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Rudimentary Kabul

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Kabul’s growing population and lack of adequate and affordable housing leaves the poor squatting in mud and wood houses while nursing their reconstruction dreams.

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
By Anuj Chopra in Kabul for ISN Security Watch

January 6, 2008

It’s a daily ritual for 8-year-old Bismillah. Every morning, with five grimy plastic cans slung over his tiny shoulder, he descends a rugged hillside, negotiating the steep pitches of gravel with great agility.

At the bottom of the hill, he waits under the broiling sun in a long queue leading up to a spigot: But wait he must or his family will be left without drinking water for the day.

Bismillah lives with his handicapped father, mother and four sisters in a mud and wood house in a cramped settlement clinging to a shale-brown hill overlooking Kabul. With no direct water supply, dwellers of these rudimentary housing settlements – all illegally built – must lug their water from the bottom of the hill.

“Life is hard,” said Suraiya Begum, Bismillah’s mother, her face hidden behind the lavender fabric of her burqa. “We wouldn’t live here if we had a better choice.”

Six years after the US-led invasion, if you ask ordinary Afghans to describe their greatest challenge, their answer is not likely to be the Taliban. It is, in fact, to find a roof over their heads.

Kabul is in particular need because of the destruction of nearly 70,000 houses during almost 30 years of war. And a steady inflow of returnees has further exacerbated the problem. With a population of 800,000 before the 2001 invasion, Kabul is now home to over four million people, many of them refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. It is estimated that as much as half of Kabul’s population lives in squatter settlements.

Urgent urban planning issues

The city is sinking under the weight of its own citizens, and its most urgent urban planning issues are linked to its rapid population growth.

The situation is the same in other larger cities such as Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. According to UN estimates, the nation’s population is expected to increase by 14 million to a total of about 37 million by 2015; more than half of this projected growth will be in urban areas.

So far, foreign firms have invested US$4.5 billion in rebuilding Afghanistan, but very little of it has gone to housing construction, according to Omar Zakhilwal, director of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA) in Kabul.

In fact, an acute shortage of affordable housing is forcing people to recklessly build mud houses on the slippery slopes of denuded hills around Kabul. Overcrowding has put a tremendous of pressure on the city’s already frail civic infrastructure.

The UN has deemed Afghanistan the world’s sixth least developed country. Only 13 percent of Afghans have access to safe water, 12 percent to adequate sanitation and just 6 percent to electricity. Life expectancy is 44 years (compared to 59 years for low-income countries worldwide).

For Suraiya Begum’s family, life in this overcrowded settlement is unforgiving. When it rains, her porous roof leaks and a flood of muddy excrement flows down the slopes, filling up sewers and cesspits already choked with garbage. Mounds of trash collect in heaps in the alleyways leading up to her house. Open sewers are besieged by flies and disease.

Sanitation facilities are scarce. There is a dearth of potable water. (Piped city water reaches only 18 percent of people in Kabul.) Daily power cuts last from dawn until dusk in the winter – longer in the summer.

Afghanistan’s Urban Development Ministry, with World Bank assistance, is now in the process of upgrading formal and informal settlements in Kabul city. This US$28.2-million project, which will take at least a few years to implement, will help improve infrastructure and provide basic services like drinking water, sanitation, surface water drainage, concrete roads and street lighting.

“Given a vast majority lives in these settlements, the solution is to upgrade, not demolish these homes and make more people homeless,” Yousaf Pashtun, the Afghan minister of urban development and an architect and town planner by training, told ISN Security Watch.

But despite the government’s efforts, Kabul is facing a chronic shortage of housing for the poor. The per capita income in this post-Taliban nation, according to the World Bank, has increased from US$180 in 2002 to US$300 in 2006. This figure is expected to reach US$500 soon. Still, buying a house or an apartment remains a distant dream for most of Kabul’s citizens.

A two-bedroom apartment in Kabul can cost US$200 to US$400 a month, compared to US$7 a month for a three-bedroom home in 1978. In the neighborhoods of Wazir Akbar Khan and Shahr-e-now, private housing rents have reached thousands of dollars, making them out of reach for the poor and dramatically widenening the class of impoverished Afghans.

Last year, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) expressed concern that Afghanistan’s housing prices were spiraling out of control and making a difficult situation worse for the Afghan poor.

“I didn’t think we would face so many problems when we came back to Kabul,” said Sangar Khan, a 24-year-old Afghan who returned to the country from Pakistan, where he had fled during the Taliban’s reign. “We keep hearing so much money is being given to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but getting a [home] is the biggest challenge. Renting a house is just not affordable any more,” he told ISN Security Watch.

Khan rents a squatter shack in another informal settlement. As most land in Kabul is claimed by one or more owners – individuals, companies or government institutions – squatter households are usually obliged to pay some amount to remain on a property.

Pashtun says he is aware of the acute housing shortage. The Afghan government, he said, with an investment of over US$200 million, is in the process of building a small satellite town in northeast Kabul called Shar-i-Sabz, with 100,000 units of housing due to be completed in the next three years.

But beyond the efforts of the government, according to Pashtun, the private sector can play a big role in building housing for war-weary Afghans.

Green City dreams

At a dust-choked construction site some 32 kilometers north of Kabul, a private firm is building a swanky new housing complex, which, its builders promise, will change the face of Kabul’s rustic skyline forever.

Called “Green City,” this ambitious US$10 million housing project being financed by Khawar, an Afghan NGO, promises housing for more than 3,000 families in multi-storey buildings and row houses spread over 2.5 million square feet. The project is due to be completed in the next two years.

Enayat Sahary, Green City’s Iranian-born chief engineer, bent over an expansive blueprint of the township with a cigar dangling between his lips, explained the plans. “The madrassah will be over here, the masjid here.

“At the moment, Kabul stinks. It needs a makeover […] Green City is something Afghans have never seen before,” he told ISN Security Watch.

However, the prices of the apartments being built are almost beyond the reach of ordinary Afghans.

Sahary attributes the high cost to the rising price of overhead: cement, diesel, labor prices of all have skyrocketed since 2002. “Fifty kilos of cement cost 100 Afghani in 2002, now it costs 400; the cost of diesel has nearly doubled since then,” he told ISN Security Watch.

Afghanistan is facing unprecedented population growth and rapid urbanization, which is widening the gap in demand and supply of housing in urban areas like Kabul and Jalalabad.

“Increasing access to housing finance is key to developing a large-scale housing market in Afghanistan,” saidSahary.

At a workshop conducted by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation in April to present the findings of a study on Afghanistan’s housing sector, experts recommended introducing microfinance loans for home renovation, construction and purchase.

“Mortgage,” said Pashtun, “is the only way we can make homes affordable to our middle class. People can’t afford to pay lump sum amounts.”

At Shar-i-Sabz, in order to make apartments within the financial reach of Afghans, banks will buy homes from the government and then mortgage them to buyers who will pay up to US$150 a month for 15 years before becoming owners. Pashtun is hopeful Afghanistan’s 14-odd banks will show keen interest in buying them up and offering them to those who need them most.


Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives just outside Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.


Written by afghandevnews

January 10, 2008 at 4:50 am

Posted in Aid, Development

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