Afghanistan’s Water Crisis

The United Nations has reported that a total of 275,000 people have been forced into displacement within Afghanistan. This looming water crisis threatens another two million people, a direct consequence of water mismanagement, climate change and the forty years of war that has ravaged the country. In turn, this has resulted in the weakening of the country’s water infrastructure and agricultural sector which contributes to 20 to 40 per cent of its GDP.

Afghanistan’s agricultural sector remains as one of the country’s principal growth sectors, which according to the Ministry of Water and Energy utilizes 90% of total water consumption. With almost 60% of the population deriving their livelihoods from the sector, the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that “Water is the lifeblood of the people of Afghanistan, not just for living but also for the economy, which has traditionally been dominated by agriculture.” The local media has informed that the drought has caused a fall in crop production in both the western and northern parts of the country, and people in these areas are on the edge of famine.

Since the Soviet invasion, the country’s infrastructure has been falling into ruin. The Ministry of Water and Energy has reported that 50% of water loss is due to the inefficiencies which persist within the water management systems and irrigation for crop production. Therefore, it is imperative to improve the infrastructure in a country that is seeing more people becoming displaced due to a lack of access to water, rather than war. Following the U.S invasion, the Afghan government, alongside the support of the international community has attempted to place water management high on its agenda as it invests its efforts into rehabilitating Afghanistan’s canals. However, conflict continues to plague the region and without the necessary focus upon its internal infrastructure water shortages will continue to further instability via displacement and famine.

Contributing to the crisis is the transboundary nature of Afghanistan’s water supply. As a landlocked upstream state, the nation relies heavily upon the flow of water from the rivers of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The snow and glaciers from these mountains’ runoff into the natural flows which course through Afghanistan and into Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. The Deputy Director of Afghanistan National Disaster Management, Aslam Sayas, has said ‘‘Afghanistan lacks infrastructure. The construction of water projects including dams has been slow. So, when water flows past Afghanistan, there is no way to store it and just let it flow right into neighbouring countries”.

In 2014, President Ashraf Ghani prioritized water management and building dams for economic growth and development as well as asserting rights over its transboundary rivers. This has created tensions with states such as Iran and Pakistan as these dams will negatively impact or have already impacted these water-stressed countries. India, a historically close ally of Afghanistan, has committed $236 million towards the Shahtoot Dam project on the Kabul River. Pakistan fears that due to its reliance upon the Kabul River it will decrease the water flow and therefore reduce crop productivity. Thereby, demonstrating the lack of multilateral cooperation within the region.

Conflict distracts societies. Problems which are less tangible such as climate change and infrastructure development are largely ignored as the resources or the priority for such projects are non-existent. Therefore, it is the citizens who suffer. Afghanistan is facing its worst drought in a decade which has led to rising levels of forced displacement. However, this is not without hope. Afghanistan has the opportunity here to find a shared ground with its neighbours to be the leader in a multilateral water agreement, allowing for the possibility of some stability to return to the region.

Isha Tembe