A Review of Current and Possible Future Relations in Kabul River Basin

The aim of this paper is to familiarize the reader with the key elements associated with transboundary rivers in Afghanistan and their implications on policy development. The paper synthesizes knowledge and different perspectives of many experts working in the area of transboundary rivers. In doing so, it attempts to advance the main points of convergence of opinions in the form of recommendations and highlights those areas where more work is needed to build a common vision.

As the pressures of increasing demand for water and climate change impact the region downstream, countries are becoming increasingly more interested in how development in Afghanistan may impact them. Likewise, over the last several years the government of Afghanistan has increased its awareness of the importance of engaging and discussing issues concerning international rivers with its downstream neighbours to ensure that the precious water resources in the region are used in the most effective way possible. This paper hopes to advance those discussions by reviewing the situation and developing some possible ways forward in the Kabul River Basin.

This paper presents a brief overview of international/transboundary rivers, their importance, and Afghanistan’s need to develop its transboundary water resources. In addition, it highlights the achievements of the Afghan government since 2001 in regards to its water resource management. Also, the paper looks at the existing legal and institutional structure of Afghanistan’s water sector – the Afghanistan Water Law (2009) and its reference to transboundary waters, the Supreme Council of Land and Water (SCoLW) and other key institutions responsible for water protection and management in Afghanistan.

The bulk of this paper discusses the Kabul River Basin, the existing challenges, opportunities and institutional needs in the basin. The Kabul River Basin covers 76,908 km², or 12% of the Afghanistan surface, it contains approximately 25% of the country’s surface water resources and is its most populated basin with around 11.6 million people (37% of Afghanistan population).

In general Afghanistan uses only 25% of surface water and less than 30% of groundwater resources available in the Kabul basin. The country has a very limited capacity for water storage – 100-110 m3/capita/year (one of the lowest in the world), hydropower generation and expansion of irrigated land and irrigation networks. However, across the border Pakistan is over-exploiting  water resources. The ratio of surface water withdrawal to water availability is 77%. The same applies to the groundwater where the rate of groundwater extraction exceeds the average recharge.

This paper elucidates the primary challenges should a developing country like Afghanistan anticipate dealing with its transboundary waters. The challenges range from political matters to technical issues. In the Kabul River Basin, our study revealed two types of challenges: i) internal (national level) challenges, and ii) external (international or transboundary) challenges.

Internal issues include, lack of expertise (human capital), inadequate institutional capacity, unreliable data, security challenges, lack of public awareness on international water law and/or transboundary water matters, unavailability of budget (monetary limitations), water quality (both surface and groundwater) particularly in Kabul city, involvement of too many competing stakeholders/players in transboundary waters issue and lack of good governance in water sector with respect to transboundary water. Transboundary issues include external challenges such as, lack of trust and lack of cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, population growth and increasing urbanization and industrialization on both sides, climate change, and the zero-sum mindset in the region with absolute winners and losers.

There are also positive opportunities for Afghanistan and Pakistan to cooperate on the Kabul River Basin in the future. These include:

  • The existing political will and commitment to work on transboundary waters from the government of Afghanistan;
  • Existence and attention of the international community and donors in Afghanistan over the last 15 years;
  • Growing informal activities such as joint studies and researches;
  • And very importantly, limited impact of development in Afghanistan (upper Kabul River) on the Pakistan.

In addition, this study found that the joint hydropower project – Kunar Cascade, is a good opportunity. The generated power from this project will meet the needs of both countries. Considering the current political unrest between Afghanistan and Pakistan, water cooperation could be an opportunity for greater regional stability. The spillover benefits into other areas could be significant.

Finally, the paper presents the conclusion and recommendations on the transboundary waters in the country as a whole, and on transboundary waters of the Kabul River Basin in particular.

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