Afghanistan: Rapidly urbanizing Kabul pushes poor to mountain slums

Kabul has grown by a factor of 10 since 2001, pushing the poor in Afghanistan's capital to build slums on the steep mountain slopes.

Ben Arnoldy
Mir Mohammad digs up rocks to expand his home on Toop Mountain.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – One might say that Mir Mohammad lives in a Kabul skyscraper he built with his own hands. He moved to Afghanistan’s capital from the countryside three years ago dreaming of a better life, but had no money to buy land. So he copied other poor newcomers: He hiked up a hill until he found a piece of empty land.

Kabul, a city of just 500,000 in 2001, now houses almost 10 times that number. First the city engulfed the valley floor, stretching some 20 miles. Now, like a bathtub filling with water, slums are spreading up the mountain slopes.

Those perched over the city have penthouse views but poor-house lives. Toop Mountain, where Mr. Mohammad lives, is too steep and overbuilt for vehicles. Instead, residents must climb dirt paths filled with trash that shoot straight up 500 feet. After a rainstorm, the footing is precarious.

Every couple of days Mohammad pays $2 for five gallons of water to be brought by donkey. The animals also carry firewood to his two-room house where 35 relatives live.

“We decided to come from Panjshir to Kabul because we had nothing in Panjshir, either,” says Mohammad, a former farmer who now digs up rocks to build a cellar. “I have five sons. For sure, if they are able to find money, they will go down and make a separate life” in the valley. “I won’t live to do so myself.”

The mayor of Kabul says the valley is full, and soon the mountains will be, too. People come to Kabul because it has remained relatively safe and farmable land in the countryside is maxed out. The UN calls Afghanistan one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the region.

“One school of thought is to discourage people and tell them to find work in other places,” says Mayor Mir Sahebi. “The other is to create some source of employment” here. But, as far as job creation goes, “nothing is happening in Kabul. Forget about the rest of the country.”

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