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Tackling Water Shortage in Kabul

  • Written by:

By: Saboor Stanikzai

With rising security threats, violent crime rates, pollution, traffic congestion and so forth; the rapid population growth and the rising temperatures have left the residents of Kabul city in a stern crisis of water shortage. Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, has been experiencing water shortage for years now. The government has not only failed to address the issue, but it also has not taken minimum effective steps to overcome the crisis.

Saboor StanikzaiThere are several explanations to water shortage in Kabul, nonetheless, the main ones seem to be low precipitation due to the geographical location of the city, augmented number of wells owing to a dramatic increase in the population, rapid melting of glaciers on Hindukush mountains, and lack of a proper water supply system. While the shortage of water for fertile wetlands is a common issue in the region, drinking water crisis in the regional cities due to their existing water supply system does not seem to be as dire as in Kabul. Clean drinking water shortage in Kabul is a huge challenge for the government that requires substantial work and an enormous amount of resources.Considering the consequences, water shortage should neither be taken lightly by the government nor should it be regarded as an insurmountable problem at least in Kabul. Thus, this paper will provide a brief account of the situation, it will suggest desirable and viable solutions including surface water conservation bybuilding dams, prevention of digging wells and so forth. Also, the paper will attempt to point out current public policy challenges regarding water supply in Kabul.

Problem Analysis:

  1. Environmental Factors:

With its location at 1,800 m above sea level, the climate condition of Kabul city is dictated by low annual precipitation (Hassib, Etemadi, & Noor, 2016). The average annual precipitation level in Kabul is 330 mm, a level that continues to decline annually. According to a Red Cross bulletin, “Cumulative precipitation for the season through February 2018 was well below average in most areas, with record low snow accumulation in some basins” (IFRC, 2018). Hot summers with low humidity are typical in Kabul throughout the year. Average or often below average precipitation is believed to be one of the main causes of the water crisis in Afghanistan. Extreme droughts are not new phenomena in Kabul and its surroundings. It has been decades since the area is facing droughts.According to U.S. Geological Survey that has observed groundwater level between the years, 2004 to 2012, the water level in Kabul has steadily declined 1.5 m per year (Mehrdad, 2018). Considering the consistent decline in groundwater, it is more likely that within a few years the groundwater will be unapproachable due to its extreme depth.

Another environmental factor that contributes to the water shortage in Kabul is the fast melting of glaciers in the Hindukush mountains range (Birtley, 2018). Glaciers in Hindukush mountains is the main source for Kabul river basin. Due to hotter summers, the glaciers melt earlier than they used to (Tami, 2013). Therefore, during the months of June, July, and August when the demand for water is at its highest peak, the level of water in the rivers decreases to its lowest.

  1. Failing Infrastructure:

The decades-long civil war and foreign invasions have left the capital’s water infrastructure devastated. The lack of infrastructure has affected the daily life of the residents and has left them to choose alternative sources of drinking water. Though an immediate alternative to the lack of running water systems can be digging wells even though it is a costly procedure as well having negative effect on the level of ground water. However, the post-Taliban era in the country provided a chance for the Afghan governments and NGOs to both raise their voice regarding water shortage and get involved in the implementation of projects aimed at solving the water crisis in Kabul and across the country. Considering the present situation in Kabul, the issue with water crisis is far from reaching a solution, yet over the recent years, the situation has deteriorated. Currently, householdsin Kabul city, mainly, rely on groundwater sources that rapidly drops its level due to an excessive number of wells and low rainfalls. Digging wells in Kabul is not regulated by the government,therefore, as the number of residents increased so have the number of wells. As the depth of groundwater is progressively increasing, this alternative in the long-run could not be a feasible solution.

  1. The absence of Sewage Systems:

Lack of a proper sewage system in the city merely adds to the problem since sewage water gets soaked to wells from which residents drink causing several deadly diseases. Therefore, a shortage of water due to extreme droughts is not the only problem. The water is also highly contaminated with microbes and toxic substances. Underground water in Kabul as main water source results in the death of thousands of children every year. According to the estimates by Urban Water Supply and Sewage Corporation (AUWSSC) of Afghanistan, only 10 percent of the people in Kabul have access to potable water (Ritter, 2018). This leaves most Kabul residents to drink unsafe water that leads to harsh and fatal diseases. Although water consumption per resident is much lower compared to other cities in the region yet Kabul is faced with an extreme shortage of water. Each resident in Kabul uses approximately 40 liters of water in a day which is a far less amount compared to water usage per day in other Asian cities (Vidal, 2010). The average amount of water used by a resident indicates that the amount of water usage in the future is likely to rise as the city will develop.

Proposed Solutions:                                             

  1. Improving water supply Infrastructure:

Currently,mosthouseholds rely on groundwater sources that rapidly drops its level due to an excessive number of wells as well as low rainfall. Digging wells in Kabul is not regulated by the government,therefore, as the number of residents increased so have the number of wells. Moreover, as the depth of groundwater is progressively increasing, only those who can afford to dig deeper wells can have access to water whereas, those who cannot afford it remains exposed to all sorts of water-related issues. According to U.S. Geological Survey that has observed groundwater level between the years, 2004 to 2012, the water level in Kabul has steadily declined 1.5 m per year (Mehrdad, 2018). Considering the consistent decline in groundwater, it is more likely that within a few years the groundwater will be unapproachable due to its extreme depth. Therefore, prior to facing that sort of condition, surface water in the surroundings of Kabul should be managed in a way that can fulfill the need of the residents in order to gradually switch their dependence on the groundwater to reliance on surface water. Water well seems to be the main sources of water in the city, however,due to an uncontrolled number of water wells, this alternative has further complicated the issue. Thus, digging wells in the city should be regulated by the government in a way that does not make access to water more complicated for people, neither should the wells be the only source of water. In order to prevent people from digging well, the government should target specific areas based on assessments and first provide people with an alternative source of water then prevent people from using and digging wells.

  1. Building sewage systems:

One of the feasible solutions for water shortage can be the promotion of water conservation policies such as waste-water recycling for agricultural purposes.Afghans’ livelihood is heavily dependent on agriculture. It is a sector that provides jobs to around 80% of the population (CPAU, 2015). Similarly, 90% of the country’s water is used for agricultural purposes (Parwani, 2018). The water system in Kabul city was designed in the 1980s meant at providing water and sanitation for a few hundred thousand people whereas, today nearly six million people live in Kabul (Birtley, 2018). Daily, six million people consume enough water to irrigate significant area in the suburbs of the city that produce seasonal vegetables for the residents,therefore, wastewater that currently is not managed can substitute the same amount of fresh water that is used for agricultural purposes in the surroundings of the city. Wastewater recycling seems to prove helpful when it comes to reducing the usage of fresh water however, it only appears to be achievable with a proper sewage system that unfortunately does not exist in Kabul.

Therefore, a sewage system is essential for the city not merely for wastewater recycling purposes, the system can also prevent wastewater from being absorbed in the ground that otherwise finds its way to the wells that people use to drink water from. Today around 6000 sewage channels are directed to Kabul river contaminating its water (Birtley, 2018). The river which runs through the middle of the city has serious health consequences for the residents of Kabul. Reports indicate that 25% of the death of children under the age of five is due to water contamination and bad sanitation (Birtley, 2018). There is a general assumption regarding the main causes of death of children in Afghanistan to be bombs and bullets, but the aforementioned number indicate otherwise. More children die due to waterborne diseases than bomb and bullets. Considering the death toll due to water-related diseases such as ameba, typhoid, anemia, diarrhea and weight loss, solution such as building a sewage system for water crisis should be given a higher priority.

  1. Conservation of water resources:

One of a conventional way of preserving water is to build water dams where conditions allow it. Afghanistan, as a mountainous country is well-matched for the idea,however, building dams has been quite controversial since the flow of several rivers in Afghanistan is towards Pakistan and Iran. Hence, building dams on those rivers involves both geopolitical and economic consequences for downstream neighbouring countries (Bezhan, 2013). Some analysts believe that one of the causesof the current turmoil in Afghanistan is its water. On one hand, Afghanistan is in desperate need of its water, on the other hand, every project intended at controlling water in Afghanistan is perceived a threat to the economy of its neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran (Dawn, 2011). Therefore, it has been extremely difficult for the Afghan government to implement huge water infrastructure projects. One of the main obstacles for implementing such projects is the insurgent groups such as the Taliban that is active across Afghanistan. Taliban, a group who believed to be under the influence of Pakistan are also accused of preventing the construction of water dams both in the eastern and western parts of Afghanistan (Gleick & Heberger, 2013). Iran has also expressed their concern regarding dam projects in Afghanistan on the rivers that flow towards eastern Iran. Iran is also accused of supporting the Taliban in western Afghanistan mainly to disrupt developmental projects including water dams (Jain, 2018). Regardless of some of the detrimental challenges, the Afghan government, with the $180 million financial help from India was able to build Salma dam, also called India-Afghanistan Friendship dam located in the western part of Afghanistan. Salma dam reduced the amount of water running water to Iran and Turkmenistan “from around 300 million cubic meters per year to 78 million cubic meters” (Bezhan, 2013). While building dams in remote areas in Afghanistan might be challenging due to its security maintenance, the security situation around Kabul is not as bad.

 It is possible for the government to build dams on different rivers that run through Kabul province. In this regard, Shahtoot dam which is located in the west of the city can prove beneficial. It is estimated that the dams will cost $236 million which will be paid by India and completed in 3 years (Ramachandran, 2018). The dam will not only provide drinking water for Kabul residents, but it will also provide water for the nearby agricultural land. Considering the narrow valleys in the outskirt of Kabul, there could be more suitable locations to build dams. However, identifying those locations require professional surveys that the Ministry of Water and Energy could conduct in order to identify and propose feasible dam projects. Several other locations are identified and included in a governmental plan aimed at resolving the water crisis in Kabul. For example, Gulbahar dams, Panjsher fan aquifer, and Salang dam, however, the work pace seems to be too slow compared to the speed of the deterioration of water crisis in Kabul (Zaryab, Noori, Wegerich, & Kløve, 2017).

  1. Raising awareness about water wastage and Sustainability of water resources:

Although snowfall and rainfall are beyond the control of the government, there are ways to minimize the influence of drought on the city of Kabul. One such way is raising awareness among the consumers regarding the efficient use of water. People need to be educated how to prevent excessive use of water. Lately, the government has turned to religious community leaders to spread the word (Saif, 2018). A four-day water conservation workshop was organized for religious leaders in Kabul to alert them about the status of the water crisis in Kabul. Religious leaders would then share the ideas with the public in mosques in order to educate the public how to prevent wasting water. For example, Mullah Obaidullah Obaid who had taken part in the workshop told Friday prayer participants that “My Muslim brothers, we will be held accountable in Akherat (hereafter) for all our deed in the world… Be very careful and fair in using the blessings we have been offered by Allah, such as water”(Saif, 2018). Mullah Obaid continued “needless washing of your cars every day, keeping the taps and showers running unnecessarily, even for ‘Wudu’ (the Islamic procedure for washing parts of the body before prayers) wasting water is strictly prohibited” (Saif, 2018).

There is no doubt that this can be an effective way of spreading awareness regarding sensible water usage, however, since the listeners are limited to men and do not include women and small children, a different approach should be chosen to spread awareness among all members of the society. One of such approaches would be to depict current water-related problems in the city in a short video and show it on national TV on daily basis. The video can include simple and feasible instructions for the public that results in better water management on household level. Moreover, workshops can be organized for children at school in order to educate them about the shortage and importance of water. The workshops can also intend to educate children about how to use minimum water and prevent wasting it. City’s billboards should also be used as a mean to depict water shortage so people realize the extent of the problem and  can be  urged to cooperate with government in solving the problem.

  1. Tree plantation to help decrease the environmental factors that affect rainfall and snowfalls

Tree plantation, another viable proposal, is bound to play a crucial role in coping with the pollution and low precipitation dilemma in Kabul. Precisely speaking, more trees pave the ground for a green and naturally habitable environment that is necessary for all living species including humans. Trees, as the biggest plants on the planet, can substantially increase the amount of oxygen and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that emanates from the combustion of plastic material, overpopulation in the city, old transportation vehicles among others. This will ultimately bring about an increase in the precipitation rate in the city. Not only is the government obliged to grow more trees, but it is also responsible for preserving the nature that is rapidly being destroyed through deforestation. A condemnable act, deforestation across the country has vastly contributed to the already exacerbating climate change caused by the aforementioned phenomena. Therefore, growing more trees and plants should be regarded as a priority and key initiative for improving the deteriorating climate situation in the face of all challenges lying ahead of the government. It is worth mentioning that the government, with the financial help from NGOs, has made notable attempts to grow more trees and nurture the culture of the plantation in the city, however, failure to look after these plants never reassured the success of these efforts. The ideal locations where more plants should be grown are proven to be hillsides and mountains surrounding Kabul. Every spring season of the year NGOs and some national and international organizations take part in tree plantation campaign. While tree plantation campaign every spring targets barely areas within the city, the campaign should be extended in order to cover vast areas across Kabul province. Furthermore, tree plantation should not be a mere campaign but the process should be included in the national plan for countering water crisis.


      The water crisis in Kabul seems to be a serious threat for the residents. As a vital issue, the government is expected to address and find a feasible and sustainable solution for it. The main causes for water shortage in Kabul seem to be environmental such as low level of precipitation and rapid melting of glaciers. Nevertheless, government shortcomings have also deteriorated the situation. Post-Taliban era starting in 2001 have been a chance for the governments to build water infrastructures such as a sewage system and a fresh water supply system using surface water for the whole city of Kabul but unfortunately not much has been done in this regards. Now with the presence of the international community and generous foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan needs to address water shortage issue in Kabul before it reaches an uncontrollable level. Some of the solution that the government can consider are but limited to the expansion and improvement of water supply infrastructure, regulation of digging wells, building a sewage system, conservation of water through dams and awareness programs and finally, planting the tree on a bigger scale covering vast hillsides and mountains surrounding Kabul city.


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