There is no road, no sewage system, and no drinking water. The only supply chains are busy lanes of donkeys carrying barrels of water, construction materials, and sacks of flour for sale to nearly 1 million people who live on the hills that surround the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"Life is difficult here, but I have no choice. I do not have enough money to buy a piece of land in flat areas," says Malik, a middle-aged man from Panjshir who is building a house in a small space near the industrial area of Kabul. Every brick, nail, and construction material he needs must be carried up by donkey, adding substantial logistical costs.
There are no official statistics for the number of people who live in these informal settlements built illegally in the hills around Kabul, where land is cheaper and more accessible, but officials at the Kabul municipality estimate that 15 percent to 20 percent of the total population of the capital lives in such conditions.
Zabair, who lives on a hill known as TV Station Mountain, says living standards are awful. "These houses do not have proper bathrooms," he says, adding that residents simply empty their septic tanks into the streams that form during the rainy season, increasing the pool of bacteria in Kabul. "When the rains stop, waste dries up and is spread all over the city by the wind,” laments Abdul Qader Arezoo, a spokesman for Kabul's municipality.
Local residents, however, say they are forced to dispose of their waste in this manner because the municipality offers no alternative. Officials at the Water Department of Kabul say they are trying to tackle the issue of drinking water, albeit with limited success.
"We have used high-pressure pumps to move water up the hills to increase access to drinking water. In some areas, it just does not work," says Dad Muhammad Baheer, director of the water management department of the Urban Development Ministry. "So we built water storage in lower areas so people can come down and fill up their barrels with water from these deposits."
Some NGOS have built stairs to the most remote of houses, but other hilltop residents must carry everything they need -- from water to food -- up the hill via donkey, which has opened up a fruitful trade in logistics for some local entrepreneurs.
Abdul and Jameel, 14 and 17, own three donkeys and carry "things that people cannot carry" up the hill for a fee. A 50-kilogram sack of wheat flour costs a client nearly $2 for home delivery. A barrel of water costs between 15 and 20 Afghani (or 40 cents), depending on the distance covered. A truckload of construction materials such as bricks can cost more than $30 per load.
"We cannot use water as we please," says Shoaib, an elderly resident of TV Station Mountain. "We try our best to use the least amount of water possible." Shoaib says his family spends more than $2 per day on water.
The living conditions are particularly hard on children, the sick, and the elderly. Abdul Rauf, 60, has lived on TV Station Mountain for the past 20 years. "I do not come down unless I really have to," he said, recounting a time when he slipped on a rock and was injured for months afterward. "If you get sick here, life will become very difficult, as you will have to be carried away on somebody’s back."
Many families took shelter in the hills around Kabul during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s. This rapid urban relocation meant basic services like sewers, roads, schools, and clinics did not have a chance to develop.
Others settled later due to the lack of available land elsewhere. The government insists the hill residents are illegal squatters, yet there is little the city authorities can do to clear them out.
All land sold and bought on hill settlements does not have legal documentation, according to Kabul's municipal authorities.
"Land is mostly sold illegally by powerful people," says Abdul Areezo, a spokesman at Kabul Municipality. "The government cannot remove these people from these homes. There are just too many. On the other hand, if we remove them, the government does not have an alternative place for them."
For now, the government is planning a makeover. "We decided to paint these houses," Areezo says. "This will help add beauty to Kabul. We will start very soon."