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The filthy, drained Kabul river – a danger to millions in Afghanistan, Pakistan MIGMG News


On the last day of April 2022, the Kabul River was still flowing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but only. On that day, the main tributary of the Indus supplied 16,700 cubic feet per second (cusec) of water to the Indus system, compared to the 10-year average of 41,200 cubic feet on April 30.

Despite the potentially harmful impact on crops, authorities in Pakistan impound water in dams to generate electricity rather than releasing it into irrigation canals.

During the past two winters, reduced snowfall in the upper reaches of the Kabul River Basin has led to drought and reports of lower water levels (data on the Kabul River flow are not available).

About 20 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan depend on the Kabul River for drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, livelihoods and recreational activities. Analysis of hydrological data found that average water discharge in the Kabul River Basin decreased by 4.6% between 1950 and 2018.

What can the Kabul River Treaty achieve as water levels change?

Nasir Ghafoor, Chief Development Engineer at the Irrigation Department of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state government, said an agreement on the shared rivers between Pakistan and Afghanistan would secure the water rights of the two countries. (Kyber Pakhtunkhwa is the province where the Kabul River enters Pakistan.)

Reaching an agreement means that as water levels increase or decrease in the future due to climate change, the current distribution of water will continue.

“It will not affect or reduce the flow of water to Pakistan or reduce the share of Afghanistan,” Ghafoor said. Pakistan will get whatever it is currently getting, and Afghanistan will be able to get it according to its capabilities.”

For example, of the 100 million acres of water flowing into the river, he said, “Pakistan uses 60% and Afghanistan 40%, so in the event of a treaty both countries will get the same amount of water.”

Kabul River in April 2022 in Hajizai town in Charsadda District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Gravel banks appear above the water level, indicating low flow. (Image credit: Fouad Ali / The Third Pole)

However, “if there is no agreement, Afghanistan can store maximum water and can deal a heavy blow to the autumn and spring crops. [crops sown
during the winter and rainy seasons] In Pakistan, that would be very detrimental to Pakistan, which has an agricultural economy.”

The Kabul River has turned into sewers

The little water that was flowing into the Kabul River in late April was dirty. Sewage from the capital of Afghanistan flows untreated into the Kabul River.

The situation is no better downstream in Pakistan. Industrial wastewater and domestic wastewater from about 10 cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa flow into the river.

The River Protection Act 2002 states: “No person shall dispose, directly or indirectly, of any solid waste, hazardous waste or other additional materials specified and notified by the Government into rivers or their tributaries.”

Third Pole officials said there are no operational wastewater treatment plants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or its capital, Peshawar.

In 2018, the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) assessed the quality of drinking water sources along the Kabul River, including domestic wells, open wells, tube wells and hand pumps.

PCRWR has found that most water sources along the Kabul River are unsafe for drinking. The report states that the river water was comparable in quality to the wastewater, with a chemical oxygen demand (COD) of 170 milligrams per liter, and a biological oxygen need (BOD) at 98 mg/L. This exceeds the permissible limits stipulated in Pakistan National Environmental Quality Standards even for municipal and effluent effluents, which stipulate a COD of 150 mg/L and a BOD of 80 mg/L for inland water. More recent formal research on water quality is not available.

A senior official with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Elections and Rural Development Department, who asked not to be named, told The Third Pole that an attempt during the late 1990s to set up factories failed due to poor management, poor planning, lack of funds and the high cost of maintaining the sewer system.

In 2014 and 2019, master plans were drawn up proposing the renovation of existing plants and the establishment of new ones. The high cost of land, treatment machinery and operating and maintenance expenses hampered the construction of the stations, said Jahangir Khan, an engineer and project manager at Water and Wastewater Services in Peshawar. Work is currently underway on one wastewater treatment plant.

Khan added that urbanization has led to the interconnection of rain drainage and sewage systems across the province. “This system has made it more difficult for the government to establish such projects, as it is very difficult to treat water, especially in the event of heavy rain,” he added.

Health effects are not monitored

“Uncontrolled pollution has turned the river into streams with serious health risks,” said Farah Zaidi, a zoologist at the University of Peshawar. In addition to the pollution polluting the river’s environment and the food chain, she noted the increased danger faced by women, as they use the river to wash clothes and dishes, and drink water from unsafe sources next to the river.

She said she was not aware of any data on the impact of consumption of Kabul River water on human health. She added: “The government should no longer be slow in conducting a comprehensive survey or laboratory analysis, and collecting data on people with hepatitis, kidney, liver and respiratory diseases, especially those who live on the banks of the river and consume this water.” Calls for comprehensive surveys and research on environmental risks.

Zaghim Hassan, a researcher in fisheries and freshwater biology at the University of Peshawar, said local fish populations are under severe pressure due to pollution and are rapidly declining. “We hardly get a few rohu fish [a species of carp found in South Asia] For laboratory tests, while the size of Sher Mahi [an indigenous fish] in decline. Meanwhile, non-native fish such as tilapia are on the rise.”

Hassan added that wastewater must be treated to improve the river’s water quality.

This article was originally published on The Third Pole and is reproduced with permission.


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