Water Resources Management in Afghanistan: The Issues and Options

Surface Water Resources

Although Afghanistan is located in half deserted atmosphere, it is still rich in water resources mainly due to the series of high mountains such as Wakhan, Hindokush and Baba covered by snow. Over 80 per cent of the country’s water resources have their origin in the Hindu Kush mountain ranges at altitudes above 2,000 m which function as a natural storage of water in form of snow during winter and thus support perennial flow in all major rivers by snow melt during summer.

Afghanistan is part of 3 large river basins: The Amu Darya basin in the North separated by the Hindu Kush mountain range from the Desert basin in the South, and the Indus basin in the East. Because of practical reasons related to the quantification of available surface water volumes, the hydrological classification is based on principal watershed units. Based on the hydrological and morphological systems, the country can be divided into four main river basins. General characteristics of these four river basins are shown in Table.

General Characteristics of four river basins of Afghanistan

River basin Rivers included in this basin Catchment area (Km2) Storage capacity (Billion m3)
Amu Darya basin Wakhan, Kokcha, Kundz, Pamir/Panj, Marghab, Shrin Tagab, Sur pul, Bulkh, Kashan, Kushk, Gulran 302 000 24
Helmand river basin Helmand, Arghandab, Ghazni, Trank, Arghastan, Musa Qala 218 600 6.5
Western rivers basin Khash, Farharod, Aderskan, Harierod etc 85 300 2.5
Kabul/Indus basin Kabul, Kunar, Alishing, Alinegar, Logar, Pangshir, Shutol, Ghorbund, Laghman, Maidan 72 000 22
Total 55

Recent estimates indicate that the country has 75 billion cubic meters (BCM) of potential water resources of which 55 BCM is surface water and 20 BCM is groundwater. The annual volume of water used for irrigation is estimated to be 20 BCM, which is 99 per cent of all water used. Total groundwater extraction amounts to some 3 BCM. Approximately 15 per cent of the total water volume used annually originates from alluvial groundwater aquifers (9 per cent) and springs (7 per cent), and almost 85 per cent from rivers and streams. Ground water used from deep wells counts for less than 0.5 per cent. The annual per capita water availability is approximately 2500 cubic meter, which compares favorably with other countries of the region, for example, with Iran (1400 cubic meter per capita per year) and Pakistan (1200 cubic meter per capita per year). A qualitative assessment shows that Afghanistan's water resources are still largely underused which is supported by the data presented in Table:

Estimated Surface and Ground Water Balance (BCM per year)

Water Resources Potential Present use Balance Future use* Balance
Surface Water 57 17 40 30 27
Groundwater 18 3 15 5 13
Total 75 20 55 35 40

* All existing irrigation schemes rehabilitated and managed efficiently

It is not clear, however, how much of this ‘potential’ resource can be accessed without damage to people and ecosystem. For example, how much of the groundwater can be extracted without leading to an excessive decline in groundwater levels and reaching to a stage of ‘water mining’.

There are plenty of individual discharge data of many of Afghanistan's rivers, particularly from the Kabul and the Helmand rivers as well as from their tributaries. However, no reliable documentation is available about the systematic quantification of surface water resources at watershed level. In Table, an attempt is made to quantify the annual surface water resources at watershed level. The limited reliability of data collected did not allow presenting the surface water resources potential at regional level. Most of the rivers listed in the table are perennial although many of them fall dry at their lower reaches during late summer due to the diversion of water for irrigation purposes. Discharges are rising continuously from March onward caused by snowmelt culminating in June/July before receding to a minimum in Dec./Jan. Most disastrous floods occur after heavy rainfall in March/April, especially when snowmelt is already well advanced.

Surface water quality is excellent in the upper basins of all rivers throughout the year and good in the lower basins in spite of large irrigated areas. As far as it is known, the presence of saline soils in irrigated areas is never caused by poor water quality but rather by over-irrigation (water logging) or lack of irrigation water (fallow fields and high ground water table).

Estimated Surface Water Potential

Name of River Basin Drainage Area
Mean Ann. Vol.
(mln m³)
North-eastern river basins
Panj 27 800 (+ 29 000 in Tajikistan) 36 420
Kokcha 21 100 5700
Kunduz 37 100 6000
Total 86 000 (+ 29 000 in Tajikistan) 48 120
Northern river basins
Murghab 26 200 1350
Kashan, Kushk, Gulran 12 200 110
Samangan (Khulm) 8300 60
Balkhab 19 300 1650
Saripul 10 800 40
Shirin Tagab 12 100 100
Amu Darya deserts 27 100 30
Total 116 000 3340
Hari river (Harirud) basin 39 000 1600
South-western river basins
Farah 27 800 1250
Harut (Adraskan) 23 800 210
Gulistan (Bakwa desert) 9100 40
Khash 10 500 170
Kajrud 20 800 60
Total 92 000 1730
Helmand river basin
Ghazni 19 200 350
Helmand at Kajakai dam 42 200 6000
Musa Qala 3700 220
Arghandab 53 000 820
Lower Helmand 47 900 110
Total 166 000 7500
Southern river basins 70 000 70
South-eastern river basins
Gomal 10 700 350
Margo, Shamal, Kurm 400
Total 19 000 750
Kabul river basin
Panjir 11 000 3130
Kunar 13 000 (+ 14 000 in Pakistan) 15250
Kabul (without Panjir & Kunar) 30 000 2540
Total 54 000 (+ 14 000 in Pakistan) 20 920
TOTAL 642 000 84 000

Source: Water Resources Management in Afghanistan: The Issues and Options by Asad Sarwar Qureshi, IWMI, Working Paper 49