland lakes or dry up in sandy deserts. The major drainage systems are those of the Amu, Helmand, Kabul, and HariRoad. The Amu, a 1,578-mile-long river originating in the glaciers of the Pamirs, drains an area of approximately 93,000 square miles in the northeastern and northern parts of the country. It forms the frontier between Afghanistan and the republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for about 600 miles of its upper course. Two of its major Afghan tributaries, the Kowkcheh and the Qonduz, rise in the mountains of Badakhshan and Konduz provinces. The Amu becomes navigable from its confluence with the Kowkcheh, 60 miles west of the city of Feyzabad. It empties into the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The northwestern drainage system is dominated by the HariRoad River, originating on the western slopes of the Baba Mountains, at an altitude of 9,000 feet. The river flows westward, just south of Herat and across the broad Herat Valley. After irrigating the fertile lands of the valley, the Hari River turns north about 80 miles west of Herat and forms the border between Afghanistan and Iran for a distance of 65 miles. It then crosses into Turkmenistan and disappears in the Kara-Kum Desert. The principal river in the southwest is the 715-mile-long Helmand, which rises in the Baba Mountains, about 50 miles west of Kabul. With its many tributaries, mainly the Arghandab, it drains more than 100,000 square miles. The river empties into the Saberi, an inland lake. In its course through the southern region of the country, the Helmand flows north of the Rigestan Desert and then crosses the Margow Desert until it reaches a region of seasonal lakes in the Sistan depression. The largest drainage system in the southeastern region is that of the Kabul River, which flows eastward from the slopes of the Mazar Range to join the Indus River at Attock, Pak. Its major tributary in the south is the Lowgar. Afghanistan has few lakes of any considerable size. The two most important are Lake Saberi in the southwest and the saline Lake Istadeh-ye Moqor, situated 60 miles south of Ghazni in the southeast. There are five small lakes in the Baba Mountains known as the Amir lakes; they are noted for their unusual shades of colour, from milky white to dark green, caused by the underlying bedrock.


The country possesses extremes in the quality of its soils. The Central Highlands have desert-steppe or meadow-steppe types of soil. The Northern Plains have extremely rich, fertile, loess like soils, while the Southwestern Plateau has infertile desert soils except along the rivers in the southwest, where alluvial deposits can be found. Erosion is very much in evidence in the Central Highlands, especially in the regions affected by seasonal monsoons and heavy precipitation.


In general, Afghanistan has extremely cold winters and hot summers, typical of a semiarid steppe climate. There are many regional variations, however. While the mountain regions of the northeast have a sub arctic climate with dry, cold winters, the mountainous areas on the border of Pakistan are influenced by the Indian monsoons, usually coming between July and September and bringing maritime tropical air masses with humidity and rains. In addition, strong winds blow almost daily in the southwest during the summer. Local variation is also produced by differences in altitude. The weather in winter and early spring is strongly influenced by cold air masses from the north and the Atlantic low depression from the northwest; these two air masses bring snowfall and severe cold in the highlands and rain in the lower altitudes. Afghanistan has a wide range of temperatures. High temperatures over 95 F (35 C) have been recorded in the drought-ridden Southwestern Plateau region. In Jalalabad, one of the hottest localities in the country, the highest temperature of 120 F (49 C) has been recorded in July. January temperatures may drop to 5 F (-15 C) and below in the high mountain areas, while at the city of Kabul, located at an altitude of 5,900 feet, the lowest temperature has been recorded at -24 F (-31 C). In the mountains the annual mean precipitation increases from west to east; there, as in the southeastern monsoon region, it averages about 16 inches (400 millimeters). The extremes of precipitation have been recorded in the Salang Pass of the Hindu Kush, with the highest annual precipitation of 53 inches, and in the arid region of Farah in the west, with only three inches a year. Most of the country's precipitation occurs from December to April; in the highlands snow falls from December to March, while in the lowlands it rains intermittently from December to April or May. The summer months are hot, dry, and cloudless everywhere but in the monsoon region.

Plant & Animal Life

Vegetation is sparse in the southern part of the country, particularly toward the west, where dry regions and sandy deserts predominate. Trees are rare, and only in the rainy season of early spring is the soil covered with flowering grasses and herbs. The plant cover becomes more dense toward the north, where precipitation is more abundant; and at higher altitudes the plants are almost luxuriant, particularly in the mountainous region north of Jalalabad, where the climate is influenced by the monsoons. The high mountains abound in large forest trees, among which conifers, such as pine and fir, predominate. Some of these trees are 180 feet high. The average altitude for the fir line is over 10,000 feet. At lower altitudes, somewhere between 5,500 and 7,200 feet, cedar is abundant; below the fir and cedar lines, oak, walnut, alder, ash, and juniper trees can be found. There are also shrubs, several varieties of roses, honeysuckle, hawthorn, and currant and gooseberry bushes. Most of the wild animals of the subtropical temperate zone inhabit Afghanistan. Large mammals, formerly abundant, are now greatly reduced in numbers. The Siberian tiger, which inhabited the banks of the Amu River, has all but disappeared, as have the tigers that inhabited the southeastern region. There is still a great variety of wild animals roaming the mountains and foothills, including wolves, foxes, striped hyenas, and jackals. Gazelles, wild dogs, and wild cats, such as snow leopards, are widespread. Wild goats, including the markhor (prized for its long, twisted horns) and the ibex (with long, backward-curving horns), can be found in the Pamirs, and wild sheep, including the urial and argali (or Marco Polo sheep), in the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. Brown bears are found in the mountains and forests. Smaller animals, such as mongooses, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, bats, and several species of kangaroo rat (jerboas), may be found in the many isolated, sparsely populated areas. Birds of prey include vultures, which occur in great numbers, and eagles. Migratory birds abound during the spring and fall seasons. There are also many pheasant, quail, cranes, pelicans, snipe, partridge, and crows. There are many varieties of freshwater fish in the rivers, streams, and lakes, but their numbers are not great except on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, where the rivers are well stocked with brown trout.

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