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South Asia

Afghanistan’s Untapped Water Potential



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

Source: Aquastat (2014)

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.

Gauri Noolkar is a transboundary water conflicts researcher who has researched river basins in Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

South Asia

Economic And Political Reform Is Needed In Sri Lanka, Not State Violence



Image source: Wikipedia

Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence has highlighted years of political and economic mismanagement and a reliance on state-sanctioned violence in response to legitimate protests. Legitimate reform and respect for human rights is required if the island nation is to act in the best interests of its people.

The crisis has resulted in the import-reliant country’s foreign currency reserves running dry, meaning that the government is unable to pay for imports of basic goods, including food and fuel. Rising inflation of 17 per cent has meant that any food available is now too expensive, with a kilogram of rice costing 500 rupees when it previously cost 80. The lack of fuel has meant that Sri Lankans are suffering through 12-hour power cuts, with the government asking people to work from home to save fuel.

Making matters worse, the government has defaulted on its foreign debts for the first time since independence. Sri Lanka’s debt is approximately $51 billion, making it now reliant on negotiations with its creditors, such as the Asian Development Bank, to pause payments so basic goods can be purchased.

As always, these issues are affecting Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable, particularly those in poorer rural areas, the elderly and people with disability. There are reports of people dying while lining up for fuel in the heat. This has the potential to worsen into a significant humanitarian crisis, with half the country sinking into poverty and food insecurity rising.

This is a big step back for a country that was once regarded as one of Asia’s success stories, formerly enjoying economic growth, burgeoning industries and a wealthier middle class. The was a sign of a country that was beginning to rebuild after a brutal civil war that affected all Sri Lankans.

While the government has blamed the crisis on the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent drop in tourism, the cause is closer to home, and the government deserves significant blame.

The President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, previously slashed taxes and focused on domestic markets rather than exports, creating an economy reliant on imports, which created unsustainable levels of debt. The government has also racked up huge debts to fund irresponsible infrastructure projects which has severely depleted the country’s foreign reserves. The banning of imports of chemical fertilisers left Sri Lanka’s large agriculture sector crippled and increased debt through the reliance on importing food.

The Rajapaksa family has ruled Sri Lanka for over two decades, with Mahinda Rajapaksa ruling as President between 2005 and 2015 and then as Prime Minister until his recent resignation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has served as President since 2019 and several family members have long held prominent positions within the military and government. This has resulted in rampant nepotism, corruption and poor economic decisions that have turned the public away from the once popular family.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has led to nation-wide protests, which have rapidly turned violent. Protesters have stormed government buildings and government forces have been injured. Citizens are justifiably angry about years of poor economic decisions that has crippled the economy, leaving millions without the most basic of goods.

Authorities have reacted to this unrest with a heavy handed approach. The deployment of the military with orders to shoot looters on sight and the use of water cannons and tear gas had led to two deaths of the arrest of over two hundred people, including peaceful protesters. President Rajapaksa has also declared two state of emergencies, severely restricting the rights of Sri Lankans and giving authorities sweeping powers to detain legitimate protesters or those breaking curfew. This raises serious concerns about the governments respect for human rights and will do little to rebuild trust in government.

Instead of the use of violence to crush protests, the government needs to take responsibility and undertake meaningful economic and political reforms to address the crisis and quell unrest.

Human rights need to be at the forefront of any solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has rightly called for any attacks on civilians and peace protesters to be independently and transparently investigated. State of emergency declarations and curfews should also cease, allowing Sri Lankans their right to peacefully protest about legitimate issues of concern. Any peaceful protester illegally detained needs to be released immediately.

The government should also work with international partners to find rapid solutions to critical problems, such as providing basic goods to their citizens. The decision by the World Bank to provide $600 million in assistance and ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are welcome. But more needs to be done.

The government needs to undertake meaningful economic reforms, including reversing damaging tax cuts and reducing debt, so the IMF will agree to a more substantial financial package that allows the country to recover.

The democratic process also needs to be respected. The government should maintain dialogue and consult with other political parties’, civil society and non-governmental organisations to find adequate solutions to the economic and political problems facing the country.

This includes negotiating with opposition parties to reach political solutions that lead to ongoing stability. However, while the embattled President has replaced his brother as Prime Minister in an attempt to ease political pressure, the opposition has so far refused to join an administration with the Rajapaksa family. A political solution may need to be found that finally breaks the link with the Rajapaksa’s so Sri Lanka can move forward as a nation.

Sri Lankan’s have shown that they desire legitimate change in response to this unprecedented crisis. They demand meaningful political and economic change that will allow Sri Lankans to buy basic goods and reduce poverty. The government, whether it includes the Rajapaksa’s or not, needs to listen to the people and not respond with violence by respecting their human rights and undertaking meaningful change.

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South Asia

“Haqeeqi Azaadi” or “Political Invasion”?



You call it a “Long March” or an “Azaadi March” or a “Haqeeqi Azaadi March” and lastly according to some people “Political invasion of the capital”; whatever attempt it may be, the impact of this “Long March” will not be “Short” at all. Seems like history is repeating. Yesterday, it was PTI, later it was TLP, then JUIF, PDM & now again PTI. This reminds us about a Supreme Court’s historic judgment on Faizabad Sit in by Supreme Court, which is quite relevant again in these crucial times. The historic judgment of Supreme Court on Suo moto quotes that “The leaders of the dharna intimidated, hurled threats, abused, provoked and promoted hatred. The media provided unabated coverage. Inflammatory speeches were delivered by irresponsible politicians. Some unscrupulous talk-show hosts incited and provoked citizens.” Isn’t the situation once again similar? Doesn’t it seem like history is repeating? Few analysts consider it to be a worst kind of situation.

Supreme Court writes in its judgment that “the freedom of speech and expression and of the press are fundamental right. However, these rights cannot be used to denigrate or undermine the glory of Islam, security or defence of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, or commission of or incitement to an offence.  He categorically mentions that “PEMRA Ordinance mirrors the restrictions as set out in Article 19 of the Constitution and further prohibits broadcasts which are, “likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.” So, Supreme Court has already given clear instructions that if some event is likely to disrupt peace and tranquility, media broadcasts can be prohibited.

Insiders say that we are in a dead end and this is the most crucial time of history for Pakistan, especially when the economic fate has to be decided by IMF on 25th May when Imran khan marches on Islamabad. So let’s playout the possible upcoming scenarios which political stakeholders may have to consider;

  1. Marching towards Islamabad with huge crowds is one thing but forcing a government to dissolve assemblies with this crowd is another thing. Imran Khan very well knows this is a do or die situation for his political career as well. He knows his March will only succeed if he can force an early election.
  2. Bringing larger mobs to Islamabad will only be fruitful if there is some kind of disruption by the present government or by the PTI itself. IK knows that a prolonged sit in without happenings in the red zone won’t be impactful.
  3. PTI leaders have been repeatedly convincing people including government employees, Army officers and police to bring their families in their Haqeeqi Azaadi March. The question which arises is that “Why IK doesn’t bring own family members to join the “Jihad” or “Haqeeqi Azaadi”?
  4. IMF has to take crucial decision on Pakistan’s economic fate. Without an IMF Package, a Srilanka type scenario may arise. The decision will come on the same date as of long march, on 25th May. This is a do or die situation for Pakistan’s economy. So the leaders of this March should definitely come with a futuristic economic plan and tell the masses how will they get rid of this dire economic situation.
  5. While Srinagar Highway will be full of Marchers led by the so-called Ambassador of Kashmir, a big decision is expected to come from Srinagar about Yasin Malik. Unfortunately, it is expected that his sentencing maybe announced on 25th May as well.

The government also has limited options. They are arresting leaders of PTI. They are raiding houses in their own panic mode which will further incite the situation. The removal of fuel subsidiary has become inevitable and when it happens it will be the most unpopular decision. Rising, Inflation will cut purchasing power. Finalization of IMF program has brought them to a dead end.

The dread is in the air. 25th May is around the corner. It is Crucial. It is Do or Die for Pakistan. We must fear!!

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South Asia

When Politics turns Personal; The Toxic Allegations & Accusations become a Norm



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There is something happening beneath this political turmoil which is NOT looking good!!

Whenever Political landscape turns into a Personal battleground, defeats become unacceptable. These past few days are a perfect case study to see that how Political elite in Pakistan has done whatever it took it to stay in power. In this power grab scenario, there could be numerous losses including the integrity of institutions. We have unfortunately entered into a very dangerous phase, where some political stakeholders have put all stakes at risk, where they have stretched their limits beyond a constitutional limit, all to gather mass support, all to stay in power and avoid defeat. Is it a threat of losing power? Is it a double game? Is it a practical hybrid war we are fighting?  Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be good. All is at stake, all is at risk and all is toxic.

As if the political temperature was not noxious enough, Shireen Mazari Saga took place. Once again, accusations, allegations and assumptions started pouring in against the state institutions. Soon after her arrest, her daughter, a lawyer herself Imaan Zainab Mazari alleged that her mother was beaten by male police officers during the arrest. But few minutes later, a video clip surfaced that showed clearly that her mother was arrested by Female Police officers in broad daylight and as per the law. Lie number 1 of the daughter stood exposed. Within moments, without any cogent evidence the lady, known for many controversies in the past targeted state institution for such an act, although the anti-corruption already had taken responsibility of her arrest.

Abuse of power can never be tolerated, regardless of who it targets or from where it emanates. This mantra is true and everyone has an equal belief on it but let’s take a deep dive to see that how politics turned dirty in this case, how blame game took place and how this entire episode was used as a tool to churn propaganda against Army leadership and Armed Forces.

1. The anti-corruption police had arrested Shireen Mazari and she herself accepted that Prime Minister and Interior minister were responsible for my arrest. But the mother daughter nexus brazenly started blaming institutions without any solid evidence. Shouldn’t there be an inquiry on this too?

2. PTI was always of the opinion that why courts were opened mid night to send IK packing while he wasn’t listening to anyone however when same court gave a verdict in favor of PTI ex minister, late night, it was celebrated and much appreciated by Shireen Mazari & IK who have been spearheading anti judicial tirade until recently. Isn’t it blatant hypocrisy? Judicial inquiry has been ordered by the Court which is a positive sign, but the serious allegations which Mazari nexus have raised must also be inquired during this newly formed judicial inquiry. Should the Judiciary not question them on hurling these baseless allegations?

3. The present government, whose Police itself arrested Shireen Mazari disowned this attempt. Attorney General displayed his ignorance about the matter in front of the court. So, somehow the government created this impression in the public eye that they are not to be blamed for the arrest of Shireen Mazari. Was it a double game? Or a deliberate effort to discredit institutions?

Pakistan is already facing serious economic downfall, political uncertainty and civil strife. PTI has also announced Long March to Islamabad on 25th May which is likely to further exacerbate already fragile political and economic instability. It has become quite evident now for achieving petty political ends, our political elite has no serious resolve to address the crisis confronting the country. Country is being deliberately pushed to limits of economic and political dead end. The political immaturity and lack of vision to handle the crisis situation is also hurting the repute of institutions amidst internal political wrangling. If political leadership doesn’t come to grips of the critical situation prevailing which is likely to aggravate further in coming days, people of Pakistan in particular and the country in general are likely to suffer unprecedented damage. Political elite must put its acts together and steer the country out of prevalent political and economic crisis by showing sagacity and political wisdom until it’s too late.

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