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With war and neglect, Afghans face water shortage

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan needs billions of dollars for dams and irrigation to feed and provide power for its growing population after decades of war, with future water supply a major security challenge, Afghan and foreign officials say.

Afghan children prepare to collect water from a water pump in Kabul March 22, 2010. REUTERS/ Omar Sobhani

Most of Afghanistan’s precious water is allowed to flow out to its neighbors, a situation which must be changed quickly if the country is to sustain itself, deputy Water and Energy Minister Shujauddin Ziayee told Reuters recently.

“In 30 years, the size of our population will double, so will our water, food and electricity needs. The same is true with our neighbors,” he said.

Rugged and landlocked Afghanistan has had historical disputes with its central and south Asian neighbors over the flow of water from mountain rivers which irrigate most of its crops. It loses about two-thirds of its water from rain and snow annually.

For centuries, because of its geographical location, most of the water from Afghanistan’s main river basins has poured north to central Asia, east to Pakistan or west to Iran.

Pakistan and Iran have both spent billions in recent decades building dams and reservoirs to store water for consumption and generating power. Afghanistan been unable to make any effort at all, three decades of war ruining its water infrastructure.

“In total, the amount of rain and snowfall in Afghanistan makes 57 billion cubic meters of water annually. Unfortunately, between 30 to 35 percent of this water can be used in Afghanistan and the rest ends up in foreign countries,” Ziayee said.

The loss of water means only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 28 million people have access to clean water. Afghanistan produces just one percent of the 23,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity it needs, and has less water than needed for growing wheat and other food commodities.


Only 1.5 million hectares of agricultural land were irrigated in 2002 and an additional 300,000 hectares rehabilitated since -- less than half the area irrigated in 1979, when the war began -- said the East West Institute think tank in a report last year.

“The almost total absence of bilateral or regional cooperation on water between Afghanistan and its neighbors is a serious threat to sustainable development and security in the region,” the report said.

“The ever-increasing demand for water, the unpredictable availability of water and the inefficient management of water resources combine to form a complex but solvable challenge to regional security and development,” it said.

Since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has been carrying out surveys on how and where to build dams both for its growing energy needs and water management.

The surveys have taken years and are almost over, but the cash-strapped country needs nearly $11 billion for its ambitious water projects, Ziayee said.

The international community, which has poured in billions of dollars since the Taliban’s fall, has so far done little to provide funds for such schemes. This may be because building dams takes years and donors are reluctant to fund long-term projects.

One exception is India, which has had historical ties with many Afghan governments but has tense relations with nuclear-armed rival and neighbor Pakistan. New Delhi has been spending some $150 million to build a dam in Afghanistan.

The Salma dam project, which was planned in the 1970s, has been under way for four years. It is located in the Cheshti Sharif district of Herat province, which borders Iran.

Poor security and attacks by suspected militants have at times slowed construction.

This year, Kabul is planning to start building four small dams elsewhere at a cost of $110 million, Ziayee said. It hopes to start the first phase of one $450 million dam project in the east next year, and another in the west, he said.

“Water is said to be politics and war -- and the source of future wars. We are not the only ones who will see our population grow,” Ziayee said.

Editing by Peter Graff and Paul Tait