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Kabul’s Dangerous Water Problems

By Ambassador Dr. Zia Nezam,-A fundamental responsibility of a legitimately democratic government is to provide for the well-being of as many of its citizens as possible. There can be no well-being and sustainable economic development for Afghanis, if there is no or insufficient potable water. Any hope in modernizing Afghanistan must include far greater progress in expanding the national water-delivery infrastructure. Such urgently needed work must be accelerated even while the national government secures military control of the national territory. Foreign assistance has been invaluable in making inroads into water problems, but more robust and extensive public works projects are called for. The observations offered herein focus on Kabul, the national capital, but they apply with lesser or greater force to every Afghan urban area.


Water scarcity has been a fact of Afghan life throughout history.  Today, access to clean water by Kabul’s five million inhabitants is increasing difficult. The capital is four times greater than it was at the fall of Taliban mis-rule 17 years ago. Commentators have stated that Kabul is the fifth-fastest growing city in the world. Astoundingly, it is a fast-growing city with inadequate plans and resources to meet the water and sewage needs of its residents.  The reliance on wells in the Kabul metropolitan sprawl has been extreme, as the dramatic drop in the water table indicates. Historically, Kabul has largely relied on water from the winter snows and the glaciers in its surrounding mountains to replenish the watershed. “May Kabul be without gold, but not without snow,” an Afghan proverb pleads.


Coupled with scarcity of supply is the contamination of so much of the subsurface supplies. Afghanistan’s National Environmental Agency has indicated that perhaps 70 percent of underground water for Kabul is polluted, making it unsafe and unusable.  The pollution, largely from human waste with chemical and industrial discharge, foretells the likelihood of serious and/or fatal diseases to Kabul residents. The young and old and those already ill or injured are the most vulnerable. A modern Afghanistan must have healthy citizens.


The desperately needed creation of a coordinated multi-year plan to attack Kabul’s urgent water and wastewater needs comprises a viable water treatment/purification system, a scalable urban wastewater infrastructure, piped drinking water transport from the Kabul River tributaries, a vigorous, sustained public education and public works campaign, and the destruction of illegal or dangerous connections to the existing water supply. All parts of the plan need robust annual investments, notwithstanding the primacy of ongoing military and security operations. To understand the urgency of the water problem and its impacts, please note that the World Health Organization has estimated the number of deaths to children from polluted water of Afghanistan is 15 times the total number of all the war casualties of the entire Afghan population.


The Afghan people have benefited greatly from donor nation and multilateral institutions’ steadfast assistance. With their continuing essential support, the national and capital authorities now must demonstrate their redoubled commitment to finding solutions to Kabul’s dangerous water pollution and continued over-reliance on finite subsurface water sources. As aquifers collapse from consumption outstripping aquifer recharge, new more expensive wells must be dug and the threat of deadly sinkholes becomes probable; although these consequences are far less grave than the host of water-borne diseases Kabul’s residents must endure. The environmental catastrophe Kabul could be facing will present another severe challenge to all the national stability efforts.

Ambassador Dr. Zia Nezam is former Afghan Ambassador to Vienne, Brussels and Rome.

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