The Afghan capital city, Kabul, once housed just a few hundred thousand residents in the scenic shadow of the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Today, its estimated 5 million residents live in a dustbowl of garbage-strewn streets where most neighborhoods lack sanitation and residents frequently face diseases caused by a lack of cleanliness.
Kabul residents now fear polluted groundwater in the sprawling city is posing a grave threat to their health.
“My sister fell ill two weeks ago. When we went to the hospital, we were told it was caused by contaminated drinking water,” Sher Afghan Sherzai, a resident of the capital, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Like many Kabul residents, Sherzai’s family drinks from a well in their courtyard.
Javed, another Kabul resident, says filthy groundwater threatened the lives of his two children last month.
“My children suffered severe diarrhea, which would not stop,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I was pessimistic about their chances of survival, but they ultimately recovered after being hospitalized for 15 days.”
With its old public water supply system damaged over decades of war and new neighborhoods lacking piped water, many Kabul residents depend on wells, whose water is increasingly becoming unusable.
The Public Health Ministry agrees. Deputy Minister Farid Muhammad Paikan says children are the most common victims of water-borne diseases, which peak in summer.
“We do not have exact figures for the illnesses and deaths caused by dirty water,” he said. “But diseases among children, causing diarrhea in particular, increase dramatically during summer months.”
Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) says that without a remedy to the crisis, all of Kabul’s groundwater will soon become unfit for human consumption.
“We are facing neglect both from the public and government institutions,” said Abdul Wali Mudaqiq, deputy head of NEPA. “If this continues, I have no doubt we’ll soon lose all of Kabul’s groundwater.”
One of the major contributors to groundwater pollution in recent years is ubiquitous septic tanks. Most pit latrines in Kabul consist of makeshift ditches in the ground. These then often contaminate nearby wells with fecal pathogens carrying diseases.
Shamsuddin, a resident of an impoverished Kabul neighborhood, says the lack of proper sewers forces them to dig makeshift holes for storing human waste.
“If we had sanitation, we would be able to dispose of our waste and used water,” he said. “The way we now store waste obviously means contaminated water is absorbed into the ground, where it pollutes the groundwater.”
NEPA says septic tanks have contaminated groundwater 15 meters deep in many Kabul neighborhoods. The agency says currently more than 2,000 septic tanks are being dug around the city every year.
Hamidullah Ilani, head of Afghanistan’s Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Corporation, says his organization is working on two plans to mitigate the crisis.
“Our first priority is to compel large organizations, government departments, and multi-story buildings to have modern water supply and sanitation systems,” he noted. “This would solve 50 percent of the problem.”
His organization is also working on a plan to properly dispose of the hundreds of tons of garbage collected around the capital daily.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Yousaf Zadran reported this story from Kabul.