Deal or No Deal: Tricky Trans-Boundary Water Issues with Pakistan
By: Humayoon Babur
The Kabul River Basin is one of Afghanistan’s most populated and highly heterogenic rivers and is a critical tributary of the Indus Basin which is covering four counties; China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Known as a trans-boundary water source, the Kabul River Basin flows into Pakistan though still there exists no treaty between the two neighboring countries. But the present view of the Kabul River Basin, specifically from inside Kabul city, looks dried, dingy and contaminated with sewage waste and becomes a plastic stockpile.In the past, some of the elder residents of Kabul city had fond memories of the old Kabul River.
Gul Agha Habibi, 62, a resident of the Chehilstoon area of Kabul city, and one who served in the late Dr. Najibullah’s government said that the Kabul River had a spectacular view for Kabulis in earlier years, unfortunately, the imposed chaos of war has changed everything. “It was like a River Thames of London in the heart of Kabul,” he said.
Fighting over water resources is as old as human history, but cooperation and mutual treaties on the shared water resources between riparian states is the only solution for water disputes in many parts of the World. Afghanistan is an upstream state and has a 2600Km long border. The country shares a watercourse with the lower riparian state of Pakistan. It is predicted that the future scarcity of water will affect both nations, politically, socially and economically.
Since 2001, Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid. If the fragile state manages its natural resources including water, it could be self-reliant and reduce dependency on aid. With goodwill, this could happen in the long-run and would enhance economic development and social welfare of poor people where in 2018, 54 percent live below the poverty line.
Shortage of water in the Kabul River will begin to affect the agricultural sector and damage the technical performance of Pakistan which could trigger a conflict between the two countries that have been facing difficulties for decades. With this notion in mind, a while ago, the Afghan government had a plan to construct hydropower projects on the Kabul River Basin by collaborating with donors including India as a rival state with Pakistan. If this idea is realized, it may affect the flow of water to the lower riparian.
Since, 2014, President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government’s political and diplomatic ties with Pakistan is fragile and fragmented over the Taliban and the territory they hold, therefore it could be quite tricky to negotiate on trans-boundary water issues in the future.
Meanwhile, water experts from both countries believe that any delay and postponement of talks between the two states on trans-boundary water issues could worsen the political dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abdul Wali Yousufzai, head of Zarghoon Green Movement, and a retired water expert in the Peshawar valley of Pakistan, believes that there is a tremendous need for a treaty on the shared water resources between Afghanistan and Pakistan and this will play a vital part in avoiding future conflict. Both nations should maintain a peaceful, holistic approach and find a rational solution to the foreseen water scarcity and energy crises.
“Water dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a matter requiring resolution for the sake of humanity removed from political discrepancies. This is a matter of plants and animals, and importantly much concern is building with regard to future generations,” Yousufzai says. “Both countries cannot keep water within their territory, the Kabul river water is contaminated by chemicals. It should be resolved harmoniously through water experts and an institutionalized treaty that could be developed between the two riparian states.”
Due to the country’s geographical location and ongoing conflict, Afghanistan cannot manage and govern its vital infrastructures including the water as an upper riparian state with neighboring countries such as; Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. Kabul can play a critical role to make further gains on water discussion with Islamabad and Tehran.
With Pakistan, another obstacle regarding water issues is the Durand Line which has created an historical dilemma for Afghans and a proper framework is needed to discuss this in accordance with International norms. However, from the climate change point of view and water scarcity any delayed reaction could complicate the conflict over water resources between the two countries.
Furthermore, the Pakistani water expert added that water insecurity began in 1960 and both nations are now facing a severe shortage of water. Almost four decades of conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest, the revitalization of green areas will need 100 years, and the decline of precipitation is an influential factor on water shortage. The universal demand for water is expected to exceed supply by 40 percent within the next twenty years. Therefore, all partners and stakeholders should consider water as a serious debate right now and significant to future generations.
“Afghanistan does not have much capacity at present to resolve water disputes with neighboring countries. Any postponement of action and late decisions by the Afghan government will provide more gains to our neighbors who will have an advantage over Afghans when it comes to negotiations over water,” said Asadullah Meelad, former head of water law at the Ministry of Water and Energy of Afghanistan.