Problems

Afghanistan, with an endowment of significant freshwater sources, still struggles to increase the accessibility of safe drinking water to its citizens. The total annual renewable water resources per capita have fallen from 5,000 cubic meters per person in 1990, to less than 2,000 cubic meters in 2017. Similarly, the storage capacity of dams per capita fell from 88.89 cubic meters per capita in 2002, to 55.35 m3 per capita in 2017 [1].

According to Afghanistan’s Voluntary National Review 2021, the proportion of the population with access to improved drinking water increased from 27.2% of the population in 2007, to 73.8% in 2020. Access to basic drinking water in urban areas is much higher at 94.3% than in rural areas where only 68.2% have access [1]; about 73% of the population (in 2020) live in rural areas [2]. Additionally, access to improved sanitation in the country is worse [3]. Inadequate access to water and sanitation contributes to terrible health outcomes including higher mortality rate due to diarrhea in children (approximately 9% of all deaths under five) [1].

Available drinking water is often contaminated [3]. In 2016, the Central Statistic Organisation (CSO) integrated a Water Quality Test (WQT) Module in the ongoing Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) to assess the current water quality situation in rural and urban communities at source and household level. The results showed that 64% of water samples taken directly at the water sources were contaminated with E. coli, and 80% of the water samples tested at the household level were contaminated with E. coli with more than half of those (47%) falling into the very high risk/high risk category [4].

The cumulative effects of more frequent and intense droughts on reservoirs and groundwater in Afghanistan will likely further threaten the water supply of entire communities in the most arid regions of the country, leading to a range of humanitarian crises, including disease, population displacement and conflict [3]. Water shortages will also potentially lead to crop production losses [5], which in an agriculture-based economy like Afghanistan can lead to significant economic hardships. The lack of water availability will also likely increase pressure on Afghanistan and surrounding countries to claim the maximum possible share of regional water sources in the longer term [3].

Demand for water, especially in urban areas, continues to grow, and rampant internal displacement due to the recent Taliban advances will likely only worsen this situation [6].

Causes

Water supplies in Afghanistan are being threatened by a number of factors including melting of glaciers, and poor management of water resources leading to depletion of aquifers. Future access to natural water is likely to be reduced by climate change and glacial retraction. Close to 85% of Afghanistan’s water is used by agriculture, so water shortages will seriously erode the livelihoods of farmers and add to political and social tensions. Rural residents remain extremely vulnerable to the impacts of drought, floods and other natural disasters, and desertification [7].

Drinking water pollution in Afghan cities is mainly caused by a lack of rainfall, irregular groundwater use, and insufficient infrastructure [8].

Responses

Key policies and governance approach

The Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) developed an overall policy framework, ‘Strategic Policy Framework for the Water Sector’, providing principle directions for the water sector in Afghanistan in 2004. Approved by the Council of Ministers (the Cabinet), the document addressed issues related to water resources management, irrigation, environment and similar areas. Considering the multiple challenges the country faces in the water sector, the policy framework called for integrated water resources management, based on the River Basin Approach [9].

In 2009, Afghanistan formally adopted its Water Law, based on integrated water resources management. In its first article, the law recognizes the need for economic development, social equity and environmental integrity. It uses river basins as the basic management unit and identifies institutions that are to participate in operations and maintenance, system development and decision-making. The Water Law recognizes the key role of the local Water Use Associations in the protection and management of water resources. The Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) has the responsibility for setting up Water User Associations and the MAIL has the task of setting up irrigation Associations. The overall responsibility for groundwater is taken up by MEW, along with their responsibility for surface waters [3].

In addition, the Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Irrigation Programme (Ru-WatSIP) is a national project led by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD). In 2003, MRRD created Ru-WatSIP to develop policies, formulate strategies and plans, and carry out activities related to rural water supply, sanitation, and hygiene. The Water and Sanitation Department of the MRRD is in charge of implementing Ru-WatSIP, which includes developing a national policy framework for the water sector, building water wells and pumps to provide clean drinking water to rural communities, building sanitation facilities to improve hygiene in rural communities, and providing capacity-building trainings on water, sanitation, and hygiene to government employees, NGOs, private sector companies, and local communities [10].

 

SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES

Despite investments in the water sector, Afghanistan is still faced with a shortage of data on its hydrological cycle. There is little understanding of the existing renewable water resources, except for old estimations, which may have already faced changes due to climate change. Groundwater and quality of water resources are even more ambiguous, and except for some part of the Kabul River Basin, there is a lack of overall information in the country. This shortage of data, therefore, limits the government’s capacity to design and monitor effective policies for improving water efficiency and environmental sustainability [11].

The 2009 Water Law was founded on the IWRM model, without having enough information and knowledge of situations on the ground. For the most part, it ignored traditional and indigenous water management practices, and ignored the role of local governance and influential people. As a result, the law largely failed [11], as most farmers still depend on the tribal/customary laws administered through local village water masters (Mirabs) who command a great deal of respect. Going forward, the Afghan government could take several steps to encourage better water governance, including through fully implementing the Water Law in all basins and establishing the relevant councils outlined in the law [12].

Further, at the national level, there is no water resources policy or strategy to guide the water sector in a relatively long-term vision. Although a water strategy (2008-2013) existed, it has not been updated after the year 2013 as was required and is now an expired document [11].

 

Initiatives and Development Plans

In 2020, the World Bank approved two grants totaling nearly $85 million from the International Development Association (IDA), as part of a $393 million financial package to help Afghanistan alleviate COVID-19 impacts and improve access to clean water, sanitation, and public services. The financial packages comprised: (i) $50 million from IDA for the Afghanistan Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Institutional Support (A-WASH) Project, to improve access to and quality of water supply in Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Corporation (AUWSSC) to deliver sustainable services and contribute to national efforts to manage COVID-19 and other disasters; and (ii) $35 million from IDA for the Second Additional Financing of the Citizens' Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP), aimed at improving the delivery of core infrastructure, emergency support, and social services to communities through strengthened Community Development Councils (CDCs) [13].

Opportunities
  • Enhance technical capacity in water management.
  • Invest in water and sanitation infrastructure, and water distribution systems.
  • Strengthen water governance at all levels.
  • Promote community-based water harvesting, water conservation, and watershed management techniques and practices in rural areas to improve water resource management and reduce drought vulnerability.
  • Climate change impacts on effective water resource management need to be included in the Strategic Policy Framework for the Water Sector, particularly in its holistic approaches to river basin scale integrated water resource management.
  • Expanding the number of hydrological monitoring stations across the country is necessary to collect regular data on water resource availability and develop more precise projections for future water needs and availability.  
Sources

[1] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2021). AFGHANISTAN VOLUNTARY NATIONAL REVIEW (VNR) 2021.

[2] Trading Economics (2021). [Online]. Available: https://tradingeconomics.com/afghanistan/rural-population-percent-of-total-population-wb-data.html.

[3] Delegation of the European Union to Afghanistan (2017). Specific Contract No . 2016 / 377924 COUNTRY ENVIRONMENT PROFILE FOR AFGHANISTAN.

[4] UNICEF (2019). WASH FIELD NOTE FN/21/2019: Piloting a field-based Water Quality Test for E. coli – lessons from Afghanistan.

[5] Climate Risk Country Profile: Afghanistan (2020): The World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank.

[6] The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Team (2021). [Online]. Available: https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2021/08/water-in-security-afghanistan-taliban/.

[7] UNDP Afghanistan (2020). Afghanistan Human Development Report 2020: Pitfalls and promise Minerals extraction in Afghanistan.

[8] Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat (2020). [Online]. Available: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/afghanistanair-pollution-more-dangerous-than-civil-war/1690496.

[9] MINISTRY OF ENERGY AND WATER (2020). SDG Indicator 6.5.1 IWRM Survey National reporting on status of IWRM implementation 2020.

[10] MRRD (2019). [Online]. Available: https://mrrd.gov.af/node/405.

[11] Rasooly, N., (2019). Water Governance in Afghanistan.

[12] Elizabeth B. Hessami (2018). [Online]. Available: https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2018/07/afghanistans-water-crisis-escalates-effective-water-governance-bolster-regional-stability/.

[13] The World Bank (2020). [Online]. Available: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/12/11/world-bank-approves-us85-million-grant-to-expand-public-services-access-to-clean-water-and-sanitation-in-afghanistan.