Kabul River for Peace and Development

By: Nisar A. Memon

Kabul River (KR) is key resource for large territory of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. About 10 percent of Pakistan’s total water supply comes from the KR for drinking water, agriculture, and hydel power generation mainly for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as for agriculture water supply in early Kharif season in Sindh. In Afghanistan, two major cities Kabul and Jalalabad entirely depend on KR for their water supply needs, contributing 25% of total freshwater in the country for over 5 million inhabitants.
Both countries have a unique relationship of being lower and upper riparian to each other. The Chitral River carrying about 8.5 million-acre feet (MAF) water enters Afghanistan to join Kunar River which flows to join Kabul River which then enters Pakistan with about 16 MAF water.
The people of the two neighboring Muslim countries joined by common history for centuries share the climate change challenges and water opportunities. As such, shared vision is recognized for shared solutions and shared benefits.
The disaster caused by untimely July 2010 rains and floods of KR and Indus affected Pakistan’s about 20 million people, killed about 2000, nearly 1.1 million homes were damaged or destroyed, at least 436 healthcare facilities were destroyed, as reported by US National Institute of Health, ‘the flooding lasted almost six months in some areas and caused $9.7 billion in damages.’ The impact on the rural economy, including agriculture crops, livestock, animal sheds, agricultural machinery, fisheries and forestry, was unprecedented.
There is unanimity of thought within the water experts in both the countries that to maximize growth in both the countries, there is a need for integrated development with an approach of sharing of costs and benefits of the KRB, as compared to traditional division of water and unilateral development. But, the political mistrust and absence of knowledge and data sharing by both sides are key inhibitors to achieve the desired results.
Both countries are engaged in various research studies on Kabul River Basin (KRB) focused on impact of climate change challenges on water and projects of policy options for cooperation on the Afghan-Pak Transboundary on KRB.
Some of these projects are funded by US Institutes like, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and USDA Forest Service Center for Forested Wetlands Research. However, the success can be propelled by the joint research between the two countries.
A win-win situation for both countries is possible if the mindset is changed and paradigm shift takes place from dividing the water to dividing the benefits of water. Mekong River Basin and Nile River Basins are living examples of benefit shared between the basin countries. UN Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.5 requires signatory states to implement by 2030 an integrated water resource management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation. It is recognized that coordination among countries in development of transboundary basins can yield greater benefits than would be available to individual countries pursuing individual development.
Water can be divisive or uniting force. Towards uniting the two people, there have been several contacts between various professionals and civil society organizations over period of time, but yet the meaningful results have not seen the light of the day. The shared prosperity awaits the people of KRB but needs decisive long-term commitment of stakeholders, specially the governments – the key stakeholders.
There is growing recognition that KRB is an asset of both countries and can provide prosperity that promotes interdependence and bring peace and development, but how?
It is believed, small steps with a long-term plan by committed professionals and organizations working together, from both sides, can spur realization of untapped KRB potentials.
Here is what is likely to work.
To address the basic issue of ‘trust deficit’, informal contacts between water professionals be formalized under a ‘KRB Study Project’ initiated jointly by one university each from two countries. It is recognized that the data exchange even within the countries of the region is a challenge. This can be overcome by acquiring satellite-based data available in public domain to quantify the benefits that can accrue for joint projects.
This first step when professionally handled by media, partnered in this Project, can create awareness in both countries for expanding the University partnership to scientific joint studies which can be basis of science-based planning by both public and private partnership. This multidisciplinary public and private sector joint endeavor needs attention and endorsement of the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Will the governments give their blessing to continue to build a detailed plan of shared vision and shared projects, or will they unfold their respective plans for sharing the benefits of water, or they will tread the old path of dividing the water, or will they develop projects on KRB independently, or will they develop projects with expertise from forces inimical to either of the two countries, or worst option of using KRB as instrument of coercion in present day sensitive global situation?
KRB awaits the joint studies, joint development and joint management between two sovereign nations. Benefit sharing is considered as key instrument for good water governance. The professionals and all thinking people expect both the governments to take a pro-people course of ‘Benefit Sharing’ of KRB water, will they? It is time they speak unequivocally for peace and development at a time when foreign forces are departing from Afghanistan to allow Afghan people to take the reins of their country, without foreign interference.
Why talk of Kabul River now when we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic? Because, if the world can unite to face virus for the life of people, let us take this as an opportunity to cooperate for giving our people the benefits of water for life.
Nisar A. Memon is former federal minister and senator.

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