Mazar-e-Sharif, BALKH — Most Afghans still do not have access to clean drinking water despite billions of dollars invested by the international community to supply the nation with a steady supply.
Today in Afghanistan, waterborne diseases are common. The levels of diarrhea and dysentery, especially among small children, are at epidemic proportions. As well, a large number of people suffer from cholera because of dirty drinking water.
Most of the children admitted to the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul suffer from diseases caused by impure water, said Dr. Wali Mohammad to IRIN.
The majority of the country gets its water from wells and storage tanks. Collecting water is most often a task assigned to women and children, usually girls. In most areas of the county they walk miles to find water and then carry it back in large, heavy containers.
The usual method of collecting the water is with manual hand pumps that are difficult to use. For children the task is particularly arduous and tiring.
The lack of clean drinking water is killing Afghanistan’s children, according to a survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund, which found that 102 of every 1,000 children born in Afghanistan will die before reaching the age of five.
In a remote village in northern Balk province, Ali, 11 and his sister Sher Bano, 10 walk 2.5 kilometers each day to collect water from a small creek.
“Early in the morning I must bring water first and then go to school,” said Sher Bano. She makes the trek for water every morning before school and again in the afternoon when she returns.
“I don’t have time to do my homework and at night, I can’t sleep well,” she said. “My body hurts from carrying heavy buckets of water.”
Shortages of water peak during the summer months. Because of the shortage of water, farmers who need to irrigate their land often wind up in disputes with their neighbors who are equally anxious for a steady water supply.
Some farmers rely on donkeys to make the long treks to fetch water for their fields.
“The price of water in our village is equal to fuel. It causes a lot of disputes among villagers,” said Sher Bano’s father, Ali Jan.
“A month ago in Alburz (near Mazar-e-Sharif) where there is a large well, fighting broke out among villagers over water issues. Two farmers were seriously wounded,” Jan said. “At least 90 percent of residents in the Alburz area do not have access to clean water.”
Engineer Daad Mohammad Baheer, Director of Water Supply Unit & Canalization of Afghanistan, said the lack of clean water, and even access to the water that exists could threaten future development in Afghanistan.
“Not only do we have problems now, but we will be facing even more clean water shortages in the future: Drought, misuse of water and improper water management systems are the main causes of this,” he said.
“Adequate sources of water without good management are useless,” he said. “People don’t understand this.”
Sources of water and water problems
The country’s water sources are heavily dependent on annual rainfall and snowfall. But poor government policy has severely hampered the use of the country’s river supplies. Climate change and drought are also severely affecting water supplies, said engineer Najibullah Najib, the Regional Director of WSU in northeast Kunduz Province.
“From 1997 to 2012, the water level dropped six meters and in some parts it dropped as much as eight meters. Climate change is affected both shallow and groundwater levels,” he said.
But dealing with declining and inadequate supplies of clean drinking water is severely hampered by the lack of electricity in most parts of the country. Without electricity, development and water sanitation projects cannot go forward.
“Lack of power and laboratories for water testing are huge problems in eastern parts of the country. Many times we have talked with international humanitarian aid organizations, for example, UN Habitat, however we have yet to get a positive response to our requests for assistance,” Sardar Wali Malakzai, the Eastern Regional Director for Water Supply told IRIN.
In other parts of the country, such as western Nimruz province residents complain of salty water and contaminated water. If residents want clean water they are going to have to pay dearly for it. One bucket of clean water in the Nimruz provincial capital of Zarang is 200 Afghanis or $4 US, say residents. This compares to 25 Afghanis or 50 cents US for one cubic meter of water provided by the Water Supply Unit & Canalization.
The Ministry of Rural and Rehabilitation Development (MRRD) recently started working on a clean water supply project for Zarang city. According to Daad Mohammad, geologists have found a pure water source around 25 kilometers from the capital in Qala-e-Fatha village, on the border with Iran.
In addition, the underground water supplies in most of the country’s large cities are under serious threat because of the lack of a canalization system, proper waste management and the random disposal of waste material, said engineer Abdul Wali Muddaqeq, Deputy Director General of National Environmental protection Agency (NEPA).
In the Afghan capital, Muddaqeq said medical and solid wastes are mixed together and then buried. Some is also thrown on the ground. He warned that over time the waste will seep into the underground water table poisoning the water. The medical waste also contains infectious viruses and is putting the entire population at risk. He blamed the problem on the lack of a proper waste management system in most of the country’s hospitals. He also blamed many industries’ lack of corporate ethics for their unwillingness to protect the environment from the increase in industrial waste.
Aid agencies support drinking water supplies
Several international aid agencies have sought to support safe drinking water projects.
“We have constructed more than 40,000 safe drinking water posts to reach approximately 1 million people throughout Afghanistan from 1983-2013,” said engineer Abdul Malik Taimori, DACAAR Deputy Operation Manager in Kabul.
“Nevertheless in urban areas only 28 percent of Afghans have access to clean water and in remote areas, only 20 percent.”
According to the 2010–2011 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 43 percent of Afghanistan’s populations still do not have access to improved drinking water, and 71.5 per cent do not have access to improved sanitation.
According to Claudi Belli, Water Supply Management Advisor, GIZ gave a project to RODECO, a German consulting company, to provide water management & environmental protection services.
The first and second phase of the project will cover Afghanistan’s major cities in the country’s four zones. It will also cover the larger towns in each zone. In the northeastern zone, for example, it has provided coverage to 80 percent of Kunduz by providing safe and clean drinking water to more than 8,000 families.
Meanwhile according to the Afghanistan Central Statistics Organization, overall 57 percent of Afghans are using surface water, which is an improved source of drinking water.
As well, a $25.6 million German government safe water pipeline project is under way in Khushal Khan, Deh Borie, and Parwan in the capital of Kabul. It involves 180 kilometers of pipeline.
According to Director Baheer, a second water supply project is being proposed for Kabul at a cost of $71 million. It would involve financing from Germany, France and the United States.
Solutions to the crisis
According to experts, the international community should invest in water infrastructure throughout the country. They should devise a systematic plan which should also include the control of medical waste in urban areas that is contaminating water supplies.
Afghanistan has abundant water and with the use of modern technology it can be used wisely to provide potable water and irrigation for the country’s vast agricultural holdings.
Reinforced underground water sources — springs and wells — should be distributed through pipelines in remote areas. As well clusters of water tanks should be constructed in different areas to provide drinking water.
To prevent the misuse of water, the government should step up efforts to promote public awareness both in the rural and urban areas of the country.
But a report by Kabul’s Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit describes a complex network of regional water management councils that’s largely proven ineffectual: “However, none of these elements have much real changes in either performance, or in behavior and attitudes regarding water management.”
New research is needed to form a collective diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of current river basin management practices. This would help ensure future plans for action are rooted in a realistic assessment of the current situation and add practical value where it’s needed most.
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