Afghanistan and Pakistan: a decade of unproductive interactions over the Kabul-Indus basin


The Third Pole, Kabul-Indus Basin

By favouring a resource capture strategy Afghanistan may well have wasted a decade of potential development in the Kabul-Indus basin.


Photo by wildxplorer

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the government of Afghanistan has been trying to resume its “hydraulic mission”, halted by decades of war and political turmoil.

The construction of dams to provide power and irrigation water is presented as the solution to Afghanistan’s development problems. In the words of the former minister for energy and water, Ismail Kahn, “Once we have water, no one will grow poppies, no one will fight, no one will leave Afghanistan [for work]…water will resolve all problems in Afghanistan.

One key river basin Afghanistan plans to develop is the Kabul-Indus.  The Kabul River and its tributaries rise in Afghanistan and flow east into Pakistan. Many western rivers join the Kunar River — the largest tributary of the Indus — close to Jalalabad city before entering Pakistan. The river basin provides about 25% of Afghanistan’s water, 75% of which is supplied by the Kunar.


Since 2003, the Afghanistan government plans to build 12 projects. These dams will serve mainly as a source of hydropower, with a total potential of 1,890 megawatts. A mere 16,400 hectares of land will be irrigated, while water storage capacity will increase from 3 to 24% of the annual surface water availability.

The hydropower projects will help reduce the gap between the 670 megawatts of electricity produced in Afghanistan and the 3,571 megawatts required by its fast growing population. It would also help allocating water to the mining industry (that is key to the country’s economic development) and improve domestic water supply for Kabul city which is already over-exploiting its groundwater resources.

The prospect of dam construction in Afghanistan has long been a source of concern for Pakistani officials. In 2003, the chairman of Pakistan’s Indus River System Authority, Nasr Rajput, claimedWe will have no water to build new dams if big dams are constructed by Afghanistan on the Kabul River.”Officials pushed to contain the perceived threat by calling for a treaty with Afghanistan “to protect Pakistan’s water rights” and avoid future conflicts.

International organisations such as the World Bank and USAID have also supported the idea of a water-sharing agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2006, the World Bank offered to mediate a consultation process between the two countries, but Afghan officials refused, arguing they lacked data and capacity.

After a 2011 US Congress report warned that water scarcity could fuel dangerous tensions, the World Bank and USAID strengthened their efforts to encourage cross-border dialogue on water. The Word Bank also facilitated informal dialogues on water issues in the Indus Basin, for example through the Abu Dhabi Dialogues.

Senior Afghan officials from the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have refused to discuss water rights. They have also never requested transboundary impact studies. At the same time, they have repeatedly requested funding for large dams from the international community, particularly the World Bank. The World Bank has always conditioned its support on the necessary (but not sufficient) step of ‘prior notification’ and agreement with neighbours, which the Afghanistan government has refused.


While Pakistani officials, USAID and the World Bank have tried to bring a reluctant Afghanistan to the negotiation table, no studies have been carried out to evaluate the possible impact of Afghan projects on downstream Pakistan. In other words, opposition to the Afghan projects took shape without a clear understanding of the water stakes.

In January 2013, an internal World Bank funded study found that the six main projects planned in the Kabul basin would only reduce water flow into Pakistan by 3%. The other six projects would have virtually no impact and are not even considered as transboundary. Furthermore, dams in Afghanistan could provide power desperately needed in Pakistan. But this study did not change the attitudes of Afghan officials towards dialogue and cooperation.

This raises questions about the political motivations behind the nature of interactions over the past decade.

A forthcoming publication by the Kabul-based research organization, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), sheds some light on how water issues are perceived within Afghanistan. Based on interviews with leading Afghan policymakers, members of parliament, academics and key informants, the study shows most senior Afghan decision makers consider transboundary water resources development as a “zero-sum game”, and as a way to upset existing power asymmetries unfavourable to Afghanistan. This position is further motivated by feelings of “mistrust” and “acrimony” that already shape – to a large extent – relations with Pakistan.

Many people within Afghanistan believe that asthe country emerged from three decades of war, neighbours owe it “a grace period to develop” during which, the government should not be expected to justify or negotiate its projects, including within the framework of international norms governing shared water. For a long time president Hamid Karzai has been hesitant to start a dialogue on water sharing for fear he would be portrayed by Afghans as “a water seller.”

Pakistan and India compete for influence in Afghanistan

On the Pakistani side, it is important to remember that a decade ago fears about the “12 Afghan dams” were linked to concerns India was allegedly cooperating with the Afghan government to implement those plans.  The Pakistani government-funded Islamabad Institute of Policy Studies claimed that India’s offer of assistance aimed to increase India’s influence over Afghanistan while at the same time decrease Pakistan’s water supply.

Pakistan’s claims that Afghan projects were a threat and involving the US and the World Bank could well be more about ensuring the country would not be side-lined in a possible attempt by India to strengthen its ties with Afghanistan.

From 1999 to 2010, Pakistan has been in open disagreement with India over theBaglihar Dam located on the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir. One international advisor suggested that Pakistan could not show signs of leniency with Afghanistan considering its disagreements over Indian projects.

In August 2013, two months after Nawaz Sharif took power in Pakistan, the ministers of finance from Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement to build a 1,200 megawatt hydropower project on the Kunar River at a cost of US$2.7 billion. Although no details were discussed – how the hydropower would be shared, how operations would be managed and how funding would be provided – this agreement came as a surprise not only to the international advisers in Kabul but also to the World Bank, USAID and senior officials in the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who were not involved in its preparation. For a number of international observers, this agreement appeared as a positive first step.

Meanwhile, Pakistan secured funding from the World Bank for the Dasu hydropower project, after sending prior notification to the Afghan government in February 2014. The 4,320 megawatt project is located on the Indus river and therefore will not affect water flow in Afghanistan.

In March, the National Security Council of Afghanistan raised an objection to the project, arguing that Pakistan had not informed them about the project, while the ministry of finance urged international institutions not to finance and implement the project without the written consent of the Afghan government. The Afghan government seemed however divided, as the ministry of finance– that had already crafted the Kunar agreement with Pakistan – expressed that it had no concerns à-priori with Dasu. Opposition to Dasu was reiterated on April 15 this year by the ministry of foreign affairs, as its spokesman officially stressed that Afghanistan was still studying the potential impacts of the project. However, on June 10, the World Bank approved US$588.4 million funding for the Dasu dam.

As the building of the Dasu and Diamer-Bhasha dam (also on the Indus) ease the pressure on Pakistan power crisis, the Kunar dam may drop in Pakistan’s priority list. And since the World Bank and the Pakistan government are funding these projects, the likelihood they will finance the Kunar project is more uncertain than ever. Similarly, USAID has lost interest in supporting such a project.

Recent developments are likely to further alienate an already large proportion of Afghan decision-makers who look at Pakistan with distrust, and who strongly believe that “[Afghanistan’s] neighbours have better relations with the major donors — such as the World Bank.” The idea of a double standard has already flourished among academics and political analysts who recently claimed at a seminar in Kabul: “the World Bank had turned down Afghanistan’s repeated pleas for funds to construct hydropower dams, albeit it instantly approved Pakistan’s request for loan.”

But at the same time, those who blame the World Bank and the Government of Pakistan for the lack of progress in hydropower development in Afghanistan may also need to consider what they could have done differently.

It appears to have been a deliberate choice of the Afghan government (except perhaps the ministry of finance more recently) to stall fact finding studies, information exchange and dialogue. Even when it was clear that their projects did not cause any significant harm to Pakistan, they kept refusing to follow the World Bank policy of prior notification and defend their case. The government of Afghanistan decided to follow the same resource capture strategy that allowed it to build the Salma and Kamal Khandams in river basins shared with Iran. But Afghanistan has only succeeded in building two minor projects on the Kabul River (Shah-wa-Aros and Machalghoo) funded by the government and with no transboundary repercussions.

A significant portion of MPs are now questioning this strategy, AREU’s study has shown. As one MP stated, “You can see the result of this strategy [i.e. unilateral resource capture without any dialogue], which is the absence of completion of any single dam since Karzai is in power.”

Overall, the past decade may well have been a wasted opportunity for Afghanistan’s transboundary water resources development in the Kabul-Indus basin. But it may not be too late to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue to make projects such as Kunar move forward, particularly considering the potential for benefit sharing, including flood control, sediment control and hydropower.