A River That Went from Riches to Rags: Kabul River

History of Kabul River Basin

The Kabul River Basin was formed in 2011. It comprises 14 sub-basin rivers, from across Kabul, Maidan Wardak, Parwan, Kapisa, Panjshir, Logar, Paktia, Khost, Paktika, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Ghazni and Nuristan provinces.

The Kabul River is a historical symbol of the Kabul city, which enhances the city’s beauty. In the past, there was abundant water in the river, but unfortunately, due to the recent droughts, the Kabul River has no water left. On the other hand, ignorance and neglect of people and the authorities has made the Kabul River a waste site and a safe haven for drug addicts. Once upon a time, some shops were built there, and people used to call it the Titanic Bazar.

Status of Kabul River

The phenomenon of climate change across the globe is a severe threat, and Afghanistan is suffering from this phenomenon too, as drying up of the Kabul River demonstrates itself as an example.

The director of Kabul River Basin (KRB), Engineer Marouf Masir, says that the Kabul River was full of water in the past, but currently, the river’s depth has declined while the rainy months of this river have come forward. (Masir, 2018)

According to Mr. Masir, the current capacity of this river basin is 146 million m3 (cubic meters) per year, which shows a big difference in the river compared to ten years ago.

Tayib Bromand, Water Resources and Climate Change Adaptation Specialist says that based on the researches that are done with the help of ministry of Energy and Water, Kabul River’s water level capacity are predicted as follows during these years. (Bromand, 2018)

Analysis and Prediction of Kabul Surface water

Environmental experts say that major factors of Kabul Rivers’ drought are climate change and no rainfall, and most countries suffer from these issues.

Dr. Khadija Javadi, an environmental and water expert, says that currently the weather temperature has decreased to an average of 1.6 Celsius Degrees throughout the provinces in Afghanistan, causing excessive degradation, decline in fresh water, destruction of ecosystem and diminution of the moisture extent (Javadi, 2018).

Engineer Marouf Masir, who is also an environmental expert, says that due to climate change, we have lost most of our snowy and glacial resources, and now the only resource we have in Afghanistan is rain, which too are scanty and temporary. Due to lack of water dams, unfortunately we lose the temporary rainwater, as well.”

Dr. Javadi also emphasises that the major climatic impacts on the KRB begun since the year 2000, with the greatest impact on the upstream of the river being in the agriculture sector, because the high water level from the upper hand is consumed by agricultural activities, and because of this, less water will remain for the Kabul River.

According to Dr. Javadi, more water consumption in agricultural activities has led to a series of climate changes, such as water scarcity, reduced humidity, increased heat, increased pollution in Kabul city and reduced water absorption in the surface.

And finally, Mr. Brumand pointed out that the country will face challenges if necessary policies are not taken.

Based on experts, another reason for the reduction of water resources of the KRB is the increase in population. “The number of population in Afghanistan cities, particularly in Kabul and the area of KRB are growing day by day. In contrast, many consumers have infiltrated the water resources, which is why the Kabul River is faced with such problems,” said Engineer Marouf Masir.

Mr. Bromand adds that the excessive increase in the population can also be an important reason behind the declining level of water. According to the research conducted by him, the increase in population has been as follows.

Government’s Failure in Taking Preventive Measures

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the difference between drought in Afghanistan and drought in other countries is that other countries are prepared to face climate change, as they are the creators of climate change. However, Afghanistan does not have any climate change mitigation strategy and no preventive measures in this regard. For this reason, environmentalists believe that Afghanistan is highly vulnerable to climate change.

For example, the flood in Panjshir province because of earth’s heat and melting of glaciers, caused many people to suffer in the province, and the government did not take any preventive measures in this regard.

The other weakness of the Afghan government is the inability to manage water consumption. The Afghan government has not yet been able to provide a regular urban water system for its citizens, even in the capital, Kabul. Most Afghans living in the cities, especially in Kabul, are digging wells and using underground water for drinking. Therefore, each house in Kabul city has a deep well and households use it for drinking water.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) of Afghanistan, currently only 31% of Kabul city citizens have access to the water supply network, which is not a government-owned water supply network, and also rather ineffective as its run by private companies. However, about 69% of Kabul city citizens get their drinking water by digging deep-water wells, most of which are inadequate. In addition, Kabul might be the only capital with no canalisation and the citizens still use septic wells for sewerage.

The Afghan government has not yet been able to provide a regular urban water system for its citizens, even in the capital, Kabul

Afghan MoEW statistics show that each person in the Kabul city consumes about 120 litres of water in 24 hours, while on the other hand, based on standard even 70 litres is enough for each person in 24 hours.

The Consumer Demographics

In the past, population of water consumers in the Kabul River were very small, and the water resources of this river were derived more from snow, which is a stable source than rain. However, with an increase in water consumers of Kabul River, the water sources of river have changed from a constant source (snow) to a temporary source (rain). According to the MoEW of Afghanistan, the population of water consumers of the Kabul River has increased from 2 million to 5 million.

War and insecurity in most of Afghanistan’s provinces have displaced many people and made them migrate to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in huge numbers. However, according to ecologists, water shortages in Kabul with a population of more than 5 million have become a major crisis, and if water consumption is not managed properly, then the groundwater will perish and people have to leave the city a few years down the line.

Transforming a Challenge into an Opportunity

Now, the Kabul River is filled with garbage and has caused environmental problems which is a big nuisance for the citizens of Kabul. However, Afghan government officials emphasize that they have plans to turn this challenge into an opportunity.

Kabul River is filled with garbage and has caused environmental problems which is a big nuisance for the citizens of Kabul

According to them, many projects are planned to be implemented over the Kabul River. One of these projects is the construction of Shahtut Dam, which, according to the Afghan government officials, will give a new life to the Kabul river, and will enable the river to have constant water.

The director KRB engineer Masir, says that the construction of Shahtut Dam on the Kabul River will help more than two million people to have access to drinking water and it could boost the groundwater level as well. The project to build the damn above Kabul River is financed by India. The Shahtut Dam will be built over five years with a budget of $246 million in Lalandar area of the Maidan Valley.

According to the director of KRB, other plans and projects are on the way to be launched over KRB area, as it will include Kabul’s River and its parts.

The “Shah and Aroos” Dam will be constructed in Shakar Darra district of Kabul province, and according to the MoEW officials, the work has progressed by more than 50 percent. Based on the plan, Shah and Aroos Dam will generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity, while 5 million m3 of dam’s water will be used for drinking water in the Kabul city.

The Shah and Aroos Dam is being built with a budget of $48 million from the Afghan government’s development budget. The dam is supposed to be 708 meters in height, and can store about 10 million m3 water. In addition to generating electricity and providing drinking water for the citizens of Kabul city, this dam will irrigate about 1,500 hectares of agricultural land as well.

The “Shah and Aroos” Dam will be constructed in Shakar Darra district of Kabul province, and according to the MoEW officials, the work has progressed by more than 50 percent

Citizens’ role in changing the status of Kabul River

Kabul River flows approximately from the mid of Kabul city. Now, due to drought, it has become a place where families and shopkeepers dump their garbage. Some of the Kabul citizens believe that since there are few recycle bins across Kabul city, people throw their trash into the Kabul River.

Javid, a resident of Kabul, who has a burger and fries shop near Kabul River, says that he is collecting his garbage during the day and dropping it into the Kabul River at night because he does not want municipality workers to see him throwing garbage in the river.

Fazl Rabbi, who runs a student dormitory in the Kot-e-Sangi area of Kabul city, says that he does not have a septic well for his dormitory, and the sewerage of toilets goes directly to the Kabul River.

Yet, environmental experts in Afghanistan point that the Kabul River is a good source for boosting up the groundwater tables and it needs to be ridden of garbage. Currently, the river does not only become a place for garbage but most of septic wells are also connected to it as well.

“We do not know anything about water abutment and water resources abutment in Afghanistan,” says Khadija Javadi, a university professor and water expert. “For the same reason, the Kabul River has become garbage-dumping sport, where all parts of it are covered with dirt and sewerage water, and this is a great shame.”

With such a situation regarding the Kabul River, the Capital Region Independent Development Authority (CRIDA) took over the cleaning plan of the river off the garbage, and by this project, the surface of river went down. However, one year after cleansing the river by CRIDA, it has returned to its first form and became full of dirt and garbage, which means the cleaning project, was a failure.

Fazl Rabbi, who runs a student dormitory in the Kot-e-Sangi area of Kabul city, says that he does not have a septic well for his dormitory, and the sewerage of toilets goes directly to the Kabul River

Nevertheless, environmental and water experts believes that cleaning the river will not have any positive outcome, until citizens do not feel responsible enough regarding the river and refuse to throw away garbage in it.

Lack of public awareness due to the low literacy level in Afghanistan is another major challenge that has led many citizens not to take responsibility for the city’s cleanliness and they consider cleaning of city as solely the responsibility for the municipality.

Hassan Gholami, a knowledgeable environmentalist, emphasises that public awareness for families, specifically for women, is very important as women can play a greater role in having cleaner environment and saving water in Afghanistan. Based on these experts, women contribute more on educating children in Afghanistan than men, and the encouragement of mothers for their children in saving water and keeping the environment clean, can play an effective role.

Afghanistan’s water and government’s failure to control

Afghanistan has a mountainous terrain, which enables the country to have rich running water and underground resources. According to the MoEW of Afghanistan, currently, the country with its 5 water basins has 57 billion m3 running water and 18 billion m3 underground water, annually. According to International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in 2002, this figure was 55 billion m3 running water and 20 billion m3 of groundwater per year.

Current water levels are significant, given the current Afghan population and development needs of the country, which, if managed effectively, can stimulate the development of the agricultural sector and contribute to accelerating the process of energy safety in Afghanistan.

However, the cross-border Rivers of Afghanistan in four major water basins of the country, Amu River Basin, Kabul River Basin, Helmand River Basin, and the Harirud-Morghab River Basin, which extend their reaches to neighboring countries, encounter slow pace in the implementation of plans and strategies for utilization of those waters.

A research center under the name of the “Afghanistan’s New Research and Study Center (ANRSC)”, which is being established for management of Afghanistan’s water resources, estimated that Afghanistan uses only 30% of its water. On November 2016, Officials of the ANRSC had announced that 70 percent of Afghanistan’s water flows to neighboring countries.


After this research was publishes, Hamid Karzai, former Afghanistan President, also described Afghanistan’s water flow towards neighboring countries as “disturbing.” Karzai added that Afghanistan can only provide water to its neighbors, if it has “surplus water”. He stressed that Afghanistan’s neighbors should pay money for using Afghanistan’s water, because the country needs development itself as well.

The Afghan government only has a water sharing agreement with Iran on the Helmand River. The agreement was signed at the time of Mousa Shafiq, prime minister of Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan. Based on the agreement, an amount of about 817 million m3 of water from the entrance of the Kajaki Dam was given to Iran per year.

Nevertheless, about 14% of Helmand’s water is given to Iran in normal years, and the contract notes that if Helmand’s water is less than 5.6 billion m3, less water will be given to Iran and if it was higher the limit, more water will be allocated to Iran.

According to officials from the MoEW, Iran receives 26 m3 of water from the Helmand River per second, of which 22 m3 of the water is based from the agreement, and another 4 m3 of water, has been given to Iran because of good neighbourliness by Afghanistan. But Afghanistan does not have any agreement to divide the water of other water basins with neighbouring countries.

The absence of specific contracts and agreements on Afghan water basins that flows to neighbouring countries is part of the water problem in Afghanistan. The waters of the Amu, Kunar, Helmand and Harirud Rivers are flowing into Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian countries, and still the share of neighbouring countries in the waters of Afghanistan is unknown.

Some environmental and water experts believe the neighbours of Afghanistan have benefited from the current insecurity in Afghanistan and they use the river waters of the country, freely.

Helmand River


The findings of this report show that Kabul water zone is also influenced by the climate change which has adversely affected it since the year 2000. It has mostly affected the top areas of the river where most of the water are being consumed for agriculture purpose; hence, less water remains in the Kabul River.

Another significant cause of the declining water source of Kabul River is the growth the population. Officials in the ministry of energy and water declare that the population is growing day by day in most of the cities specifically Kabul and this water zone.

Deteriorating water level in this water zone has caused certain climate problems such as moisture reduction, increase in the temperature degree, pollution and reduction of water absorption in the underground sources.

Findings of this report indicate that this sea zone has turned to a challenge rather than an opportunity for the Kabul citizens. Kabul river passes through the cities and due to its drainage, has turned to a waste disposal spot for households and shopkeepers.

Lack of a proper management system by government for usage of water by the citizens has also caused Kabul River to face water problem.



Bromand, T. (2018, 10 28). Water Resources . (M. Sultani, Interviewer)

Javadi, K. (2018, 09 15). Environmental and water expert. (M. Sultani, Interviewer)

Masir, M. (2018, 10 25). Kabul River . (M. Sultani, Interviewer)

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