Kabul facing "unregulated" urbanisation

Gul Ahmad and his eight-member family live in a two-room shack in slums up on a hill in the north of Kabul city.

Ahmad does not own a house. His monthly government salary is about US$60, half of which goes on rent. There is no electricity, drainage, tap water, school, clinic or other facility in the area.

Kabul is the victim of a "rapid, unregulated and unequal" urbanisation, according to Yusuf Pashtun, the minister of urban development, and Pietro Calogero, a PhD researcher on urban development at the University of California.

From an estimated 500,000 people in early 2001 Kabul's population has soared to over three million in 2007, according to the Afghan Central Statistics Office.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says over one million Afghan returnees from Pakistan and Iran have settled in Kabul. Tens of thousands of people have also flocked to the capital from across the country for various reasons, the Ministry of Urban Development said.

However, the rapid population growth has not kept pace with service delivery. Only two percent of Kabul residents have regular access to electricity, while over half of them lack access to sanitation, said Mohammad Yasin Hellal, an official at the Kabul Municipality offices.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
Every day children spend hours collecting water for houses up in the hills north and northeast of Kabul where hundreds of thousands of people live with limited services

Overstretched health services

Kabul's limited health services are also stretched and cannot meet the overwhelming demands of poor patients.

"The number of patients is three times beyond our capacity," said Nasreen Oriakhel, head of Kabul's Malalai maternity hospital. "This hospital was built for 150 patients, but now around 600 patients seek treatment every day."

Officials at the Ministry of Urban Development estimate that at least 180,000 babies are born every year in Kabul, one of the highest birth rates in Asia.

Unregulated new buildings

The unprecedented rush into Kabul has lead to a massive increase in the construction of all kinds of dwellings - mainly in illegal slums.

"Almost 70 percent of houses and commercial buildings have been built irregularly and in contradiction to the Kabul city master plan," Pashtun told IRIN. "The rapid urbanisation process in Kabul… has been utterly unregulated and in many cases is against our plans for urban development."

Pashtun said his ministry needed adequate funding, professional staff and at least 15 years to solve the crisis. 

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
A master plan for Kabul, the Afghan capital, developed in the 1970s foresaw no more than two million people ever living there. Today, its population is over three million and estimated to reach about seven million by 2015

"Land mafia"

"Urbanisation in Kabul has strikingly been unequal. It has made a small fraction of rich and powerful richer, and the majority of the poor poorer," said Calogero.

Wealthy commanders, senior government officials and other influential individuals have widely grabbed, redistributed, sold and used public land in Kabul and in many other parts of the country for their personal interest, said Pashtun.

Pashtun believes there is a powerful "land mafia" in Kabul operating with impunity.

"The mafia brazenly grabs public and state-owned land and builds irregular houses and commercial centres or sells land to other brokers," Pashtun said. The mafia is very powerful and has links everywhere, he added.

Slums vulnerable to natural disasters

Mushrooming slums in and around Kabul not only lack basic services and infrastructure, they are also highly vulnerable to floods, earthquakes, avalanches and other natural disasters common in Afghanistan, experts say.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of irregular houses were damaged and over 130 people died in several provinces, including Kabul, in flooding and avalanches in 2007, Afghanistan's disaster management authority said.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
The majority of people who live in slums in Kabul do not have access to electricity, drinking water, sanitation and other basic services, officials say

Urban or rural development?

While the population of Kabul is estimated to surpass seven million by 2015, Afghan officials are still struggling to implement a master plan devised for Kabul in 1970 according to which no more than two million people can be housed in the capital.

In the past six years, the government of Afghanistan has channelled the bulk of international aid into rural development programmes as a strategy to improve services outside the capital and indirectly ease the flow of people into the capital.

However, the emphasis on funding rural development over and above urban development has deprived Kabul and other urban centres of adequate development resources, Calogero's study found.

"Afghanistan will not overcome its widening urbanisation challenges by rural development alone," said Calogero. "There should be more funding for urban development and building urban infrastructure because people will choose to live in urban areas."

Minister Pashtun agrees, but says his main challenge is "the lack of professional capacity in the government" to effectively plan and implement different aspects of urbanisation.