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Large cities in arid to semi-arid climates rely heavily on groundwater and are increasingly at risk of overexploiting this important resource (Saffi 2011; Zaryab 2018). Kabul, Afghanistan is an example that has experienced rapid population growth since the early 2000s and is putting increasing pressure on groundwater resources (Houben et al. 2009; Saffi 2011; Mack et al. 2013; Zaryab 2018). In 2002 Kabul had a population of about 1.8 million, but today that number has more than doubled to about 4 million inhabitants in 2018 (Houben et al. 2009; CIA 2018). With increasing population comes a greater water demand for many different uses, including drinking water, domestic uses, industry, sanitation, and agriculture (Saffi 2011). Since the rivers near Kabul, including the Kabul River, Logar River, and Paghman River, only flow for a few months after snowmelt and high levels of rainfall, the main source of water for the city is groundwater (Saffi, 2011). The growing population is consuming Kabul’s groundwater faster than it can be recharged, which is causing groundwater levels to decline (Houben et al., 2009; Saffi. 2011; Mack et al., 2013; Zaryab et al., 2017). If this trend is not addressed, Kabul will face a severe shortage of drinking water, which will challenge both the environmental security, and economic development of the city (Saffi 2011).
Background on Groundwater Resources
Groundwater is water found beneath the ground that “fully saturates the pores and cracks of the soil and rocks” (“Groundwater Basics” n.d.). Groundwater is stored in saturated, underground layers of permeable rock called aquifers (Figure 1). The topmost level of water in an aquifer is the water table. The water table depth determines how deep wells must be drilled to reach the groundwater for pumping. Lower water tables are more difficult to reach and require more powerful pumps and more energy to pump the water to the surface. Aquifers can be either confined or unconfined (“Aquifers and Groundwater” n.d.). Confined aquifers occur when there is a layer of impermeable rock surrounding the aquifer and the water is contained under pressure (“Aquifers and Groundwater” n.d.). Unconfined aquifers occur when the upper surface of the water table is permeable and open to the atmosphere.
Groundwater can be found beneath the surface nearly everywhere on Earth; in some places the water table is high, or close to the surface and in other places it can be quite deep, hundreds of feet below the ground (“Groundwater Basics” n.d.). Groundwater found near the surface can be only a few days or years old while groundwater that is found deep beneath the Earth’s surface may have taken centuries or even millennia to accumulate (“Groundwater Basics” n.d.). Groundwater accumulates slowly as precipitation and surface water infiltrate, or seep into, soil and permeable rock layers from above. Groundwater flows out of aquifers naturally through springs or, is extracted by pumping water from wells. Groundwater from aquifers is replaced by the process of recharge, which occurs as precipitation and surface water infiltrate into the aquifer. Natural events such as droughts, where there are lower amounts of precipitation, can cause recharge to slow or stop all together (“Aquifers and Groundwater” n.d.).
Figure 1. Groundwater diagram illustrating unconfined, and confined aquifers of increasing depth beneath the surface. The water table is topmost level of water beneath ground. Unconfined aquifers (nearest the surface in Figure 1) have a permeable layer of rock on one or more sides (above in this case). Water is able to infiltrate into unconfined aquifers quickly with relative ease. Impervious rock layers known as confining beds surround confined aquifers. Water is able to seep in and is forced out under pressure at fractures in the confining beds. It may take hundreds or thousands of years for water to infiltrate into confined aquifers, or particularly deep aquifers. (“Groundwater Basics” n.d.)
Figure 2. The Kabul River Basin is located in northeast Afghanistan. Its main surface waters include the Kabul, Logar, and Paghman rivers (Saffi 2011). The city of Kabul is located in the Central Kabul sub-basin, with increasing population Kabul has begun to expand into the nearby Paghman Upper Kabul and Logar subbasins (Mack et al. 2013).
Groundwater Resources in Kabul
The city of Kabul, Afghanistan is situated in the central Kabul sub-basin of the Kabul river basin (Figure 2) (Mack et al. 2013). The central Kabul sub-basin has a semi-arid climate with evapotranspiration rates greater than the annual total precipitation, resulting in chronic water balance deficits and little opportunity for groundwater recharge (Mack et al. 2013). Most of the groundwater recharge in this basin comes from infiltration of surface river water, or diverted irrigation water in agricultural areas (Mack et al., 2013; Houben et al., 2009). This recharge mainly occurs during the spring when snowmelt is occurring in the mountains and in turn supplies the rivers of the Kabul Basin with high levels of water. This is the main time of the year when these rivers are flowing (Houben et al., 2009; Saffi, 2011). Similarly, a famous Afghan proverb states, “may Kabul be without gold but not without snow” which displays the extreme importance of the spring snowmelt and the water availability it brings to the city of Kabul.
Over Consumption of Groundwater
Kabul is dependent on groundwater supplies, since there is little surface water available year round near the city of Kabul to meet its water needs (Saffi 2011; Mack et al., 2013; Houben et al., 2009). About 20 percent of residents in Kabul have access to tap water, while the remaining 80 percent rely on shallow wells that are equipped with hand pumps (Mack et al. 2013). The wells used for drinking water are shallow, generally less than 30 meters deep, and are primarily family or community owned while there are some wells that are operated by municipalities (Mack et al. 2013). Although there are municipal wells and distribution systems there is little to no management of the groundwater resources in Kabul (Mack et al. 2013). From 2008 to 2016 groundwater levels in the city were declining at a rate of about 1.7 meters per year on average and in some areas had declined as much as 4 meters per year (Mack et al. 2013; Zaryab et al. 2017) Since groundwater levels have been declining rapidly, many very shallow wells are no longer in operation (Zaryab et al. 2017). A 2004 study conducted on the water supply in Kabul found that an estimated population of about 4 million inhabitants would have a water demand of around 123.4 million m3 per year (JICA 2011). However, Saffi (2011) stated that the groundwater availability in Kabul is approximately 44 million m3 per year and can only support about 2 million residents if they are all consuming a modest 50 liters per day. This trend of overexploitation is leading to declining groundwater levels and presents a long-term sustainability concern for the city of Kabul since there is little surface water available.
Declining Groundwater Quality
Groundwater overconsumption in Kabul has also led to the rising concern of groundwater deterioration. Since the aquifers that the city draws upon are shallow they are classified as “groundwater under the influence of surface water”, which means that any contaminants found in surface water are likely to also contaminate the groundwater (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). A main contaminant that negatively impacts Kabul’s groundwater is human sewage (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016; Zaryab et al. 2017). Since this fast growing city does not have a centralized sewer system and only an estimated five percent have access to an actual sewer system, many of its resident resort to dumping their sewage and other waste on the open ground or in sewer gutters, which ultimately ends up contaminating the underlying groundwater (Figure 3) (Saffi 2011; Nordland 2013; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016; Zaryab et al. 2017). It is estimated that in Afghanistan 70% of urban populations, like Kabul, do not have access to potable drinking water and consume water that has been affected by human sewage (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). The presence fecal matters in water can cause bacterial contamination leading to increased levels of coliform bacteria, which are commonly either fecal coli form or E. coli (Saffi 2011). These bacteria can cause “intestinal infections, dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid fever, cholera, and other illnesses” (Saffi 2011).
Human sewage and wastewater can also cause high levels of nitrates in groundwater (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Nitrates are especially problematic for infants that are under six months old; it impedes the child’s ability to transport oxygen within their blood causing oxygen deficiency and is otherwise known as “blue baby syndrome” (Saffi 2011). Exposure to drinking water with high nitrate levels can also be harmful to pregnant or nursing women, potentially causing birth defects (Saffi 2011). With the predicted population increase over the coming years in Kabul, continued groundwater pollution by sewage and other waste is inevitable unless a comprehensive central sewer system and water treatment facilities are installed throughout the city.
Figure 3. The Kabul River is where many residents of Kabul dump their sewage and other waste, which is causing there to be large amounts of contamination in the underlying groundwater (Nordland 2013).
There are many factors that have contributed to the overexploitation of groundwater resources along with the deterioration of groundwater quality in Kabul including the lack of groundwater knowledge, management and monitoring policies, and the low levels of infrastructure put in place (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). It is necessary that the government in Kabul start to take steps to progress in these areas of concern so that a clean and sustainable water source can be secured for the residents of the city (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Kabul may face a severe water shortage in the future if the issues of contamination and over consumption of groundwater are not addressed (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016).
Over three decades of war in Afghanistan have led to eroded levels of water wisdom and the destruction of historical water resource records (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Water measuring equipment, infrastructure, and related policies were almost all erased during this time (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). This lack of knowledge has greatly impacted the groundwater resources all over Afghanistan and specifically the city of Kabul. With little insight into the complex processes that affect groundwater it can be difficult to implement effective policies, develop applicable infrastructure, and maintain a sustainable level of groundwater (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Increasing the institutional and governmental knowledge of groundwater resources is one of the foundational steps that the city of Kabul can take to start to tackle the imminent issues facing its groundwater resources (Saffi 2011; Mack et al. 2013; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). In 2001, after the Western Coalition of troops invaded Afghanistan there were large amounts of money and effort invested into expanding the levels of hydrological knowledge in the Afghan government and also at the university level (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). However, specifically since the Kabul Basin houses one third of the nations population, there must be continued investment into gaining information on water resources, especially that of groundwater (Akhtar 2017).
A groundwater task force or committee should be created by the government of Kabul that is intended to increase governmental knowledge on groundwater resources in the Kabul Basin. Connections should be made with local universities and agencies such as, United States Geological Survey or the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) to help conduct hydrological research and create centralized databases for information related to groundwater resources such as stream flow, precipitation, consumption, and contaminant levels (Saffi 2011). Once information is gathered about groundwater resources in this area, it is necessary to educate the proper government officials so they can implement effective management policies and monitoring programs (Saffi 2011).
Groundwater Management and Monitoring
Groundwater management or monitoring policies in Kabul are nearly non-existent (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). There are no water quality monitoring programs set up by the government for the thousands of groundwater wells that are drawing upon the aquifers beneath Kabul, where citizens are potentially consuming contaminated water (Saffi 2011; Zaryab et al. 2017). Implementing such programs could help alert citizens that the water they are pumping from a well could be contaminated and need further treatment. Having wells equipped with water quality monitoring systems could help to reduce illness caused by drinking contaminated groundwater and could in turn improve public health. It is necessary to begin monitoring the water quality at the well level to see where capital investments need to be made to improve groundwater quality. The creation of anti-degradation policies that aim to protect the quality of groundwater by reducing pollution would also be beneficial to the city of Kabul (Saffi 2011). Creating public awareness programs that teach citizens about the impacts of pollution and poor sanitation practices could further increase the groundwater quality (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Another option to help improve and provide safe drinking water to citizens in Kabul is invest in DACAAR’s sand-filled biofilter program, where households are provided with filters to treat water that has been impacted by human sewage and bacteria (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). With more of these filters, those who are receiving contaminated water would be able to filter and treat it within their own home.
There are also no groundwater quantity monitoring programs that help track the amount of water that the well users are consuming (Saffi 2011; Zaryab et al. 2017). Tracking water consumption could help the government create conservation policies that could cap the amount of water that each well could pump out daily and help to raise the water tables to their former levels. Another way to track groundwater quantity is a relatively new passive seismic method which could help the city of Kabul to map out the fault boundaries of its aquifers and target areas where there is groundwater accumulation and where there needs to be further exploration (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2018). Implementing these groundwater management and monitoring programs could help to reduce groundwater overconsumption as well as groundwater contamination.
There is little infrastructure in place to manage the groundwater resources surrounding the growing city of Kabul. The lack of a centralized sewer system and water treatment facilities has lead to residents disposing of wastewater in sewer ditches or gutters, which eventually pollutes the underlying groundwater (Saffi 2011; Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016; Zaryab 2017). Even when sewer infrastructure does exist, the operation and maintenance of the systems is not of high priority to the Afghan government and can cause there to be releases of human waste and sewage (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). Implementing large infrastructure has fallen to the wayside in The creation of a centralized sewer system is necessary for the city of Kabul to increase levels of sanitation and reduce groundwater pollution. Although this would be a large investment, it would greatly improve the quality of water and public health for the city. An alternative to a centralized sewer system or while a system is being constructed, the city of Kabul could create a public awareness campaign to educate the public on the proper protocol to disposing of sewage or create designated areas for sewage dumping (Saffi 2011; Shroder 2016).
There are also no centralized water distribution systems causing citizens to use unregulated shallow wells as their main source for drinking water. Investment needs to be made into creating a network of pipelines to distribute water to residents of Kabul because as the groundwater levels continue to decline, people have to walk far distances to wells just to meet their daily demands for water or they face having to pay high prices for trucked water that is trucked in (Shroder & Ahmadzai 2016). An alternative to a centralized water distribution system could be subsidizing water that is trucked in for those located in areas where there are no operating wells.
The exponential population growth occurring in Kabul, Afghanistan over the past decade has lead to both declining groundwater levels and increased contamination of groundwater (Houben et al. 2009; Saffi 2011; Mack et al. 2013; Zaryab 2018). Since much of the nations information on water resources was either lost or destroyed during several decades of war during the 1970s one of the foundational steps that the city of Kabul can take to begin reversing and mitigating its groundwater resource issues is to increase the governmental and institutional knowledge on the topic. Creating groundwater resource management policies and monitoring programs will help to manage both the quantity and quality of the groundwater that is being consumed. It is also vital that Kabul begins to invest in large infrastructure projects related to groundwater, included a centralized sewer system, a distribution network, and water treatment facilities. If this trend of declining groundwater quantity and quality continues it will have an irreversible impact on the aquifers, the socioeconomic development of the city, and the health of the public (Hoben et. 2009; Saffi 2011; Zaryab et al. 2017).
- Akhtar, F. 2017. Water availability and demand analysis in the Kabul River Basin, Afghanistan. PhD diss., D-nb.info: German National Library.
- Aquifers and Groundwater. n.d. USGS. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/aquifers-and-groundwater?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
- CIA. 2018. The World Factbook: Afghanistan. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html
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- Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Study Team, 2011. Draft Kabul City Master Plan. Product of Technical Cooperation Project for Promotion of Kabul Metropolitan Area Development Sub Project for Revise the Kabul City Master Plan.
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- Nordland, R. 2013. Despite a Whiff of Unpleasant Exaggeration, a City’s Pollution Is Real. New York Times, January 21.
- Saffi M. H. 2011. Groundwater Natural Resources and Quality Concern in Kabul Basin, Afghanistan. Scientific Investigation Report in Afghanistan.
- Shroder, John F., and Sher Jan. Ahmadzai. Transboundary Water Resources in Afghanistan: Climate Change and Land-Use Implications. Elsevier, 2016.
- Zaryab, A., Noori , A. R., Wegerich, K., Klove, B. (2017). Assessment of water quality and quantity trends in Kabul aquifers with an outline for future drinking supplies. Central Asian Journal of Water Research. 3(2): 3-11.
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