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Although Afghanistan is located in a semi-arid environment, it is still rich in water resources mainly because of the high mountain ranges such as Hindu Kush and Baba, which are covered with snow. Over 80 percent of the country’s water resources originate in the Hindu Kush mountain ranges at altitudes of over 2 000 m. The mountains function as natural water storage, with snow during the winter and snowmelt in the summer that supports perennial flow in all the major rivers (ICARDA, 2002).
The country has five major river basins (Table 2):
- Kabul river basin: The Kabul river originates in the central region of the Hindu Kush, about 100 km west of Kabul, and has a drainage area of 54 000 km2 in Afghanistan. It flows eastward through Kabul and, after entering Pakistan, joins the Indus river east of Peshawar. Its main tributaries include the Logar, Panjsher (with its own major tributary the Ghorband), Laghman-Alingar and Kunar rivers. Most of these rivers are perennial with peak flows during the spring months as their drainage area encompasses the snow-covered central and northeastern parts of the Hindu Kush. The Kabul river is the only river in Afghanistan that is tributary to a river system, the Indus river, which reaches the Indian Ocean. Other minor Indus tributaries, with a combined drainage area of 18 600 km2, drain southeastern Afghanistan and all flow eastwards into Pakistan and eventually join the Indus river. The Kabul river, and other tributaries of the Indus together drain 11 percent of Afghanistan.
- Helmand river basin and western flowing rivers: The 1 300 km long Helmand river rises out of the central Hindu Kush mountains, close to the headwaters of the Kabul river. The river flows in a southwesterly direction, then westwards to its terminus in the Sistan marsh or depression along the border with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Helmand river flow is mostly supplied by the upper catchment areas that receive snowfall in the winter months. The river and its tributaries, such as the Arghandab and Ghazni rivers, drain about 29 percent of Afghanistan’s area or about 190 000 km2. The Adraskan or Harut Rud, the Farah Rud, and the Khask Rud rivers also drain into the Sistan marsh. These rivers drain the southwestern part of Afghanistan, which is 80 000 km2 or 12 percent of Afghanistan’s area.
- Hari Rod and Murghab river basins: The Hari Rod river, which has a drainage area of about 40 000 km2, or 6 percent of the area of Afghanistan, flows west from its source 250 km west of Kabul through the city of Herat and into the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the Iranian border, the river turns northwards and eventually empties into the Tejen Oasis in Turkmenistan. Because of the narrow and elongated configuration of this river basin, the Hari Rod does not have significant tributaries. Another river, the Murghab river, with a drainage area of 40 000 km2, or 6 percent of the area of Afghanistan, also dies out in Turkmenistan.
- Northern flowing rivers: These rivers originate on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush and flow northwards towards the Amu Darya river. Most of these rivers die out on the Turkistan plains before reaching the Amu Darya. From west to east, the main rivers include the Shirin Tagab, the Sarepul, the Balkh and the Khulm rivers. These river basins cover 12 percent of Afghanistan, or about 75 000 km2.
- Amu Darya river basin: The Amu Darya river, also called the Oxus in Afghanistan, originates in the Afghanistan part of the Pamir river. Formerly called the Abi-Panja, it forms over 1 100 km of Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Two main tributaries drain Afghanistan, the Kunduz river (and its tributary the Khanabad) and the Kokcha river, both originate in northeastern Hindu Kush. The rivers are perennial with substantial flows from snowmelt in the spring months. These two river basins, and the upper drainage area of the Amu Darya, cover 14 percent of Afghanistan or about 91 000 km2.
Together the Kabul and Amu Darya river basins cover one-quarter of the country and contribute almost two-thirds of surface water resources generated within its borders; or the internal renewable surface water resources (IRSWR) (Table 2).
Total IRSWR is an estimated 37.5 km3/year and total internal renewable groundwater resources (IRGWR) an estimated 10.65 km3/year. Afghanistan being an arid country, the overlap is thought to be only 1 km3/year, or less than 10 percent of groundwater resources. This brings total internal renewable water resources (IRWR) to 47.15 km3/year (Table 3).
The Amu Darya (Panj) river is the border river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, then between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and finally between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan before entering Turkmenistan. It never enters Afghanistan. The total flow of the river, where it flows from Tajikistan to the border, and where the border river is called the Panj river, is an estimated 33.4 km3/year. According to an agreement in 1946 with the Former Soviet Union, Afghanistan was entitled to use up to 9 km3 of water from the Panj river. The contribution of Afghanistan to the Amu Darya is 6 km3/year from the Kunduz tributary and 5.7 km3/year from the Kokcha tributary. The incoming flow of the Kunar river, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, is an estimated 10 km3/year.
The Kunar river joins the Kabul river at Jalalabad, about 180 km downstream of the border. The outflow of the Kabul river to Pakistan, which is 80 km further downstream, and of several other tributaries of the Indus that originate in Afghanistan is an estimated 21.5 km3/year. They all join the Indus river in Pakistan. The outflow of the Helmand river to the Islamic Republic of Iran is an estimated 6.7 km3/year. Other rivers originate in Afghanistan and cross its border, but most of these are ephemeral and, moreover, evaporate in depressions at or just over the border and are therefore not counted as outflow.
The outflow of the Hari-Rod river, which becomes the border between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran is 1.07 km3/year. Based on the agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkmenistan regarding this flow, it is considered to enter the Islamic Republic of Iran. The outflow of the Murghab river to Turkmenistan is 1.25 km3/year. This brings the total natural inflow to 10 km3/year and the total natural outflow to 42.22 km3/year.
Afghanistan’s water resources are still largely underused. It is not fully understood, however, how much of this ‘potential’ resource can be accessed without damage to livelihoods and ecosystem. For example, it is not fully known how much of the groundwater can be extracted without leading to an excessive decline in groundwater levels, which may result in a stage of ‘water mining’ (Qureshi, 2002). Problems may arise in the Kabul and Eastern Helmand river basins.
There are few environmentally important natural wetlands and lakes in Afghanistan (Favre and Kamal, 2004).
In 1992 the installed capacity of the major hydroelectric plants was 281 MW, about 70 percent of total installed capacity. Considerable potential exists for hydropower generation, both by large dams and micro-hydropower stations. Total large dam capacity is an estimated 3.658 km3. Information exists about the following dams:
- The Kajaki dam was constructed in the 1950s by an American construction company as part of the Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority Project. The project was an ambitious undertaking by the governments of Afghanistan and the United States and was designed to store water for downstream irrigation. In the 1970s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded hydropower plant construction at the dam, which included two 16.5 MW generators. Reservoir capacity was 1.2 km3. Years of neglect, however, have taken their toll on the dam and its ability to perform as designed. Work is ongoing to improve power generation and the dam’s irrigation component.
- The Darunta dam is an hydroelectric dam on the Kabul river, approximately 7 km west of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Companies from the Former Soviet Union constructed the dam in the early 1960s. It contains three vertical Kaplan units with a rated output of 3.85 MW each. Originally, the dam supplied 40 to 45 MW of electrical power but silting and damage to the system during the Afghan civil war reduced its output to 11.5 MW. The plant is currently in poor condition and requires major rehabilitation, including possible replacement of all three turbines. USAID funded rehabilitation of the Darunta hydroelectric plant, completion was foreseen in January 2012.
- The Dahla dam is the largest dam in Kandahar province, and the second largest in Afghanistan. First built between 1950 and 1952, years of disrepair and war left it functioning at reduced capacity. One of Canada’s projects in Afghanistan was to repair the dam and its irrigation system (2008–2011), with a budget of US$50 million. As a result of this project, 80 percent of Kandaharis living along the Arghandab irrigation system have access to a secure water supply to stimulate agricultural production. It was anticipated that at project end irrigated land in the Arghandab river basin would double. For centuries, the Arghandab valley, where the dam is located, has been known as the breadbasket of Afghanistan. The region could become the most productive agricultural area in the country, the greatest scope being for the creation of food surpluses for processing and export (Government of Canada, 2011).
- The Naghlu dam on the Kabul river has a design capacity of 100 MW. It is the largest power plant in Afghanistan and generates most of Kabul's electricity. It is currently being rehabilitated and only three of the four generators are operational. Its reservoir has a storage capacity of 0.550 km3. Commissioned in 1968, the power station fell into disrepair, by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, only two generators were operational. In August 2006, Afghanistan's Ministry of Energy and a Russian company rehabilitated the two inoperable generators and replaced the transformers. The first of the two became operational in September 2010 and the transformers were replaced in early 2012. The World Bank is funding rehabilitation. The second unit was to be operational by the end of 2012.
- Several other dams, such as the Surubi dam, a hydropower dam, on the Kabul river in Kabul province; the Sardeh dam on the Gardeyz river in Ghazni province with a total capacity of 0.259 km3; the Band-e Amir dam on the Balkh river in Bamyan province; the Chak E Wardak dam on the Logar river in Wardak province; the Qargha dam in Kabul province.
- The Salma dam (an hydroelectric dam) is under construction. Originally constructed in 1976, on the Hari Rod river the dam was damaged early in the civil war. India committed to funding the completion of the Salma dam in 2006. Once completed, the hydroelectric plant could produce 42 MW, in addition to providing irrigation on 75 000 ha (stabilizing the existing irrigation on 35 000 ha and development of irrigation facilities on an additional 40 000 ha). Further, the Shah wa Arus dam is under construction on the Sharkardara river in Kabul province, estimated opening in 2016.
Another 11 hydropower projects are planned, total cost US$6 405 million, with an output of 2 196 MW and reservoir capacity of 4.4 km3 (Khurshedi, 2011) (Table 4).