Authors: Gauri Noolkar-Oak and Aditya Manubarwala*
Afghanistan is at the cross roads of Asia. Dubbed as the “Gateway to South Asia”, historically, Afghanistan provided land access to invaders from distant lands during their onward march towards the Indian sub-continent. A land of gardens and orchards, deserts and mountains, and highlands and plains, Afghanistan is at the heart of important trade routes connecting Europe and West Asia to South and East Asia. It has been home to several conquerors and witnessed the dynamic geopolitics of Central, West and South Asia.
Afghanistan nevertheless is a landlocked country with no access to sea routes, which has essentially limited its external trade and overall development. Further, its location and topography has served it adversely. Squeezed between the erstwhile USSR and the United States’ strategic backyard Pakistan, Afghanistan has been used as tool employed by all of these powers to further their own strategic interests. The result has been years of brutal conflict, turmoil and instability, which have taken their toll on the society, economy and environment of the country. Till date, Afghanistan still remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
As the country struggles to shed the violence and instability and transition into a peaceful and prosperous nation, it has given special attention to its water resources, especially in terms of agriculture – the agricultural sector contributed 30% of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2010, and accounted for 98% of Afghanistan’s total water withdrawals.The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) for 2008-2013 has explicitly linked the country’s economic growth and food security to agricultural growth and the government recognises “quick rehabilitation” and expansion of existing irrigation networks as a priority.
Between 2004-2011, with the help of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Afghan government rehabilitated 778,000 ha of land (roughly 10% of total cultivable land), of which 158,000 ha was newly irrigated. In the rehabilitated areas, wheat productivity increased by 50%. USAID helped bring another 300,000 ha under full irrigated production. Similarly, several efforts to restore rural irrigation systems and return more and more cultivable land to full production are underway in the country. At the same time, Afghanistan is also making strides in improving drinking water and sanitation facilities across the country; in 2015, it achieved coverage of 63% for drinking water and 39% for sanitation, and aims to achieve an ‘Open Defecation Free Afghanistan’ and universal access to basic drinking water supplies by 2025 and 2026 respectively.
However, what is perhaps less noticed is the strategic potential of Afghanistan’s water resources. Five major river basins – Kabul, Helmand and western flowing rivers, Hari Rod and Murghab, northern flowing rivers, and Amu Darya – make up the surface water resources of Afghanistan, all of which it shares with neighbouring countries. Afghanistan is the upstream riparian to all of these river basins which flow into Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Together, these river basins contribute a total of 57 BCM (billion cubic metres) of water. Currently, 30% of this flow is used, but with future use estimated at 65%, the average surface water availability is roughly estimated at 2,280 m³/capita/year which is well above the levels of water stress (>1700 m3/capita/year) and water scarcity (>1000 m3/capita/year). This figure does not take into account seasonal and spatial variations, but it is pertinent to note that Afghanistan experiences the least seasonal variability in water availability among non-island nations of South Asia.
The dominantly upstream status of Afghanistan is also evident in its dependency ratio, which, at 29%, shows that about 70% of Afghanistan’s water originates within its borders, giving it greater control on and access to its water resources.Compared with other South Asian nations (non-island), we can see that Afghanistan has potentially more control over its water resources than India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the three biggest economies of South Asia.
Figure 1: Dependency Ratio – South Asia
And yet, Afghanistan has been unable to harness the full benefits of its position and the water resources.This is especially true in the case of the Amu Darya river basin of which Afghanistan uses only 2 BCM annually, even though it is entitled to use 9 BCM annually under a treaty with the Former Soviet Union. The numero uno reason for Afghanistan not being able to take advantage of its upstream status is the enduring violence and instability in the country. Years of conflict have destroyed Afghanistan’s water storage and irrigation systems. Its traditional water governance systems, characterised by decentralisation in management and community participation, have also been adversely impacted. Even today, efforts of the government and NGO initiatives in the water sector are impeded by recurring bouts of violence and strife.
With hydropower projects and agricultural land rehabilitation schemes across the country and plans for setting up a River Basin Organisation for rivers along the northern frontier, especially the Amu Darya basin, this situation has chances to change significantly.However, by stepping up the current efforts of restoring water resources, infrastructure and governance, Afghanistan’s access and use of its river water will change drastically and increase in an exponential manner. As its agriculture grows closer to its full potential, the economy develops, industries start coming up, and standard of living increases, Afghanistan’s water demand will rise, resulting in assertion of its upstream status. It is important that Afghanistan begins to negotiate with downstream (and stronger) riparians for transboundary water cooperation agreements which take its future uses into consideration.
Today, over-population, rapid development, climate change and growing water scarcity are important factors causing tensions across South Asia. The fact that South Asia is the least integrated region in the world exacerbates the situation. In this context, developing domestic water governance and eventually, transboundary water cooperation can play a huge role in establishing peace and prosperity in the region. A country such as Afghanistan, ravaged with decades of conflict and instability, poses a significant challenge to accomplish water-based integration of the subcontinent, but it also has potential and provides great opportunities for bringing South Asia together.
As the leading South Asian economy, India must take lead in helping Afghanistan develop its water resources and harness their full potential. Both countries face a multitude of common challenges ranging from water use efficiency issues to climate change effects, and working together in the areas of policymaking, governance practices, technical know-how and scientific research can be beneficial for the environment and people of both countries. India and Afghanistan are already collaborating over the Salma Damin Herat, the Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul river is in the pipeline, and the Bagh Dara and Surubi II dams in central Afghanistan are under consideration. India’s institutional and technological capabilities can contribute greatly to rejuvenating and advancing Afghanistan’s water sector. Accordingly, collaboration plans should be drawn up and formalised in a bilateral engagement over water between the two countries.
Given the centuries-old ties between India and Afghanistan, it is fitting that India should be supporting the transition of Afghanistan into a peaceful country. India must remain committed to helping Afghanistan in achieving all-round progress and development through harnessing its water resources and establishing water cooperation within, and eventually, outside its borders. This will play a major role in not only the upliftment of the nation, but also in establishing peace and prosperity in South Asia.
*Aditya Manubarwala is the youngest Global Peace Ambassador to India appointed by the Centre for Peace Studies Sri Lanka (affiliated to the UN) and Special Advisor on International Law and Affairs to Najibullah Azad Spokesman to the President of Afghanistan.