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Afghanistan hires lockdown jobless to boost Kabul's water and trees

by Shadi Khan Saif | @Shadi_K_Saif | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 15 June 2020 09:30 GMT

Labourers on the hills of Bagrami, on the outskirts of Kabul, dig trenches to help improve the city's water supply, Kabul, Afghanistan, June 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shadi Khan Saif

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The government aims to tackle both the economic fallout from COVID-19 and the capital's shrinking water supply

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By Shadi Khan Saif

KABUL, June 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gul Mohammad was making a good living as a private van-driver, until Afghanistan went into lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and his work dried up.

Now, instead of ferrying commuters around Kabul, Mohammad, 49, brings a flask of green tea to a site outside the capital and spends his days helping dig a series of 2-metre-long (6.5-foot) trenches aimed at saving the city from a water crisis.

As lockdown measures imposed in March take their toll on Afghanistan's workforce, the government is employing more than 40,000 jobless workers to rehabilitate groundwater supplies for its fast-growing capital.

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"The good thing is that the needy people from nearby are hired to just walk to work and get regular pay when there are no jobs in the city due to coronavirus," said Mohammad.

Afghanistan has joined a growing group of countries that are turning to "green stimulus" projects to address two urgent challenges at once: keeping the economy running through the pandemic and tackling climate change.

Kabul's groundwater supplies - its primary source of drinking water - have been over-exploited, putting the city of up to 7 million people at risk of severe shortages, warn water experts.

A study published in May by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent think-tank, calculated that the city's groundwater levels had decreased by about 1 metre per year over the past two decades.

Some parts of central Kabul have seen drops of as much as 30 metres over 14 years, the study said.

The water project, run by the state's National Development Corporation, aims to boost groundwater levels while also increasing greenery to improve water and air quality, spokesman Mohammad Mustafa Naveed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

FILE PHOTO: Boys extract water from a public water pump on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, June11, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani


Globally, about 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, representing nearly half of the world's labourforce, will likely lose their livelihoods due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the International Labour Organization said in April.

Planned to run for at least a year, the Kabul water project is paying labourers at least 300 afghanis ($3.90) per day to dig close to 150,000 trenches, along with 17 small dams and spillways, on the outskirts of the mountainous Afghan capital.

The network of trenches focused on six locations will store and absorb the rainwater and snowmelt Afghanistan gets in the winter and spring, but which is usually wasted through flash flooding, Naveed explained.

"In the second phase of the project, 13 million saplings will be planted along these trenches and thousands more people will be employed to plant and preserve them," he added.

The trees will be mainly local species that require less water, such as pistachio and pine nut, Naveed said.

While climate change has led to more frequent short rainstorms, the number of longer rainfall events needed to gradually recharge groundwater has decreased, said the author of the AREU study, Najibullah Sadid.

Rising temperatures cause higher rates of evaporation, which also shrinks groundwater supplies, noted Sadid, a researcher at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

In addition, the study pointed to Kabul's increasing urbanisation - meaning more paved surfaces that block rain and snow from seeping into the ground - and its booming population, which is drawing groundwater faster than it can be topped up.

"The Kabul population has doubled since 2001, while the groundwater recharge remains constant and may have even decreased," Sadid noted.

As a result, groundwater levels are falling at an "alarming rate", which could push people to start tapping unsafe water sources, he added.

That would pose risks to health and livelihoods almost as serious as war and air pollution, Sadid warned.

And if wells are dug into deep aquifers, it would deplete and potentially contaminate those aquifers, which are seen as vital emergency supplies in case of surface-water contamination, he noted.

Labourers on the hills of Bagrami, on the outskirts of Kabul, dig trenches to help improve the city's water supply, Kabul, Afghanistan, June 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shadi Khan Saif


According to the AREU report, Kabul's urban area is expanding at a rate of almost 14% a year, making it one of the world's fastest-growing cities.

Swelled mainly by people fleeing war and poverty, the city's mushrooming population is putting a massive strain on groundwater supplies, Sadid said.

As most families in the city get their water from boreholes, a falling groundwater table means many households will soon be unable to dig deep enough, forcing them to pay for clean water, he added.

Figures from the state water authority show that only about 16% of Kabul households are connected to the mains water network.

The search for water could push poorer families out of the city into rural areas where there is more available groundwater, Sadid said, adding that extraction of water by private companies could cause wells in the city to dry even faster.

As finding clean water gets harder, lack of access could become "a serious source of conflicts among people", Sadid said.

The trench-digging project may be one solution, but the government also needs to invest more in water conservation and find ways to tackle water wastage and over-use, he added.

Back at one of the project sites, Gul Mohammad and the other labourers said they were happy to take the work, as they had no other job prospects for now.

"The pay is not very much, and the work of digging trenches is difficult," said Mohammad, walking down the hill at the end of his shift, carrying his mattock on his shoulder.

"But at least we do not go back home empty-handed."

($1 = 77.5300 afghanis)

Read more:

As climate impacts grow, Afghan clerics offer green guidance in prayers

Coronavirus shocks to fuel years of unrest and hunger in poorest economies

(Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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