Kabul Water Crisis

Desperate and Thirsty: Kabul’s Worsening Water Crisis

Hashem keeps a vigilant eye on a well for three days in a humble backyard in northwestern Kabul, hoping for a trickle of water to accumulate at its 100-meter depth. He arranges fifteen yellow plastic barrels around the well. As the third day dawns, he springs into action, switching on the water pump to fill the barrels to the brim. Hashem’s goal? Have a stash of water for the days when the well runs dry.

Hashem pointed out three more wells that have gone bone dry because the water level has dipped too low. Each time a well dries up, the landlord rolls his sleeves and digs an even deeper one to hit the water. So far, the score is four wells in just fifteen years, all in this small patch of land.

The landlord, Haji Ahmad, turns the clock back seventeen years and paints a picture of a different time. Drought wasn’t a constant shadow back then, and the population of Kabul was much smaller. A modest well, just 23 meters deep, was plenty to keep the water flowing. But as years rolled by, that well dried up. Not one to be deterred, Haji Ahmad dug another.

I have dug four wells in total, each progressively deeper than the last. The first was 23 meters deep, followed by another 40 meters that met the same fate. I then dug a third well, which was 70 meters deep. Currently, I am relying on a fourth well that goes 100 meters beneath the surface. However, I fear it too will dry up within a year. 

Haji Ahmad

But Haji Ahmad says that this isn’t just about his wells. It’s a story in backyards across Kabul and throughout Afghanistan. It’s not just his struggle; it’s a struggle that almost everyone across Afghanistan shares. 

Kabul is experiencing an extreme water crisis. The city’s resources are stretched thin with a burgeoning population and a relentless demand for water, mainly drinking water. The current water shortage is multifaceted, involving climate change, infrastructural deficiencies, and administrative challenges. 

In 2017 the Afghan Minister of Urban Development found that more than 70% of Kabul’s population didn’t have access to safe drinking water. According to a report from the Hydrate Life Project in 2012, 80% of the residents in Kabul do not have access to safe drinking water, and 95% do not have access to improved sanitation facilities.

The situation in Kabul has become increasingly concerning as the population continues to rise. Unfortunately, many residents have resorted to digging hundreds or even thousands of wells without proper plans or monitoring from the municipality or government. This is a worrisome issue that requires urgent attention to ensure the safety and well-being of the people.

According to a study released in May 2020 by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), the groundwater levels in Kabul have experienced a steady decline of approximately 1 meter per year over the last 20 years. The study also found that certain areas in central Kabul have experienced even more significant losses, with drops of up to 30 meters over 14 years.

The National Water Affairs Regulation Authority in July 2022 said that the groundwater level in Kabul City had witnessed a significant decline of 12 meters in less than a year. In Kabul, the groundwater level drops annually, causing locals to dig deeper wells for personal use. The community in this area faces significant challenges in obtaining clean drinking water.

Geographic and Climatic Factors

In the western suburb of Kabul’s Regration Area, the 15-year-old Nawid transports approximately 8-10 barrels of water to his home daily using a large cart. According to him, their water pipe has run dry, and the nearby water pipe charges 10 to 20 Afghanis per barrel, which they cannot afford. As a result, Nawid must walk for an hour twice a day, wait for hours, and then bring the barrels of water home with his cart.

Kabul city, with1,023 km² area and 1,791m above sea level in a narrow valley wedged between the Hindukush mountains along the Kabul River, traditionally relied on melting snow from the mountains to replenish its water supply. However, the changing climate has been harsh on this region. The city has been experiencing a significant decline in annual snowfall and erratic rain patterns. This has reduced runoff into rivers and underground aquifers, which is critical for Kabul’s water supply. The snowmelt and rainwater are no longer sufficient to sustain the population’s needs. Moreover, increasing temperatures have exacerbated evaporation rates, further dwindling the water availability.

According to a study conducted by the Geology Institute of the Freiberg University of Mining and Technology, there is projected to be a decline of 53-65% by the end of the century (2100). The average annual temperature is also expected to increase by 1.8°C, 3.5°C, and 4.8°C for the upcoming periods of the 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s, respectively.

In recent years Afghanistan faced a devastating drought, particularly in the Kabul River basin. The groundwater level decreased by over ten meters, resulting in a water crisis in Kabul. This crisis is expected to occur more frequently due to the effects of climate change. The estimated groundwater potential of Kabul is approximately 44 million cubic meters per year, while the city’s water demand in 2015 was 123.4 million cubic meters per year. This significant imbalance between water availability and demand highlights the severity of the situation.

Population Boom and Urbanization

Kabul is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In recent decades, Kabul City has undergone a substantial surge in population. In the early 2000s, the population was around 2.4 million, but it has now surpassed the 4.5 million mark. However, it’s worth mentioning that this number solely pertains to the urban regions of Kabul and doesn’t account for the rural areas where the population has also seen a significant rise.

Rapid urbanization poses a significant challenge to the city of Kabul, which was initially planned for a population of around 800,000. Approximately 70% of the city’s inhabitants are estimated to reside in informal or illegal settlements. This situation is largely due to the displacement of people from the countryside who have been forced to flee from armed conflict, returning refugees from Pakistan and Iran, and a significant influx of laborers seeking to improve their quality of life.

 The rapid increase in population has placed unprecedented pressure on the city’s infrastructure. The infrastructure was already dilapidated due to years of war and neglect and had been unable to keep up with the pace of urbanization. Consequently, the water demand has skyrocketed. The city’s infrastructure and water supply system has been unable to keep up with the increasing demand. According to estimates, the groundwater reserves in Kabul City are sufficient to meet the water requirements of approximately 2 million people. But the current population of Kabul has exceeded 4.5 million. 

In 2018, it was reported that the piped-water system, managed by the Afghanistan Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Company (AUWSSC), could only provide water to only 20% of the population residing in the city. In July 2022, AUWSSC alerted the public that the groundwater levels in Kabul had significantly decreased, causing significant concern. As a result, their water supply operations have been reduced by a minimum of 40 percent due to insufficient water.

Health Implications

The adverse effects of unclean water, lack of proper sanitation, and poor hygiene practices on children’s health are significant and far-reaching. Various debilitating diseases, such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio, are all linked to contaminated water sources, which can undermine efforts to combat malnutrition and other health concerns. 

A report by UNICEF in 2022 shows that many people in Afghanistan don’t have access to safe water. About 8 out of 10 people face this problem, and 93% of children (15.6 million) live where water is scarce. Also, many people practice open defecation, and half of the population can’t use basic sanitation facilities. Additionally, over 6 out of 10 Afghans don’t have access to basic hygiene facilities, and most schools and healthcare facilities don’t have basic handwashing or drinking water facilities. 

The water crisis in Kabul has severe implications for public health. The lack of clean drinking water has spread waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea. Immediately following the upheaval in 2021, an outbreak of acute watery diarrhea started in Kabul and neighboring areas and has since spread across five provinces. In March 2022, the total number of cases exceeded 5,000.

Moreover, the available water quality could be better, with high contamination levels due to the lack of proper sanitation and waste management systems. This severely impacts the most vulnerable populations, particularly children, at greater risk of illness and malnutrition due to water scarcity. 

A team of BBC Persian journalists in 2017 tested Kabul’s water in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) laboratories. They found at least 20 harmful bacteria in the 100 millimeters they sampled at two locations in the western and northern parts of the city. In 2019, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) warned that 70% of Kabul’s groundwater had been so contaminated with “pernicious chemicals and bacteria” that it had become “unusable.”  

Dr. Akbar Shaari, an expert in infectious diseases based in Kabul, highlights the dire situation caused by the lack of clean water and the prevalence of contaminated water.

This problem has led to the emergence of deadly illnesses like diarrhea, amoebiasis, and scalds, which sadly claimed the lives of dozens of individuals on a daily basis.  

Dr. Akbar Shaari

Socio-Economic Impacts

According to the preliminary projections from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a staggering 20 million individuals in Afghanistan are currently experiencing acute food insecurity. This includes over 6 million individuals on the verge of experiencing famine-like conditions, classified as an emergency. In Afghanistan, agriculture is a crucial source of livelihood for 80% of the population. Additionally, water is essential for the country’s mining industry and the rapidly growing population’s drinking needs. Unfortunately, poor rainfall, depleted snowpacks, inadequate irrigation infrastructure, and political instability exacerbate water supply issues, increasing the risk of conflict. 

Water scarcity in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, is a critical and urgent matter that demands prompt attention and decisive action. The situation is dire, and the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. The local population needs help accessing clean and safe drinking water, which puts their health and well-being at risk. The root causes of the crisis are complex and multifaceted, but they must be tackled head-on to prevent a humanitarian disaster from unfolding. 

By implementing a strategic plan that includes the development of necessary infrastructure, effective water management techniques, sustainable practices, increased public awareness, and collaboration on national and international levels, it is within reach to tackle the pressing issue of water scarcity in Kabul. Neglecting to address this crisis could lead to severe consequences, including a significant decline in public health, a detrimental economic impact, and social unrest in the region.