Making the Most of Afghanistan's River Basins

Policy Report | February 13, 2010

This paper reflects the discussions at a number of public seminars and private meetings during 2009 on water cooperation in Afghanistan and its region. These meetings, convened by the EastWest Institute (EWI) in Kabul, Islamabad, Brussels, and Paris, collected the thoughts and recommendations of more than one hundred experts and policy makers from Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the international community. The aim was to facilitate discussion that would lead to new ideas and viable policy options on how to improve regional cooperation on water between Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Executive Summary

The almost total absence of bilateral or regional cooperation on water between Afghanistan and its neighbors is a serious threat to sustainable development and security in the region. The ever-increasing demand for water, the unpredictable availability of water, and the inefficient management of water resources combine to form a complex but solvable challenge to regional security and development. Currently there are hardly any spaces in which to cooperatively address trans-boundary water issues. There are hardly any forums for dialogue or bilateral or multilateral agreements, and possibilities for data sharing or joint action are limited.

The EWI’s consultations made abundantly clear that the regional nature and importance of water cooperation is fully recognized by all stakeholders. However, stark differences in capacity, combined with contextual issues such as historic mistrust and competing regional security priorities (in particular from the international community), have kept stakeholders from engaging in a process of dialogue on water cooperation.

This paper outlines current challenges to effective and sustainable cross-border cooperation on water and makes the following recommendations to overcome them.

  • Cross-border data-sharing schemes should be examined to improve the hydro-meteorological knowledge base in Afghanistan and the region. Afghanistan’s water sector has suffered immensely from decades of conflict and needs significant improvement. Exchange of hydrological data between Afghanistan and its neighbors would speed up that process and may be done through a shared, transparent repository of scientific hydrological data on each of Afghanistan’s trans-boundary river basins. Data sharing would need to be a joint effort of Afghanistan and its neighbors, with assistance from the international community.
  • Building on eventual successes of data-sharing schemes, regional stakeholders should regularly exchange their water policies, thus building trust across borders.
  • Assistance from the international community to Afghanistan’s water sector should adopt a regionally sensitive approach rather than one focused on individual states. Donors have not yet made the regional dimension a priority in their assistance policies.
  • Assistance from the international community to Afghanistan’s water sector needs to be coordinated. Afghanistan’s water sector should be strengthened to bring it in line with the capabilities of its neighbors by coordinating resources and targeting them on building the human, financial, and technical capacity necessary to help Afghanistan take a full part in regional initiatives.
  • As a first step toward shared hydrological data and a needs assessment for the sharing of national water policy plans, senior water experts from the region should meet regularly. In light of the geographic and political specifics of each of the river basins, these meetings should be river-basin based.