Experts sound the alarm about the state of groundwater in Herat 

By Matin Mehrab 

Field research by a team at Herat University shows that the groundwater level of Herat has fallen by 20 to 25 percent in the last 10 years. In addition, the water supply is increasingly contaminated.  

Wahid Ahmad Ahmadi, an environmental researcher and professor at Herat University, led this research team. He tells Zan Times that many farmers are using well water at least 12 hours a day, if not around the clock and this excessive use of groundwater supplies is contributing to the drop in underground water levels. Ahmadi warned that if no measures are taken to curb water pollution and address the reduction of Herat’s underground water, then its residents will face a serious risk of shortage of clean water in the next 10 years. Two of Herat’s 19 districts, Injil and Gozara, are particularly threatened by such drops in water levels. 

As well, Wahid Ahmad Ahmadi says that the researchers found that the underground water of Herat city is increasingly polluted due to its proximity to sewage wells. “We have 46 test wells in the city and districts of Herat, which are evaluated and sampled every month,” he explains. “Water pollution is seen mostly in Herat city due to the proximity of sewage wells to drinking water wells and the decrease of water levels is due to excessive use in the districts.” 

Wahid Ahmad Ahmadi also states that Herat’s underground water supply is being contaminated with chemicals and bacteria, which can be dangerous for residents who may suffer from various diseases such as kidney stones, esophageal and stomach cancer, and diarrhea.  

Residents of Herat say that they are experiencing some of the concerns found by Wahid Ahmad Ahmadi and the research team. In particular, pollution and reduction of underground water levels in the province have resulted in economic problems and diseases. 

Safiullah*, who lives in Injil district, tells Zan Times, “This year, for five months mostly in the spring and summer, the well at our house was dry and I had to bring water from miles away with a barrel.” He states that the dried-up well in his house was 15 metres deep, but now he had to dig a costly new well with a depth of at least 30 metres so that he and his family could regain access to drinking water. 

Hamid*, who lives in Herat city, says he has contracted diarrhea and skin allergies three times in the last year. He blamed those illnesses on drinking contaminated water. “Not only me, but I know many neighbours and even people from other areas of Herat city who use contaminated well water,” he says. “The solution is to use water from the water supply department instead of the well water, but the costs are very high and people cannot afford it.” 

The main factors for the pollution of groundwater in Herat are the lack of sewer systems and regular waste disposal systems, as well as the non-standard digging of sewage wells. A 2022 UNICEF report states that more than 60 percent of Afghans don’t have access to basic hygiene facilities while around 80 percent drink unsafe water.  

At the same time, the amount of water underground is falling throughout the country, which would be devastating to those who depend on the agricultural sector, which supports 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population, according to the Climate Security Expert Network. Some environmental experts have attributed some of its reduction to the effects of climate changes in 20 provinces of Afghanistan, including Herat and Kabul. A UN Development Programme report published in 2011, warned that Afghanistan had already lost 50 percent of its underground water supply due to climate change and population growth in cities. Recently, there were reports of big drops in Kabul’s groundwater levels due to excessive use.   

What concerns international experts is that the environmental crises affecting water supplies in Herat and Kabul are being experienced across Afghanistan. The impact of climate change means that the landlocked country is being buffeted by deepening droughts, unpredictable deadly floods and warmer temperatures. At the same time, the ability of the Taliban regime to tackle such intensifying predicaments is in doubt, especially as it is dominated by clerics rather than scientific experts, many of whom have fled the country.  

The UNICEF report from earlier in 2022 highlighted the looming problems: “Essential personnel for the maintenance of water and sanitation services have not received salaries for several months. Given the technical nature of operating water and sanitation services, if employees in the sector vacate their jobs due to unpaid wages, services can falter or fail, leaving millions in cities and towns without water and sanitation.”  

As well, the current economic crisis means that people don’t have money to purchase water from private vendors, something that 30 percent of Afghans did before the Taliban returned to power.  

There should be enough water for the entire population. An assessment of the Ministry of Energy and Water shows that Afghanistan’s accessible water reserves are around 75 billion cubic metres, though much of the water is either not where the people live or is not used efficiently, allowing localized scarcities to occur. For example, though many rivers in the region flow out of Afghanistan, only 30 percent of such surface water is used in Afghanistan while 70 percent flows into neighbouring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan.  

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.  

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