Kabul copes with lots of people, little water

This is a city under siege, not from the Taliban, but from itself.

Kabul is home to 3.4 million people but has no public sewage system. Piped city water reaches only 18 percent of people. Daily power cuts last from dawn until 4 p.m. in the winter – longer in the summer.

Once renowned for green gardens and quirky bazaars, Kabul is sinking under the weight of its own citizens. More than a million migrants have flooded into the capital city since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, seeking a job and a better life in the big city.

In all, the population of Kabul has nearly doubled in seven years, straining a metropolis still riddled by the bullet holes and bombed-out roofs of many years of civil war.

Larger than the next 10 largest Afghan cities combined, Kabul estimates its most basic needs require $55 million this year; its budget is $4.5 million. Residents complain, but they cope. Despite the smell of sewage and mile-long walks to get drinking water, Kabul finds ways to function.

Yet more than five years after the international community pledged to help rebuild this tattered capital, the hard work has hardly even begun.

"Thirty years ago, everything seemed to work here, but there were not the population pressures we see now," says Pushpa Pathak, an adviser to the Kabul Municipality. "And since then, there has only been destruction, not construction."

Thirty years ago, Kabul was a charming city of 750,000 that drew hippies and exotic travelers to its quiet streets lined with pines and poplars. By 1999, however, the population had hit 1.8 million, and from 1999 to 2004, the city grew at a rate of 15 percent a year, according to World Bank estimates.

The fall of the Taliban triggered a flood of newcomers – both refugees returning from Pakistan and rural poor who saw few opportunities in Afghanistan's villages. Though Kabul's population growth has slowed during the past two years, it still lingers near 5 percent – adding 150,000 people a year.

Yar Mohammad is one of them. He came here two years ago, unable to scratch out a life in the stony fields of the Panjshir Valley after his father and two uncles died fighting the Taliban. "I couldn't stay there, because I couldn't [find enough] work and it was hard to cover the expenses for the children," he says.

So he is here, trudging along the sloping, muddy street to his hillside home, his sun-blackened hands clutching a sloshing, 32-liter (8.5-gallon) container of water slung over his shoulder. Since there is no water at his house – and he doesn't always have money to buy water from the tanker trucks that rumble up the hill – he often spends 3-1/2 hours walking up and down the hill to fill seven containers of water at a government pipe. If that is closed, he has to go to another pipe two-thirds of a mile away.

The situation is a symptom of Kabul's chaotic growth. During civil war and Taliban rule, the city was first parsed among warlords and then ignored, creating an administrative void. Since the new government emerged six years ago, population surge has overwhelmed the city.

Some 80 percent of Kabul residents – including Mr. Mohammad – live in informal settlements never approved by any government authority. But at least even the poorest families have mud houses with doors and windows. "The housing stock is pretty good," says Soraya Goga of the World Bank.

But the municipal services for formal and informal settlements alike don't even meet 20th-century standards. About 9 of 10 Kabul residents live on unpaved paths or streets. One-quarter get their water from potentially polluted shallow wells. Two-thirds use underground vaults for sewage that must be periodically emptied.

Years ago, farmers came to take the waste for fertilizer. Now, as farmlands shrink and Kabul grows, the system has collapsed, and waste collects in the streets.

There are slow signs of progress. One foreign-funded $187-million program aims to bring the percentage of citizens with piped water to 30 percent. Another $468-million project will string power lines to Uzbekistan by 2009, easing power woes.

But there is no easy answer, either in the short or long term, say experts. Federal and local officials still fight over who runs Kabul, leaving the city in administrative gridlock. Moreover, the prize is a relatively small sum of money, since most business here is informal – therefore untaxed – and most aid is earmarked for security.

For a city essentially building its services from scratch, it is a daunting challenge. "In the formal areas, they were destroyed by war and never rehabilitated," says Ms. Goga. "In the informal areas, they never existed to begin with."

Up on the hillside, however, at least it is secure, and at least there are jobs. One man who declines to offer his name says he also came here after the fall of the Taliban. He has a home, and he owns a shop in town that sells construction supplies.

"We are a poor people, we are happy here," he says with a grin. More seriously, he adds: "In the small villages, there are sometimes rivalries. I am safe here."

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