Everyone in the world knows about the war in Afghanistan but few know about the water crisis going on in the country. Afghanistan was once a flourishing country with beautiful cities and plentiful food and water supplies, but decades of war have decimated much of the country. One of the casualties of war has been the infrastructure that supplies the people with a clean water source. However, the war is not the only cause of the crisis. Geographical constrains, climate change, and the lack of education on clean water and sanitation also adds to the problem.
Afghanistan has a population of 29 million, with 79% of the population living in rural areas. Only 27% of its population has access to improved water sources, and it goes down to 20% in rural areas, the lowest percentage in the world. The numbers get even worse when you look at the percentage of people with access to improved sanitation facilities. With the numbers at 5% nationwide, and only 1% in rural areas, Afghanistan again ranks the worst in the world. In Kabul, with a population of 6 million, 80% of the people lack access to safe drinking water, and 95% lack access to improved sanitation facilities.
One of the many reasons for these numbers being so appalling is because their infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed by years of war. From 1992 to 1996 fighting between different mujahidin groups led to indiscriminate shelling of Kabul and other cities which destroyed most of the water infrastructure, including pump stations used to get fresh water. Then in 1996 the Taliban took over, leading to a lull in the violence. However, the Taliban did little to rebuild the infrastructure in Kabul and elsewhere, instead focusing on imposing their version of Islamic law. In 2001 the Taliban was pushed from power by coalition forces, and Afghanistan has been at war ever since, giving it no time to rebuild.
Because Afghans have no access to sanitation facilities 20% of the population (mostly rural) practices open defecation, often in the rivers they drink out of. The majority of the rest of the population use traditional latrines. The latrines are a better option than open defecation, but still not very good. Because they do not isolate excrement from human contact and do not dispose of the waste by moving it outside of the house they still lead to disease and infection. Even if you could move it out of the house Afghanistan has no wastewater management right now, and hasn’t for a long time. This is due to several factors including limited water supply (you need water to treat the wastewater), the facilities and equipment are very expensive, and the Afghans do not yet have the technical expertise to run a wastewater treatment facility. The alternative to a wastewater facility that some use is a septic tank, however they often leak, which contaminates groundwater, and then contaminates the wells they drink out of. One of the other problems contributing to the water crisis is Afghanistan’s location.
Geographically, Afghanistan is a land locked country and because of this has historically had disputes with its neighbors over the flow of water from its mountain rivers, Afghanistan’s main source of water. Due to its geographic location the natural flow of the snow runoff coming from the mountains flows through Afghanistan into central Asia, Pakistan, and Iran. Afghanistan has some reservoirs built to collect this water, but not enough, and some have been destroyed in the past decades. Because of the lack of reservoirs, canals, and infrastructure, today only 30-35% of the water coming out of the mountains of Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan. And it looks like as long as the fighting continues there will be little change. Because dams and waterways can take years to build investors are reluctant to invest much money (an estimated $11 billion is needed nationwide) into these projects for fear workers and/or the project will be attacked.
One exception to this is India, who historically has very close ties to Afghanistan. India is currently spending $200 million on the Selma Dam Project which aims to reconstruct the Selma Dam that was badly damaged in earlier wars, including adding a hydroelectric plant. The project originally started in 1988; however work has had to stop for a number of years due to the instability in the region. Construction started back up in 2006 and has been going since even though the site has been attacked a number of times. Once completed, the hydroelectric plant would produce 42 megawatts of power in addition to providing irrigation for 75,000 hectares of farmland
Another contributing factor to the crisis is the climate. Higher average temperatures are melting snow in the mountains earlier in the year. Because Afghanistan lacks reservoirs to store the runoff the early melting leads to there being less water to use during the summer when it’s needed most. The lack of water during the summer combined with drought has led to some studies saying that half of the current wells will soon dry up. This also leaves less water to irrigate crops, cutting food production and putting farmers out of work. Water scarcity has also led to conflict among Afghans. Oxfam found that 43% of local conflicts in Afgan communities are over water. In 2010 two men were killed when they were caught taking water from the river Paghman in the Kabul province. The killings led to families in the communities taking sides, which led to fighting. The dispute was settled only after elders decided to channel water from the river to one of the communities. Now that we know the causes of this crisis what is the effect?
All of these factors I’ve talked about contributed to the crisis, and to the suffering that follows. Without clean water and sanitation you have disease and infection, and children are the ones most effected by this. In Afghanistan, 25% of deaths among children under 5 are directly attributed to contaminated water and bad sanitation. These deaths are by and large caused by diarrhea, which is the leading cause of illness in children under 5 years old. Among other things diarrhea leads to malnourishment, and malnourishment leads to more health problems. 54% of children age 6 months to 5 years have stunted growth (low height for their age) due to exposure to contaminated water/bad sanitation, and 67% weigh less then they should. Helminth infection is another heath problem caused by poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. An examination of 1001 children in poor communities showed that 47.2% of them had some form of Helminth. Helminth can lead to a number of health problems, including mal-absorption of nutrients from food, challenges to physical growth, problems with cognitive development in school aged children, and iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia which in woman can cause low birth weight, premature birth, and children being born with disabilities. Other health problems in Afghanistan that are caused by contaminated water include dehydration, typhus fever and kidney disease, which have killed thousands of people nationwide.
While the numbers look grim, things seem to be improving. The number of households in urban areas with access to municipal water is growing. In Herat 85% of the houses have access. In Kabul it’s 35%, and in Kunduz it’s 50%. Also, in the last couple of years local institutions have been formed to teach communities about water conservation as well as educating the citizens about hygiene and sanitation, which is seen as one of the most important aspects of change. Even with these gains I fear that as long as fighting continues in Afghanistan the international aid that is needed to get clean water and proper sanitation to all Afghans will go towards other projects that our worlds’ governments deem more critical.
Here is a quick video from Al Jazeera on the Afghan water crisis:
If you’d like to donate to help Afghanistan here are a few organizations helping to solve the water crisis:
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