Surface Water Resources of the North Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a landlocked country; its territory is divided into three main river basins:

  • Indus river basin;
  • inland Sistan desert lake basin (Helmand river);
  • Amudarya river basin.

Along with that, about 11.3% (72500 sq. km) of the territory of the country is a zone without surface runoff (the south of the stony and sandy deserts and an area between the inland river delta tributaries flowing from the northern Hindu Kush).

In Afghanistan there are comparatively many rivers, but within-year distribution of their flows is unfavorable for irrigated agriculture. It is explained by the absence of permanent glaciers and permanent snow line, which are the main runoff factor for rivers in high-mountain areas.

In low-water period, in autumn when almost no precipitation falls and in winter when snow falls, an only feed source for rivers is groundwater. The other runoff factor is melt water. The degree of water content in rivers depends on the amount of snow in mountains and variation of temperature.

Distribution of the territory of Afghanistan among river basins

Hydrological characteristics Unit Kabul River/
Indus Basin
Helmand River/
Sistan Basin
Amu Darya River and Basin
1. Total area of basin km2 79 360
76 000
320 240
321 000
242 400
258 000
2. Annual runoff km3 24,00
3. % of country's total area % 12,4
4. % of annual cumulative flow % 43,5 23,9 32,6
5. Specific module of runoff l/s/km2 8,0 2,29 2,73

Numerator — data of V. Shultz, denominator — data of “Hudroingeo”, Tashkent

Hydrological Study

In Afghanistan, there is no inventory of water resources. The study of water resources was started in 1939 by expert in meteorology V. Stenz, who founded first nine weather stations. At the same time, hydrometrical work was done on separate rivers in Afghanistan, including Helmand river.

In 1947 the Siemens launched observations of the behavior of the Kabul river because of the construction of a Sarobi hydro power plant.

In 1948 the “Morisson-Knudsen” (USA) began studying hydrological characteristics of rivers in the Sistan depression at 17 cross sections. Later, these measures were carried out by the Helmand River Valley Authority.

Owing to the construction of a Pule Khumri hydro power plant, measurements were conducted on the Kunduz river from 1950 (“Gidroproyekt”, USSR).

Beginning from 1957, a systematic study of water resources in the Kabul and other river basins was carried out by a hydrological mission from the Federal Republic of Germany at 32 cross sections.

A significant work was done from 1961 by FAO experts on studying rivers such as Farah Rud, Harirut, Kabul and Ghasni within the framework of developing a scheme of land and water resources use in these river basins and “Sogrea” company in the Kunduz-Khanabad basin.

Beginning from 1964, institutes “Sredazgiprovodkhoz” and “SAOgidroproyekt” (Tashkent, Republic of Uzbekistan) did big hydrological work on the territory of North Afghanistan in the Amudarya river basin.

Later, such work was done by Afghan specialists from the Department for Land and Water Resources at the Ministry of Water Resources and Energy of Afghanistan.

Observations were conducted at 146 cross sections. 8 summaries of hydrological observation data were published by 1978. However, at some cross sections, only short-term measurements were carried out, and the execution of hydrological work not always met the adopted international standards.

Nevertheless, summarization of all observations enabled “Gidroingeo”, Tashkent to give in 1989 a few other indicators of surface flow in river basins.

Owing to the existing military-political situation in Afghanistan (beginning from 1979), hydrological observations were not conducted permanently or they were stopped.

At present, it is necessary to start this work from point zero, recovering, summarizing and synthesizing available data as far as possible.

Surface Water Resources in North Afghanistan

This is one of the most intricate and principal issues in further water use in the entire Aral Sea basin. As regards this, there are many papers and publications that unfortunately sometimes make a mess of the real situation with the role of Afghanistan in the feed of the Amudarya river basin.

In 1992 “Soyuzgiprovodkhoz” (nowadays “Intervod”) made a publication titled “Possible principles and options of water distribution in the Aral Sea basin”, authors A.A. Bostanzhoglo, O.A. Leontyev, G.Kh. Ismayilov, in which the volume of flow forming in the Amudarya river in North Afghanistan amounts to 19.6 km3. A.A. Pyatigorskiy (TsBNITI Ministry of Water Resources of the USSR, 1969, page 11) estimates this figure including Harirut 10-11 km3 and so on, V.I. Antonov (Vodproyekt) determines the volume of Pyanj water resources forming within Afghanistan 16 km3 (1994).

In his works, Prof. V.L. Shults (SARNIGMI, 1968) gave two values of the same resources: 370 m3/sec or 11544 million m3 on page 28 and 290 m3/sec or 9.048 million m3 on page 30. “Giprovodkhoz”, A. Kiyatkin (1984) gives overall water formation in North Afghanistan as 18.07 km3.

In the mentioned estimations, three independent groups of catchment areas within North Afghanistan should be kept in mind:

  • rivers being river heads and tributaries, flowing in Turkmenistan: Murghab and Harirut (Tedzhen), which belong to the Big Amudarya basin, but they lost their link with Amudarya as early as hundreds of years ago and don’t relate to transboundary water resources in the basin;
  • rivers flowing into Pyanj and Amudarya (Amudarya system);
  • inland rivers (pre-Amudarya system);

The catchment area of the Murghab and Harirut rivers (Tedzhen) on the territory of Afghanistan amounts to 117500 km2, including 46880 km2 of Murghab and 70620 km2 of Harirut.

The catchment area of the Amudarya system rivers within Afghanistan amounts to 84000 km2 and covers the whole area of North Afghanistan, from the Iranian-Afghan border in the west to high-mountain Vakhan in the east. This space of foothills, slopping hilly plains and deserts from the south to the north is cut through by rivers originating in mountains Hindu Kush and Tirbandi-Turkestan.

The Amudarya river is permanently fed by eastern rivers in the basin only, namely the Kunduz river with a catchment area of 31300 km2, or 37300 km2 according to other data, Kokca river - 21100 (or 21900) km2 respectively, and rivers in mountainous Badashkhan – 30800 km2.

The pre-Amudarya system includes Khulm, Balkh, Sary-Kul and Shirintagao rivers, with a total catchment area of 49400 km2 (47700 km2). These four rivers are local rivers in North Afghanistan, which don’t carry their water to the Amudarya river. They are fully diverted for irrigation and lost in sands. The discharge of these rivers from irrigation systems into separate closed depressions, located at the periphery of irrigated lands, only takes place in flood period in high-water years. And only in years with especially high floods, river discharges (mainly Balkh) in depressions fall into the channel of the so-called Kelif Uzboy, over which, as supposed, the river formerly flowed towards the Caspian Sea, and which has now been used on the territory of Turkmenistan for constructing Karakum canal.

Between these rivers and the Amudarya river, there is a zone with an area of 72500 km2 that almost does not have runoff (Pyatigorskiy, 1969). Below a brief description of all rivers in North Afghanistan is given.

Amudarya river

The length of the river is 2540 km, at that within Afghanistan its length amounts to 1250 km. The Amudarya river originates at a height of 4900 m and from a glacier with the same name around Vakhan. After the confluence with the Pamir river flowing out from Lake Zor-Kul, the river is known as Pyanj, and only after mountain gorges and the confluence with the Vakhsh river (right tributary) it is called Amudarya; and turning to north-west, passing through border settlement Khamkab (on the Afghan territory), it goes into the CIS (the former Soviet Union).

Kokca river

It is formed of the confluence of three small rivers Jirm, Varduj and Zardiv at Zhempuly bridge (above Fayzaabad town). The Jirm river originates at Zharun pass (height 4760 m). At the left, Jirm receives a big tributary, Anjuman, flowing from an area of Munjan pass (height 4362 m). The Varduj river at Zeybak settlement is formed of three small rivers Varduj, Zebak and Sanglich Doran). The Zardiv river in turn is formed of small rivers Sergalyan and Shishe. From Shash-Puli bridge to Fayzaabad town (center of Badashkhan province), the Kokca river flows through narrow gorge. Behind Fayzaabad town, Deraim, Toshkan and Kishm tributaries flow into Kokca at the left. The Kokca river flows into Amudarya at Afghan village Kala-iy-Zanum. The length of the river from Parui pass is 320 km. The width in the midstream is no more than 10-12 m, depth 1-2 m.

Kunduz river

The Kunduz river (Surkhab in the midstream) originates at Shibar pass. The river receives two tributaries at the left: Seygan and Kamerd. At the right the following tributaries flow into Surkhab:

  • the Anderab river, which originates at Khavak pass (height 3600 m) and flows into Surkhob around settlement Doni. The Anderab river receives Arzu and Banu tributaries at the left;
  • the Khanabad river, which consists of such tributaries as Varsaj, Khost, Chal and Narik. The Khanabad river flows into Kunduz at Yakala-iy-Zad village. Up to Churi village, the Kunduz river flows through a narrow gorge, after this village it flows across a vast valley, then below Kunduz town getting 3 m wide. The outlet of Kunduz in some places is swampy and overgrown with tugais. The length of the river is about 400 km. The width in the downstream reaches 150-200 m, with a depth of 3 m.

Local rivers in North Afghanistan

The Hulm river originates near Kara-Kotal pass (height 3600 m). The highway from Mazari-Sharif to Kabul city passes through the valley of this river. In mountainous part, the river flows across small valleys, narrow gorges, and, finally, cutting through the mountain range at Tashkurgan town, flows into a vast valley. The river is about 230 km long, 40-50 m wide at Tashkurgan town and 1-1.5 m deep. The catchment area of the river is 8400 km2.

The Balkh or Bandi-Amir (Dara-Gez) river in the midstream is called Vadkhab. Following the effusion of groundwater rich in lime in the upstream of this river, natural ponds and five lakes appeared. Two of them have been lost, and three ones fed by ground and surface water exist. From the right, the river receives Dara-iy-Suf tributary. The length of the river is about 400 km, the width in the midstream is 20-40 m, at a depth of 2-3 m. The catchment area is 18700 km2.

The Sary-Pul (or Safed) river is formed of a lot of small mountain rivers, which flow from the northern Kohi-Bab mountain range. At Sari-Pul town, these small rivers unite into one river. The width of the river in the midstream is 15-20 m, at a depth of up to 20 m. The catchment area of the river is 9400 km2, the length is 215 km (7800 km2 according to some data).

The Shirintagao river originates in the northern Tirbandi-Turkestan mountain range, at Gurzimen. From the left, the river receives Maymene tributary, and this last tributary receives the Abi-Kaysar river, in which there is water only a few months a year. A small river, Almar, flows into Abi-Kaysar from the right. The catchment area of the river is 13600 km2.

Transboundary rivers between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (partly Iran)

Murghab river

Murghab originates on a high plateau located between Safedkokh (Paropamiz) and Bandi-Turkestan mountain ranges. From its sources to Mukhamedkhan village (length 300 km), apart from upper reaches, the Murghab valley is narrow, with a width of 200-1000 m, bounded by high and steep slopes. In some places, the valley passes to narrow gorges. At the end of location, between Darbandi-Kilrekht village and Mukhammedkhan, the river cuts through the western Bandi-Turkestan mountain ridge and flows in a deep canyon. Here, there are two narrow passages: at Darbandi-Kilrekht village and at Mukhammedkhan village (the latter is called Jaokar gorge). Below Mukhammedkhan, the Murghab valley gradually gets wider from 0.5-1 km to 1-2 km on the territory of Turkmenistan. Before Balamurghab village, the valley has high (70-100 m) and steep slopes, then their height reduces, and they become less steep, but greatly dissected by ravines and valleys of small tributaries. Below Mukhamedkhan, water resources of Murghab are partly taken for irrigation. However, owing to the narrowness of the valley and stony soils, here only 10000 ha of lands are irrigated, and available free irrigable funds, according to some data, amount to no more than 5000 ha. After the confluence of Murghab and Kaysar tributary at the right and before Khan-Tepe border mound, there is a line of Turkmen-Afghan frontier along Murghab. Above Takhta-Bazar town (on the territory of Turkmenistan), Kashan flows into Murghab at the left, and after 25 km downstream Kushka flows into the river.

Harirut river

The river called Sari-Jangal in the upstream is formed of the confluence of a few small mountain rivers at Shakhin village. From is source to Badghah (27 km west from Daulatyar town) Harirut flows through a vast valley, the bottom of which is partly allotted under crops and covered by pastures. Farther, the valley gets narrow, passing to gorges in some laces. From Kushnami village to Oba town, the river flows into a narrow valley, which is characterized by periodical narrowing and small expansions. Here, the river is a rapid mountain stream; in gorges it is mostly impetuous, in some places it rushes down as cascades and forms small waterfalls. Below Oba town, the Harirut valley become wider. The mountains get smooth and leveled shapes and form a vast valley with a plain bottom, moving aside. There Herat oasis (with a length of 150 km and maximum width of 30 km) with an extensive network of irrigation canals is located. The irrigated area of Herat oasis, including Oba, Gurian towns and Kozsan village, amounts to about 70000 ha.

From its source to Pule Khatum bridge, Harirut receives many tributaries. Among them, the Tagaoishlan (Kaugan), flowing into Harirut at the left below Oba town, and the Jam and Keshefrud rivers (left), especially the latter, are distinguished with their length and drainage area. Jam and Keshefrud flow through Iran. It is necessary to note that in summer many tributaries of Harirut located below Oba town do not reach it, since their water resources are used for irrigation.

Hydrogeology and Groundwater

Since ancient times Afghanistan uses groundwater as a source of irrigation and water supply (groundwater wells, holes). Engineering hydrogeological studies can be divided into two stages: the first stage in 1956-1961, and the second in 1961-1980.

At the first stage, data on groundwater were received following single route studies. Regular hydrological and engineering-geological activities (surveys) under foreign technical assistance (USSR) were started in 1962 by the Geological Department at the Ministry of Mining and industry. Initially, the search and exploration covered large regions with a view to determine prospective water-bearing systems and set tasks of detailed studies.

At the same time, a comprehensive exploration was conducted in areas where it was planned to develop new irrigable lands or raise water availability for old irrigated lands. Engineering survey for developing projects and a scheme for irrigation development in the northern region of the country played a big role in studying groundwater. A large-scale comprehensive hydrological and geological survey conducted in 1962-1963 evaluated natural groundwater resources of a quaternary aquifer by C category, recommended types and sites of operational water intakes. Hydrological maps and maps of middle-scale quaternary deposits were made, which also enabled to evaluate and describe general prospects for use of mineral, thermal and saline waters (carbonic acid, hydrogen-sulphidous, methanic gasing mineral waters with sulphate and sulphate-chloride composition, hot weakly saline and very hot sources).

Considering stratigraphic principle, a number of different water-bearing deposits and aquifers were identified within Afghanistan. Of this number, almost 90% of groundwater resources liable for use in the national economy were ascribed to quaternary water-bearing zones, the systems and basins of which therewith coincide with the location of water supply and irrigation objects.

In 1970, hydrological zoning of the territory of the country was carried out based on geomorphologic-structural principle (V. Belyanin, V. Sobolev and G. J. Atai), and three areas were marked as primary structures: artesian Upper Amudarya, folded Central Afghan and hydrological South Afghan.

Within each area, particular groundwater basins were marked, which, according to conservative estimates, are characterized by over 300 m3/sec or about a quarter of surface flow of rivers in Afghanistan. At that, no more than 70 m3/sec (22%) were used (by the beginning of 1990).

The table below presents explored groundwater supply for irrigation and water supply and its withdrawal per area by 1978.

Hydrological areas Natural resources, m3/s
Total Registered sampling
Upper Amudarya 28.2 2.91
Central Afghanistan 56.8 30.4
South Afghanistan 111.78 22.01
TOTAL: 196.78 55.32

In regions with a high shortage of surface flow, there is a real opportunity to use groundwater as an additional source for irrigation and water supply (regions in Sistan, Helmand river lowlands, in Farah Rud, Harirut, Balkh, Khulm and other river valleys), where in summer the flow of rivers almost runs low. In river valleys, groundwater can be taken through wells with a depth of 30-40 m, in desert, steppe and submountain areas 60-80 m, more rarely 100 m. the output of wells mainly amounts to 30-100 l/sec and 10-20 l/sec only in some districts.

Afghanistan is rich in groundwater resources. It is necessary to point, firstly, to the expediency of further research activities to specify zoning, assess water quality, make recommendations on location and designs of water intakes, secondly, with a view to regional systematic estimations of useful groundwater storage in prospective deposits. First of all, such activities should be renewed in basins experiencing a scarcity of surface flow and having considerable fertile lands and favorable climatic conditions.

The studies of “Gidroingeo” for scheme “Water supply to pastures and agricultural lands in North Afghanistan” revealed that in 1987-1988 in North Afghanistan half a cubic meter of groundwater was taken by 723 springs, 276 operational wells, 592 shaft wells and 15 groundwater wells with overall discharge of 16.1 m3/sec. Total groundwater resources in North Afghanistan were estimated 48.93 m3/sec or 1526 million m3 a year.

On the territory of Amudarya zone, groundwater basins were marked out: Pyanj-Kokca, Talukan, Kunduz, Baglan and others with a depth of 5-30 m. The freshest waters are connected with surface and irrigation water. Total resources amounting 1 km3 a year, of which only 10% are used, show that cheapest and most accelerated reserves for involving water resources lay just here.