Afghanistan has an immense potential in its hydro- power sector given the existence of large number of major rivers each with an accompanying system of tributaries. The central highlands and the imposing mountain ranges that pierce through the heart of Afghanistan provide the country with an abundant supply of precious water round the year that places Afghanistan in a list of few water surplus countries. It is no hidden a fact that the 21st century and the age and time we are in will be increasingly characterized by wars and conflicts over dwindling resources including the precious water.
Over the coming decades, a combination of population explosion, rising economic prosperity and incomes that demand much higher per capita consumption of water and other resources – especially in the broader Asian region that Afghanistan is located –, growing hunger for natural resources from water to fossil fuels, climate change and global warming (whether man-made or natural), accelerating environmental destruction on a global scale and a host of other factors will make the century we are in a century of increasing conflicts over resources including the precious water. Yemen, the troubled and poor country located on the Southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and engulfed in a civil war is set to be the first country to run out of water over the next three decades.
This is, unfortunately, only a taste of what is going to befall more countries and nations in coming decades as the problem of increasing water scarcity is so real and grave. If Afghanistan is poor and conflict-ridden and if for many, life continues to be brutal and a fight for survival, at least we have one precious resource in abundance: water.Strategic utilization of our country's water resources can well serve as an engine of economic growth by reviving the moribund agricultural economy as well as generating energy to fuel industrialization. Let us take a look at what is the status of the affairs and what policies and strategies have so far been adopted and carried out by the government of Afghanistan to rise to the occasion.
The Water Law of Afghanistan was adopted in 2008 by the government of Afghanistan. It serves as the overarching national law governing the whole gamut of issues concerning water. The law entrusts the Ministry of Water and Energy with the responsibility of managing and developing the surface water resources. The law also holds responsible the Ministry of Mines for taking care of the underground water resources, including the aquifers, their identification, carrying out studies and preventing their contamination. The same law holds the Ministry of Urban Development responsible for providing drinking water, construction and maintenance of drinking water storage and transmission grids and networks in urban areas.
The Ministry of Water and Energy is responsible for overall planning for development of surface water resources of Afghanistan. Currently, the strategies being pursued by this ministry are three-pronged covering three main areas; 1: rehabilitation and development of irrigation systems, 2: development of national water resources, 3: river banks fortification. This ministry, according to a recent statement made by the acting minister, Mohammad Ismail Khan, is currently conducting survey and design work of 485 small, medium and large dams across Afghanistan. An ambitious drive towards construction of dams given the existence of large number of major rivers each with an accompanying system of tributaries is one of the focal strategies adopted by the government of Afghanistan. According to the minister of Water and Energy, construction work on 111 small and medium dams has already started. Another 32 are at the final stages of survey and design and the work on them will soon begin.
Currently, 98% of developmental projects undertaken by the government of Afghanistan come from foreign donors. For the current Afghan fiscal year (21st march 2011 - 20th March 2012) the government of Afghanistan has undertaken to build 5 small and medium dams using Afghan government's revenues which is a small but sure step! For the last fiscal year (21st march 2010 - 20th March 2011), a total of 296.24 million dollars was received by the ministry of Water and Energy from the government of Afghanistan (Ministry of Finance) as developmental budget. The ministry, according to its annual report, was able to spend only 35.2% of this figure until December 2010. This fact points to the low capacities of the Afghan government to design and implement projects on its own. Other government ministries and departments too were able to spend only a fraction of the developmental budget allocated for them by the Ministry of Finance.
With assistance from the World Bank, the ministry has constructed more than 700 irrigation canals and retaining walls as a result of which 26,394 hectares of agricultural lands will be benefited. This program funded by World Bank is the Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project.
The ministry of Water and Energy has started rehabilitating and construction of irrigation systems across the country with financial support of World Bank, the European Union and other donors. In pursuit of the strategy of development of national water resources, large numbers of small, medium and large dams are either in the stage of survey and design or in the case of some, the actual work of construction or rehabilitation has started. The civil works are contracted out to private sector Afghan and foreign companies. Lack of security remains the single largest hurdle in the way of finalizing many of the undertaken projects and executing the construction stages.
The national water law tasks the Ministry of Urban development with the work of taking care of Afghanistan's aquifers in the vicinity and under the urban centers such as Kabul. Almost all the drinking water of people in Kabul comes from the underground water resources such as aquifers. The Ministry of Urban Development has started a project funded by the Germany which extends Kabul's drinking water supply grid to cover an additional 1.5 million Kabul residents. The water will come from the Logar Valley underground basin and deep wells in southwest Kabul.
The ministry of urban development intends to take care of fragile aquifers and other underground water resources through its strategy of upgrading and regulating extraction of these underground water resources in urban centers. When the water extraction and consumption - which is now haphazard and unregulated with each house in Kabul having its own water well - is more regulated, the pressure on aquifers will be reduced thus allowing the aquifers to survive the growing population and water requirements.
A major setback to achieving the objective of using the water resources for bringing about large-scale development is lack of resources, expertise and political and bureaucratic will to build new mega-large dams. While the drive towards building small and medium dams is well on its way, the need to construct many more mega large dams is a gaping hole. Strategic utilization of the country's hydro-power potential lies in building mega large dams and rehabilitation of the existing ones. The need is not addressed.