When Shoaib Musawi entered the well-digging trade 15 years ago, all he needed to sink a well shaft in central Kabul was a pick and shovel. Simply digging down around 10 feet was often enough to tap into the Afghan capital’s groundwater reserves and set up a community hand pump for hundreds of families.
In the intervening decade-and-a-half, Kabul’s unquenchable demand for water has meant Mr Musawi’s old methods have now been hopelessly left behind. The unchecked growth of the city has seen demand from its roughly six million inhabitants’ cause the water table to plummet and trigger a looming water crisis.
Geological surveys have shown the water level dropping by more than 6ft per year in some parts of the city. In the worst affected areas, well diggers like Mr Musawi must now employ drills reaching down sometimes more than 330ft (100m) to secure water.
A burgeoning population, unregulated drilling, the asphalting or concreting of swathes of land and climate change are all blamed for the receding groundwater.
The city is running out of water so quickly that it may become uninhabitable for some, suggests Najib Fahim Agha, a former minister for disaster management.
“There is a possibility that the capital [Kabul] will be like Sana’a in Yemen, a capital without water. It could lead people to emigrate back to villages.”
He said the urban sprawl of concrete and asphalt was no longer able to absorb water from rain and snow, meaning the groundwater could not be replenished. The receding water was also leaving empty underground chambers that would make the city’s foundations unstable.
“The loss of groundwater creates a silent earthquake in the city,” he explained. “When the groundwater dries up, it leaves holes within the ground and makes the ground ready for falling apart. With a small pressure, the city could crumble. It would destruction of buildings. It is also possible that the ground will open up a hole.”
Unregulated industrial use of water, for example by soft drinks factories and iron smelting plants were also depleting stocks.
“These private companies are like dragons that hoard the treasure of water,” he said.
Only a small proportion of the city has any mains water. As water recedes, the rich dig wells deeper and the poor who see their shallow community pumps runs dry are instead left to rely on private firms who have the resources to drill and sell on water.
Mr Musawi pointed to one community pump in West Kabul which was now 50m deep, tapping into groundwater that was 20m underground last year and 30m underground this year. Yet only 10 yards away, a clanking drill machine was digging 110m down for a new government academy.
Mujib Azizi, a researcher at the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, said that climate change would make the situation worse. Agriculture and water stocks are largely dependent on mountain snowcaps melting during the spring.
Yet recent years have seen highly variable snowfall. The sight of only a light dusting of snow on the mountains surrounding Kabul this year has become another worry for residents already dealing with violence, a sharp economic recession and crime.
“The Taliban will go away, the Islamic State will go away, thefts will go away, but climate change is here to stay,” said Mr Azizi. “We need to change our lifestyle to adapt to climate change.”
The government says it has a host of schemes underway to protect groundwater.
Nizam Khpalwak, spokesman for the National Water Affairs Regulation Authority said a series of small check dams will slow the water run-off and two larger dams, including one with £220m of funding from India will help store reliable water, he said. A pipeline will also bring water from Panjshir, he said.
Mr Azizi said the problem was not confined to Kabul.
“We do not face the problem only in Kabul but all over the country. Today less than 20 percent of the population have access to drinking water. It is already a crisis,” he said.
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