With the country facing severe water crisis, our focus seems to be on India building dams on the eastern rivers under the Indus Waters Treaty and holding the power to divert Pakistan’s water. While being obsessed with the water dispute with India, few in the country are aware of another potential dispute festering on the western borders, i.e. the water flow between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At least seven major rivers bend their course between the mountainous range which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan, watering various parts of both the countries and sustaining life on either side of the Durand line. Yet till now, a sustainable policy has not been drafted and no joint treaty signed to manage trans-boundary waters.

The Kabul River is the most developed and utilised common water resource for Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to a World Bank Study, the highly populated river basin is the only source of fresh water for about seven million people. The study reveals that more than 96 percent of the total population of the basin lives in small villages in cultivable areas with access to water. The Kabul River basin and the watercourse is an integral source of life and livelihood for the cross-border Pakhtun population.

It is crucial for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to establish a cross-border network to find a solution to shared waters

A resident of Kabul city, Muhammad Jan, 50, has witnessed the construction of several dams on the Kabul River to store water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation. According to him, some hydroelectric projects on these dams are not functional due to the volatile situation in the region. Hundreds and thousands of acres of fertile land were cultivated by the river, he tells Eos. In Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, most farmers cultivated olive crops which produced the best quality olive oil.

According to media reports, the Afghan government, with the support of India, will start work on Shahtoot Dam project on the Kabul river in Afghanistan in the near future. The project has not taken into consultation the lower riparian state of Pakistan and thus has evoked concern in the downstream country which might impact the worsening relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“The Afghanistan government plans to build two dams on Kabul River in Afghanistan. One in Shahtoot and the other in Shahrooz area of Kabul. These dams will be constructed for the purpose of drinking water. Both dams will provide drinking water to almost 0.8 million people,” Kabul based journalist, Raqib Ullah Shahab tells Eos.

Shahab says that according to the International Water Law, Afghanistan has the right to build dams for water storage and hydroelectricity production on Kabul River.

But he stresses the need for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss water management of cross-border rivers in order to develop consensus for a joint treaty. Only one [reported] meeting between officials of the two countries was held in 2014 in Dubai, organised by the World Bank, he points out.

“Orphan River: Water Management of the Kabul River Basin in Afghanistan and Pakistan” is a (2105) report by Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) journalists and editors in collaboration with experts from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). It reveals that the river provides water to irrigate lands in Afghanistan and supplies 50 percent of the country’s hydro power.

On the Pakistan side, Kabul River provides water to 243 MW hydropower dam in Warsak built in 1960 and generation voltage is 11KV. In summer season the dam adds about 210 MW electricity per hour to the national grid but in winter due to shortage of water the electricity production is reduced to about 40 MW per hour. The river has sufficient quantity of water for irrigation.

“The Warsak Dam has silted up and has no capacity for water storage,” says Zahoor Muhammad, Executive Engineer at Hydrology section of KP Irrigation department. The dam can be used only for the production of electricity and has lost the capability to reserve water even for drinking and irrigation.”

The lack of check dams on Kabul River filled Warsak Dam with mud and silt and, in summer flood, water could not be stored. After the 2010 floods in the province, the irrigation department conducted a survey about the capacity of Warsak dam, and later the department came to know that the dam lacks water storage capacity.

He went on to say that in case of water shortage, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) will suffer more as compared to other provinces of the country, as apart from Tarbela Dam, KP does not have any other water reservoir.

According to the Irrigation Department, two canal systems, including Warsak Canal System (WCS) and Kabul River Canal System (KRCS) originating from Kabul River irrigate fertile land of Peshawar district.

Data obtained from the KP Irrigation department shows that WCS irrigates 107,414 acres of the total land of the district, while KRCS irrigates 84,270 acres. The data also reveals that in Rabi season of 2015-16 about 49,154 acres were cultivated via WCS while in the same season of 2017-18 the cultivable land was reduced to 46,050 acres.

Documents obtained from the KP irrigation department show that the Kabul River is not a single transboundary waterway between the two countries. In the tribal districts of KP and Balochistan, other rivers also enter Pakistan from Afghanistan: Kurram River, Gomal River, Pishin Lora/Bore Nullah, Kandai River, Kunder River and Abdul Wahab Stream.

On the other hand, the data shows the area irrigated in Peshawar district by KRCS in Rabi season of 2015-16 was 26,200 acres while in 2017-18 the cultivated land was reduced to 25,967 acres. Department officials say that although there are several other factors behind the reduction in cultivation, water shortage is a major reason.

The Kabul River also plays a vital role in the field of agriculture of KP’s other central districts, including Charsadda and Nowshehra. Most of the population of these districts depends on agriculture and use water from Kabul River for irrigation and cultivation.

Shared waters between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Shared waters between Pakistan and Afghanistan

According to the Orphan River study, the Chitral River — which is called Kunar River in Afghanistan — originates from glaciers in north-western Pakistan, 16,000 feet above sea level. The river flows for nearly 500 kilometres through the mountainous Chitral Valley, where it is joined by 35 or so tributaries, before crossing the border at Arandu area of the valley and flowing into the Kunar River in Afghanistan.

The study adds that on the other side of the Pak-Afghan border, the main tributaries of the Kabul River are Logar, Panjshir, Kunar and Alingar while, in Pakistan, Bara and Swat rivers join it at various points in KP.

Jan, from Kabul, recalls that before the Taliban regime in 1998, the Afghan government started rehabilitation work with foreign support on two non-functional dams in Jalalabad, but later the construction work was stopped due to security reasons.

Despite the strategic importance of Kabul River basin in both sides of the border, there is shortage of hydrological data. The last study on pollution in the Kabul River was conducted by the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) and was published in 1999. In Pakistan, on behalf of Indus River System Authority (Irsa), the KP Irrigation department collects hydrological data of Kabul River and provides it to Irsa headquarters on a monthly basis.

Although the Afghan government has installed more than 100 weather stations, the data-collection process has not taken place in the country for the last three decades due to cross-border insurgency.

Documents obtained from the KP Irrigation department show that the Kabul River is not a single transboundary waterway between the two countries. In the tribal districts of KP and Balochistan, other rivers also enter Pakistan from Afghanistan: Kurram River, Gomal River, Pishin Lora/Bore Nullah, Kandai River, Kunder River and Abdul Wahab Stream.

Haqmal Masoodzai, an Afghan journalist based in Paktia province, says that in three districts of Paktia province most of the population is engaged in farming. The Shamil River, called Kaitu River in Pakistan, is the sole source of water for irrigation and cultivation. After passing through Khost, the river enters Pakistan in North Waziristan where it converges with the Kurram River at Spinwam.

“On the Afghan side, the Kurram-Shamil Sub-Basin Council lacks the equipment to collect hydrology data,” the journalist explains. “There is no dam constructed by the Afghan government on the river. Thus, in summer season, floods in the river render a large population homeless in both countries.”

The Kurram river flows south-east in Ahmadkhel, Dand Aw Patan and Tasamkani districts of Paktia province and then crosses the border into Pakistan’s Kurram tribal district.

“The province produces 310 cubic metres of water per second, of which only 71 cubic metres per second is used for provincial needs, while other flows to the rest of Pakistan at various points,” he says.

He says that the Afghan government was not able to develop a mechanism for the management and proper utilisation of water in Paktia but the central government had initiated plans to conduct a survey and build a dam for electricity production.

He mentions that the Afghan government signed an MOU with a Russian construction company to construct a dam on Machalgho River (a tributary of Shamil River) with the capacity to irrigate about 1,824 acres lands and produce hydroelectricity in Paktia but the work has not yet begun due to security reasons. About 32 million US dollars has been allocated by the Asian Development Bank for the project.

Common rivers between Pakistan and Afghanistan undoubtedly benefit both the countries but neither country pays attention to preparing a comprehensive policy about shared water. It is crucial for both the countries to establish a crossborder network, having officials of water ministries and members of other stakeholders. Hydrology data sharing is also vital for flood protection measurements on both sides of the border.

Experts say that the Indus Waters Treaty with India in 1960 is a good example for establishing policy about shared water with Afghanistan. Would we have to wait for the World Bank to bring officials of both the countries to the table for negotiations yet again?

The writer is a Peshwar-based reporter

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018

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