The Afghan government will soon start work on the construction of the World Bank-funded $236 million ‘Shahtoot Dam’ project on the Kabul River. This project is backed by the Indian government and is in fact part of India’s larger plan of assisting in the construction of a total of twelve dams in Afghanistan—all of which will, according to estimates, generate 2400 megawatts of electricity.
The Shahtoot dam will hold 146 million cubic meters of potable water for two million Kabul residents. Scheduled to be completed in three years, the dam will further be able to irrigate 4,000 hectares of land in the Char Asiab district in Afghanistan’s Kabul province.
Afghanistan presently produces 80 billion cubic meters of water a year; out of which 60 billion cubic meters of water is pumped into neighboring Pakistan. The Kabul River Basin extends over nine Afghan provinces and two Pakistani provinces. The river supplies 26 percent of the annual flow of water for Pakistan. In total, the Kabul River is the sole source of drinking water for almost seven million people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The river and its tributaries is an important source of livelihood for about twenty five million people living around the basin in Pakistan. The population of the basin is further also expected to rise to 37 million by the year 2050. Moreover, the Kabul River is an important source of irrigation, potable water and power in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. The river provides 85 percent of irrigation in Charsada, 80 percent in Peshawar, and 47.5 percent in Nowshera.
According to reports, the construction of dams on the river would drastically affect the agriculture sector in Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the water flow in three main tributaries of the river has already declined by more than 50 per cent.
The Kabul River also powers the 250-megawatt Warsak Dam constructed in 1960, which generates 1,100 gigawatt hours of electricity per year and provides irrigation for the fertile Peshawar valley in Pakistan. According to reports, building new dams on the upstream of the Kabul River will reduce water flow into the Warsak canal by eight to eleven per cent. This could have severe repercussions for the pace and nature of socioeconomic development in the KP region. It is also expected to create social unrest among the local population.
Hence, news of the construction of the Shahtoot dam has raised a lot of questions in Pakistan, which beyond being water-stressed is also heavily dependent on its agricultural sector.
The University of Peshawar organised a daylong national conference last year, titled “Sustainable usage of the Kabul River: Challenges and opportunities for Pak-Afghan cooperation”. Former vice-chancellor Dr Azmat Hayat was quoted at the conference establishing that water resources originated from Afghanistan are very important for agriculture in the Peshawar valley; decrease in water flow will reduce crop productivity. He warned that unequal distribution of water may also trigger linguistic and geographical disputes.
The Pakistani media has also voiced concerns regarding the depth of India’s role in setting the Shahtoot dam project in motion. There have been speculations that Afghanistan’s aggressive policy position in light of this project may have been a direct result of Indian intervention and India’s well-known anti-Pakistan policy position.
Regardless, it is important to note the Shahtoot dam is also significant for Afghanistan beyond any impact the project may have on the Pak-Afghan relationship. For Afghanistan, the Kabul River supports the livelihood of seven million Afghans living around the basin, and can become a fundamental source for reviving its struggling economy. Signing a water-sharing treaty with Pakistan however still would be the best course of action for Afghanistan. As the lower riparian of the Kabul River, Pakistan’s rights over the river must also be respected. This would also be in the best interest of the Pak-Afghan relationship and regional stability.