Saturday, August 6, 2011

Afghanistan’s forgotten water crisis

The Forgotten Front: Water Security and the Crisis in Sanitation, Afghanistan Human Development Report 2011.

In the face of troop withdrawals and peace talks, an invisible crisis lurks in Afghanistan: that of water and sanitation. The numbers prove startling. Six children die every hour for want of a glass of clean water or sanitation; 16.8 million Afghans lack access to basic drinking water; some 95% of all Afghans cannot access a safe toilet. As with the war, at root of these challenges is the problem of governance.

We are largely accustomed to thinking of Afghanistan as the site of terrorist evil, the source of countless NATO soldier deaths, and the graveyard of empires. Our foreign policy discourse pivots on the questions of Taliban peace talks, Al Qaeda’s safe havens and how to reverse opium production. These all amount to a view of Afghanistan as a failed state, with limited rule of law much less basic service provision.

But Afghanistan is also a place of endemic human poverty. The recent multidimensional poverty index shows that 84% of Afghan households are deprived in standards of living, health and education at the same time. Despite ranking among the world’s top 20 countries in the number of women parliamentarians, Afghanistan also features at the bottom of the gender-related development index for 154 countries in 2009. The nomadic kuchis are the most deprived of all Afghans across the board.

These trends often go hand in hand with insecurity and violence: Helmand is seat both of the lowest literacy rates and deadliest fighting. Yet, poverty and violence are not wholly consonant one with the other. Eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan tribal areas - billed as the most volatile border in the world - also sees some of the better health rates in the country.

These relationships need careful investigation: not only for what lessons they impart for counterinsurgency and global terrorism, but - and perhaps more importantly - for what mean to the lives and livelihoods of Afghans. Redressing their poverty challenges, then, can also prove a major subsequent boost to the war on terror. Confusing the means and ends through continual military doctrines, though, does little to help either situation.

Moreover, Afghanistan’s human development has been on the rise despite violence. Declines in child and maternal mortality rates help elevate health achievements. The country’s human development index has increased over the last 20 years. Primary and secondary school intakes nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008. Inabilities, however, to access clean drinking water, a toilet or irrigation act as brakes to this progress.

Climate change can also slow and reverse advances. Declining water availability, increasing floods and droughts, and a range of economic and health impacts will continue to threaten human development in Afghanistan. Climate shocks leading to heightened water crisis interact with many Afghans’ already high vulnerabilities to leave them at significant risk of a collapse in their choices and opportunities to live full, dignified lives.

Is this because Afghanistan is a water scarce country, with few rivers and parched lands? This is hardly the case. Enough water exists in the country to meet the human right of 20 liters per person per day hundreds of times over. Geography, however, is one part of the challenge: while most Afghans tend to reside near major water sources, the tremendous water availability is not distributed to all regions equally.

Yet the deeper answer lies in governance. Most of Afghanistan's water escapes underutilized over its borders to neighboring countries. A great deal is also wasted, perhaps as much as 40% of water resources simply evaporating into the air as crops, grass and weeds drown in over-watering. Irrigation schemes systemically lack efficiency, with underground canals that transport water onto farms still severely damaged from decades of war and neglect. And branches of government vie for control of the blue gold: a fragmented structure places responsibility for water in the hands of several ministries, from mines to agriculture to water itself, leaving a complex reality for water governance.

The mismanagement crisis is acute. Kabul City, growing at phenomenal urbanization rates, may see a complete drying out of its drinking water in just a few years. Food security across whole pockets of Afghanistan rises and falls based on shifting glacier melt and seasonal water availability. And dialogue towards transboundary water sharing agreements is virtually mute for fear of geopolitical reprisals.

International aid is pivotal for governance as well. Over $24 billion in bilateral and multilateral aid funneled into Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009. Less than 5% went to the water sector, or about $3.31 per Afghan. This represents minor fractions of the $26.50 given to Iraq or $25.00 to Pakistan.

Improving water governance, aid and adapting to climate risks are key ways forward. Expanding on the local National Solidarity Program to rehabilitate and build irrigation canals, village wells and educating children on hygiene can deliver considerable results. Creating ‘water jobs’, moreover, can play the double role of serving Afghan human development and counterinsurgency, keeping the youth at over half the country’s population busy - with some estimates putting agricultural incomes of $4 per day enough to persuade many from joining the insurgency.

A country's human development should not be left to severe mismanagement or weather forecasts. Stepping up the war on terror effort towards a dedicated war on water insecurity and deprivation can help produce a firm exit strategy. It would also help sustain the human development of a people who have experienced decades of war.