07 May War, drought, diplomatic rifts deepen Afghanistan’s water crisis
Worst drought in a decade highlights poor infrastructure, with drinking water, agriculture and livelihoods under threat.
Kamp-e-Sakhi, Afghanistan – On a bright day in April, in the aftermath of flash floods, rays of sun fall onto the cracked clay soil in Kamp-e-Sakhi in some parts and, in others, illuminate large puddles that dot the raw land.
In the northern Afghan district, on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif city, antiflood bags still lie on the wet ground although they helped little when the water spread days earlier, destroying modest homes.
Somagul, a 60-year-old former farmer who left her home in Baghlan last year because of severe drought and pressure from the Taliban, did not expect the flood.
On March 29, the sound of water hitting her door awakened her in the middle of the night.
“We escaped in the dark with my children and grandchildren. There was no light, but we managed to find our way out, we got wet and dirty. All our things stayed in the house,” Somagul told Al Jazeera. “We went higher up to the street which was not flooded and we stayed there for the whole night. In the morning when the flood was gone, we came back.”
Although the flood soon reversed, Somagul and her family, including her sister, four children and 16 grandchildren, lost most of their few valuable possessions.
Electronic devices were among their most expensive belongings that were destroyed; it will take a long time to replace them.
Since the family moved to Mazar-e Sharif, only her son-in-law has managed to find work at the local coal market and they have no land to grow crops.
This was the second time in Somagul’s life that water-related disasters came to define her family’s fate.
Afghanistan, where the worst drought in a decade has displaced an estimated 260,000 people, has been struggling with the acute consequences of climate change, water mismanagement and 40 years of war that took its toll on the country’s weak water infrastructure.
Droughts and floods have become the norm, destroying the lives of Afghans across the country.
An upstream country, Afghanistan is not naturally water stressed. Eighty percent of its resources come from surface water that flows from snowfields and glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountains.
Over the course of Spring and Summer, the mountain snows melt and fuel Afghanistan’s five river basins.
From there, the water enters the canals and spreads across the country.
Most of Afghanistan’s irrigation depends on these resources. As the Afghan proverb goes, “may Kabul be without gold rather than snow.”
But ever since the Soviet invasion, the country’s infrastructure has been falling into ruin.
First, the bombings and years of fighting destroyed much of its canals. Then the Taliban administration did little to repair the damage, let alone build new infrastructure.
Following the US invasion, the Afghan government with the support of the international community has put water management high on its agenda, investing efforts to rehabilitate the canals.
But the infrastructure is inadequate for the needs of the country’s growing population.
Most of Afghanistan’s partners have been reluctant to support large projects, such as dams, which require substantial funds.
India, though, has sponsored the Afghan-India Friendship Dam on the Hari river and is planning the construction of Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River.
Dams are crucial to store the water needed for irrigation and prevent flash floods, which have become frequent due to climate change.
In a country where agriculture contributes between 20 and 40 percent of the GDP, depending on the year, and employs about 60 percent of the workforce, the lack of investment has had disastrous consequences.
“Because of climate change, our winters have been getting hotter year by year and we’ve had much more rain in springs instead of snow in winters, which recently resulted in floods in many provinces especially in the north and west of Afghanistan,” Abdul Basir Azimi, water expert and the former deputy minister of energy and water told Al Jazeera.
“Twenty Afghan provinces experienced about a 60 percent decrease in snowfall during the last winter season in 2017, and before that.
“Severe drought throughout the country and excessively warm weather have affected the rural and urban populations, the agricultural economy and recently led to a tremendous increase in the number of IDPs.“
Drought has also affected the levels of groundwater that Afghan cities have been relying on for drinking.
Kabul is home to almost five million people and the capital’s population, according to estimates, will double in the next 10 years. The city has been particularly vulnerable to water shortages.
“Last year, we experienced severe drought in the country including in the Kabul River basin. The groundwater level dropped by more than 10 metres,” Tayib Bromand, water resources and climate change adaptation specialist at the ministry of water and energy, told Al Jazeera.
“In Afghanistan’s major cities there was not enough water for domestic supply. Particularly, the most elevated parts of Kabul do not receive sufficient water for drinking.”
Unable to access drinking water through the official distribution networks, Afghanistan’s population has been relying on unofficial wells with poor-quality water. Others have been using paid water delivery services provided by private companies.
Afghanistan has had to deal with many decades of war, and, as we’ve seen the world over, environmental issues sometimes exacerbate political tensions
Jenna Jadin, FAO scientist
While Afghanistan has now entered peace talks with the Taliban, internal displacement caused by the water crisis might further stir conflict.
In some areas, farmers have no choice but to join armed groups in order to feed their families.
At the local level, conflicts over water also erupt between upstream and downstream areas, as well as individual farmers.
Jenna Jadin, a scientist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera: “We’re trying to make sure that water is incorporated into everything we are doing: for example, in projects where we’re teaching people to diversify their livelihoods and diets through planting new crops, we are also making sure to teach better water usage for those crops.
“We are also implementing projects that restore forests and rangelands, which will reduce surface water losses and soil erosion.”
But Afghanistan’s water scarcity has the potential to cause conflict on a regional level, too.
Due to insufficient infrastructure and decades of conflict, 70 percent of the country’s surface water ends up flowing into neighbouring states, all of which, apart from Tajikistan, are water stressed.
“Afghanistan’s situation has created an opportunity for the neighbouring countries to unfairly and unreasonably develop their agriculture lands at a very rapid pace downstream and also illegitimately transfer the water from the bordering lands to their central provinces,” Azimi said.
“The neighbouring countries have been irrigating hundreds of hectares of agricultural lands with water flowing from Afghanistan’s rivers, but on the other side, the neighbouring countries have built too many dams and not allowed any water [to flow] into Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan, therefore, has a pressing need for new dams to manage its scarce water reserves.
But more water staying in the country means less water for its neighbours. And while there are existing international agreements dealing with water scarcity between the five Central Asian states, for example, Afghanistan has not been part of them.
The only water agreement Afghanistan has signed was a 1973 treaty with Iran regulating the inflow of water to the country. But even that has not prevented conflict between the neighbours.
The Afghan government has long accused Iran of supporting the Taliban in order to disrupt the construction of a dam on the Helmand River, which could potentially affect the delivery of water to the country.
Similarly, Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the region, opposes the construction of the Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River sponsored by its archenemy India.
The construction of the dam could reduce the flow of water into Pakistan.
The potential of regional conflict is high and investing in water management is crucial for Afghanistan’s security.
While most of the country’s international partners are reluctant to make such costly, long-term investments that bring little profit, the government is increasingly seeing water as a security issue.
If “hydro-diplomacy” continues to be put high on the state’s agenda, not everything is lost.
“Afghanistan has had to deal with many decades of war, and, as we’ve seen the world over, environmental issues sometimes exacerbate political tensions,” Jadin said. “If we can help the people restore their environment it may very well have a positive cascading effect on other aspects of life.“