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Urban living
A mountain to climb

Zafar Shah Rouyee
An estimated 20 per cent of Kabul residents live in illegal settlements in terrible conditions on hills in the periphery of Afghanistan's capital.
17.09.2015  |  Kabul

There is no road, no sewage system and no drinking water. The only supply chains are busy lanes of donkeys carrying barrels of water, construction materials and sacks of flour for sale to nearly 1 million people who live on the hills that surround Kabul.  

“Life is difficult here, but I have no choice. I do not have enough money to buy a piece of land in flat areas,” says Malik, a middle-aged man from Panjshir who is building a house in a small space near the industrial area of Kabul. Every brick, nail and construction material he needs must carried by donkey, adding substantial logistical costs.

There are no official statistics for the number of people who live in informal settlements built illegally in the hills around Kabul, where land is cheaper and more accessible, but officials at Kabul Municipality estimate that 15 to 20 per cent of the total population of the capital lives in such conditions.

Cascades of sewage

 Zabair, who lives on a hill known as TV Station Mountain, says living standards are awful. “These houses do not have proper bathrooms,” he says, adding that residents simply empty their septic tanks into streams that form during the rainy season, increasing the pool of bacteria in Kabul. “When the rains stop, waste dries up and is spread all over the city by the wind,” laments Abdul Qader Arezoo, a spokesman for the Municipality of Kabul.

Local residents however say they are forced to dispose of their waste in this manner, as the municipality offers no alternative. Officials at the Water Department of Kabul say they are tackling the issue of drinking water, albeit with limited success. “We have used high pressure pumps to move water up the hills to increase access to drinking water. In some areas, it just does not work,” says Dad Muhammad Baheer, director of the Water Management Department of the Ministry of Urban Development. “So we built water storages in lower areas so people can come down and fill up their barrels with water from these deposits.”

Donkey work

Some NGOS have built stairs to the most remote of houses, but other hilltop residents must carry everything they need – from water to food – up the hill via donkey, which has opened up a fruitful trade in logistics for some local entrepreneurs. Abdul and Jameel, 14 and 17, own three donkeys and carry “things that people cannot carry” up the hill for a fee. A 50-kilogram sack of flower costs a client 50 to 100 afghani (0.75 to 1.5 USD approx) for home-delivery. A barrel of water costs between 15 and 20 afghani, depending on the distance covered. A truck-load of construction materials such as bricks can cost up to 2000 afghani (32 USD approx) per load.

“We cannot use water as we please,” says Shoaib, an old man living in TV Station Mountain, “we try our best to use the least amount of water possible.” Shoaib says his family spends more than 2 USD per day on water.

The living conditions are particularly hard on children, the sick and the elderly. Abdul Rauf, 60, has lived on TV Station Mountain for the last 20 years. “I do not come down unless I really have to,” he told Afghanistan Today, recounting a time when he slipped on a rock and was injured for months afterwards. “If you get sick here, life will become very difficult, as you will have to be carried away on somebody’s back,” says Rauf.

Many families took shelter in the hills around Kabul during the Mujahedin’s shelling of Kabul in the early 1990s. This rapid urban relocation meant basic services like sewers, roads, schools and clinics did not have a chance to develop.

Others settled later due to the lack of available land elsewhere. The government insists that the hill residents are illegal squatters, yet there is little the city authorities can do to clear them out.

Unstable legal ground

All lands sold and bought on hill settlements do not have legal documentation, according to the relevant authorities. “They are mostly sold illegally by powerful people,” says Abdul Areezo, a spokesman at Kabul Municipality. “The government cannot remove these people from these homes. There are just too many. On the other hand, if we remove them, the government does not have an alternative place for them”.

For now, the government is planning a makeover. “We decided to paint these houses,” says Areezo. “This will help add beauty to Kabul. We will start very soon.”

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