Afghanistan water crisis may worsen regional tensions


By: Humayoon Babur 

Oct. 30, 2018

The Kabul River Basin is one of Afghanistan’s most populated and highly heterogenic rivers and is a critical tributary of the Indus Basin which is shared by four countries; China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Known as a trans-boundary water source, the Kabul River flows into Pakistan though, but there is no treaty between the two neighboring countries on sharing its waters. 

The Kabul River today, especially within the confines of Kabul city, is that of a dry riverbed, contaminated with sewage and plastic waste. It was not always so, some of the older residents of Kabul city have fond memories of the river.

Gul Agha Habibi, 62, a resident of the Chehilstoon area of Kabul city, one who served in the late Dr. Najibullah’s government said that the Kabul River had a spectacular view for Kabulis in earlier years. Unfortunately, the chaos of war has changed everything. “It was like a River Thames of London in the heart of Kabul,” he said.

Kabul River Photo; Google 2
Kabul River Photo: Humayoon Babur

During the civil war era and beyond, Afghanistan’s infrastructure ruthlessly has suffered and dysfunctional, particularly the water and river management itself. Moreover, uncontrolled urbanization, mismanagement of water resources during the Taliban regime, lack of waste management and climate change has affected the Kabul River.

According to the guardian report, a common result of global warming. Warmer temperatures melt the mountain snow earlier, resulting in an increased flow of water before farmers need it.

Fighting over water resources is as old as human history, but cooperation and mutual treaties on the shared water resources between riparian states is the only solution for water disputes in many parts of the world. 

Afghanistan is an upstream state and has a 2600 Km long border with Pakistan. The country shares a watercourse with the lower riparian state. It is predicted that the future scarcity of water will affect both nations, politically, socially and economically.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid.  If the fragile state manages its natural resources including water, it could be self-reliant and reduce dependency on aid. With goodwill, this could happen in the long-run and would enhance economic development and social welfare of poor people. Currently 54 percent of Afghanistan’s people live below the poverty line.

With this notion in mind, a while ago, the Afghan government had a plan to construct hydropower projects on the Kabul River Basin by collaborating with donors including India. If this idea is realized, it may affect the flow of water to the lower riparian.

India is expected to begin work on the $236 million Shahtoot Dam project on the Kabul River in Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

Shortage of water in the Kabul River will begin to affect the agricultural sector and damage the technical performance of Pakistan which could trigger a conflict between the two countries that have been facing difficulties for decades.

Since, 2014, President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government’s political and diplomatic outreach to Pakistan has been fragile and fragmented over the Taliban and the territory they hold, therefore it could be quite tricky to negotiate on trans-boundary water issues in the future.

Meanwhile, water experts from both countries believe that any delay and postponement of talks between the two states on trans-boundary water issues could worsen the political dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Abdul Wali Yousufzai, head of Zarghoon Green Movement, and a retired water expert in the Peshawar valley of Pakistan, believes that there is a tremendous need for a treaty on the shared water resources between Afghanistan and Pakistan and this will play a vital part in avoiding future conflict.

Both nations should maintain a peaceful, holistic approach and find a rational solution to the foreseen water scarcity and energy crises. The issues involved not just sharing of water, but management of the basin as a whole. While dams may affect the flow of water to Pakistan, a badly maintained water basin will do the same, and the water shortages will increase for both countries, exacerbating the conflicts. With a well-designed treaty the health of the river basin as a whole would help in making sure that there is a regular flow of water, and more rational discussion of what is possible.  

“Water dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a matter requiring resolution for the sake of humanity removed from political discrepancies. This is a matter of plants and animals, and importantly much concern is building with regard to future generations,” Yousufzai says. “Both countries cannot keep water within their territory, the Kabul river water is contaminated by chemicals. It should be resolved harmoniously through water experts and an institutionalized treaty that could be developed between the two riparian states.”

Due to the country’s geographical location and ongoing conflict, Afghanistan cannot manage and govern its vital infrastructures including the water as an upper riparian state with neighboring countries such as; Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. With Pakistan, another obstacle regarding water issues is the Durand Line which has created an historical dilemma for Afghans and a proper framework is needed to discuss this in accordance with international norms. However, from the climate change point of view and water scarcity any delay could complicate the conflict over water resources between the two countries.

Furthermore, the Pakistani water expert added that water insecurity began in 1960 and both nations are now facing a severe shortage of water. According to Yousufzai, almost four decades of conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest, the revitalization of green areas will need years, and the decline of precipitation is an influential factor on water shortage. The universal demand for water is expected to exceed supply by 40 percent within the next twenty years.

 Therefore, all partners and stakeholders should consider water as a serious debate right now and significant to future generations.

“Afghanistan does not have much capacity at present to resolve water disputes with neighboring countries. Any postponement of action and late decisions by the Afghan government will provide more gains to our neighbors who will have an advantage over Afghans when it comes to negotiations over water,” said Asadullah Meelad, former head of water law at the Ministry of Water and Energy of Afghanistan.  

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