Kabul residents queue for hours for water as Afghan capital runs dry in prolonged drought

Country's crisis worsens as climate change and conflict take their toll

Women and children are usually given the job of fetching water in drought-hit parts of Afghanistan. AFP
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In Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, 14-year-old Hussain has only one job and it takes all day.

To fetch a few precious gallons of water, using a wheelbarrow, he takes a 15-minute walk to the nearest water point and queues for up to 14 hours.

“One day he left at two in the afternoon and didn't return until 4am the next morning,” says Hussain’s 43-year-old father, Nader Saadi.

“Despite it being his midterm exam period, instead of studying, he has to go and fetch water.”

The family's difficulties do not end with just Hussain obtaining the water. Whatever he manages to collect is often contaminated.

After the long and taxing wait to get the water, they let it sit for a few hours to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom.

Once settled, they must then boil the water, a necessary and costly precaution to kill any harmful bacteria and make it safe for drinking.

More than half of Kabul's six million residents do not have access to clean water, an official from the Ministry of Energy and Water told The National, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said if the situation remains unchanged, life in the capital could become untenable in just a decade.

Afghanistan is in its third consecutive year of drought largely blamed on climate change.

What little water is available has to be drawn from unsafe sources and 30 out of 34 provinces are reporting extremely low water quality, the World Food Programme found.

Akhar Sohail, an environmental activist, says climate change is a very real threat and warns that the existing water sources are rapidly depleting.

A recent conflict between the Taliban and Iranian border police compelled him to visit a village in the Dawlat Abad district of Balkh.

There, he engaged with locals, raising awareness, and fostering discussions about the pressing issue of climate change.

“Convincing people to conserve water is a significant challenge. When I bring up the topic of climate change, they often respond with amusement,” Mr Sohail adds, expressing the difficulties in promoting environmental awareness and urgency in the community.

This grim reality not only affects residents' basic need for water but also presents a considerable health threat. The shortage of clean water for drinking, cleaning and bathing can lead to severe illnesses like cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and even kidney stones – all conditions commonly associated with consuming contaminated water.

According to a report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, from January 1 to May 21, 2023, there were 54,908 reported cases of cholera, including 20 deaths in Afghanistan.

Qader Nawabi, a paediatrician serving in a private clinic, notes a trend.

Each day, he says there is a growing number of patients suffering from diarrhoea, a situation that seems to be worsened by the intensifying heat and the city's pervasive lack of access to clean water.

“Just recently, I received a 12-year-old patient suffering from a kidney stone,” said Dr Nawabi. “The poor girl was in severe pain. The stone was large and there's no possibility of removing it without surgical intervention.”

Bibi Amina, a 57-year-old woman, was forced to flee from Kunduz province in 2019 because of the continuing Taliban conflict.

Since then, she and her family of ten have made a tent in a refugee camp in North Kabul their home.

In the city, where temperatures can soar up to 35°C, finding water has always been a struggle. However, since April, the situation has significantly deteriorated, making their survival even more challenging.

“We wait in endless lines under the harsh sun for hours, all to fetch water. Two of my children have suffered from dehydration due to these conditions, and now they are both ill,” she says.

”But I have no money to take then to the doctor.”

Nader Saadi says the majority of those tasked with the job of fetching water are women and children.

“I have seen children bring their blankets and sleep on the street at night, waiting for their turn to fetch water,” he adds.

Updated: July 17, 2023, 6:17 AM