Urbanising Kabul

Globally, urban populations have doubled since the 1980s, and the developing world in particular is rapidly urbanising. This trend is also seen in Afghanistan, where some 30 per cent of the people are thought to live in urban or periurban centres.

Afghanistan’s urbanisation has accelerated following the country’s dramatic regime changes over the past three years. Kabul City, for example, has grown from some 500,000 people in 2001 to an estimated 3,000,000 at the end of 2004.

Land speculation has led to a proliferation of high-rise, high-rent buildings owned by Afghan merchants
These energy-dependent, multi-storey structures are symbolic of the wealth disparities (and tensions) in the city

Kabul old and new: traditional buildings,many destroyed by war and conflict,are being replaced with modern concreteand glass structures

It is in Kabul that the country’s most significant urban challenges are seen, including rapid population growth, the destruction of much of the city’s physical infrastructure due to war and lack of maintenance, land tenure issues, a sharp increase in land prices and rents, a shortage of low-income housing and a high rate of unemployment. Although Urban Infrastructure is a priority National Development Program in Afghanistan’s National Development Framework, donors tend to view development through a rural perspective.

Urban development is therefore not presently a donor priority for Afghanistan, and such monies as are available for urgent urban infrastructure needs and job creation schemes are not sufficiently coordinated or strategic. This article provides overviews of Kabul’s urban planning challenges and of the key players in the urban sector. It also summarizes some of the strategies for the urban revitalization process that will be essential to Afghanistan’s socio-economic reconstruction.

Urban challenges

Afghanistan’s urban centres are key to its reconstruction, as cities are acknowledged to be the engines of economic growth. Urban centres generate employment, especially in the service sectors; and they provide significant opportunities for private sector investment. Furthermore, cities are generally the focal points for social and cultural development. In order to maximise the potential of Afghanistan’s cities, however, various pressing urban issues must be addressed and managed.

It is in the capital city Kabul that the country’s greatest urban challenges are found, and they include:

Rapid population growthKabul’s most urgent urban planning issues are linked to its rapid population growth. This is in part due to the influx of returning refugees following the end of the Taliban regime and the establishment of the Interim Government of Afghanistan in late 2001. Moreover, migrants from other parts of the country have also flocked into the city, seeking employment, public services and/or agency assistance in the wake of the opportunities offered by the new government and by the many international organisations involved in security and reconstruction activities who have established offices there since December 2001.

Kabul’s current population is therefore quite heterogeneous, in contrast to most of Afghanistan’s more homogeneous rural communities. Unlike their pre-1978 profiles, few Kabul neighbourhoods are now inhabited exclusively by people from any one particular place or group. More commonly, diverse populations live in proximity in the same area. They may include both ‘newcomers’ and ‘original residents’, and tensions may exist between them.

Destruction of physical infrastructure

Much of Kabul’s physical infrastructure has been destroyed following decades of conflict and lack of maintenance. This has created housing shortages and service delivery backlogs resulting in, for example, a lack of clean water supply and urban traffic congestion.

There is a shortage of low income housing. This has encouraged the spread of unserviced, informal, or squatter, settlements throughout Kabul. It is estimated that as many as half of the city’s population live in squatter settlements. In Kabul, squatters do not necessarily live rent-free. As virtually all land in the city is claimed by one or more owners, who may be individuals, companies or government institutions, squatter households are usually obliged to pay some amount to remain on a property. For example, families squatting in an area claimed by a ministry may be required to pay a representative of that ministry a fee – which may be off the books – in order not to be removed from their squat.

It is unclear what percentage of working poor households have been obliged to move from one neighbourhood to another due to their inability to pay rising rents. In addition to those whose standards of living are declining but who can still afford rental accommodation, there are also ‘evictees’, who may be jobless internally displaced persons (IDPs) or returning refugees, and who constitute another category of the urban poor. Their homelessness is the result of, variously, land seizures, increasing rents, low-income housing shortages, and a high unemployment rate.

Sharp increases in land prices and rents

As aid, commercial, military and other organisations with international currency operating funds move into Kabul, land speculation has led to a proliferation of high-rise, high-rent buildings owned by Afghan merchants and powerbrokers.

These energy-dependent, multi-storey structures are in sharp contrast to the city’s widespread squatter settlements, and they are symbolic of the wealth disparities (and tensions) in the city.

Often these new buildings are not in compliance with extant municipal zoning or building codes. There are, however, currently no effective mechanisms for the enforcement of these regulations.

There are significant land tenure issues, including property disputes arising from war and regime changes. Such disputes have sometimes resulted in evictions and land seizures, for example the September 2003 evictions from land owned by the Ministry of Defence in the Shirpur area of Kabul City.

There is a dearth of potable water for the city’s growing needs. This situation was initially a consequence of the drought that has plagued the country since 1999. The increase in Kabul’s population and the shortage of water/sanitation infrastructure have exacerbated the situation. Consequently, waterborne diseases are widespread.

Revenues currently available to the urban sector are not sufficiently harmonised, focused or strategic enough to comprehensively carry out necessary long-term infrastructure upgrading and job creation schemes, at both the national and sub-national levels, human resource capacity in the urban sector is insufficient.

Inadequate donor coordination

Donor priorities and projects are not always well coordinated. At the grassroots level, there is often duplication of activities by implementing partners. Moreover, donors and implementing agencies still often appear to act in parallel, rather than in support of, established national and subnational bodies. This can be seen as a holdover from the Taliban era when, in the absence of a widely internationally recognised regime, NGOs and UN agencies augmented public services.

Urban management

Urban management today is fragmented among several ministries and other institutions.

There has been growing public pressure upon the Afghan Government for tangible reconstruction results, particularly in Kabul. This was especially noticeable in the period leading up to the October 2004 elections. Acknowledging the scale and immediacy of these issues, the Interim, and then the Transitional, Islamic State of Afghanistan has included the Urban Management National Development Programme (NDP)’s subprogramme of National Urban Infrastructure as a priority within the country’s National Development Framework (NDF) 3 www.afghanistangov.org

Among the key municipal and national actors in the urban sector are the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MUDH), Kabul Municipality and the Kabul City High Commission. Additional national stakeholders include the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Public Works, and the Ministry of Water and Energy.

Other players include international donors and international financial institutions (IFIs) and the Urban Sector Consultative Group, as well as implementing partners, e.g. UN agencies, international NGOs, local NGOs, and Afghan and other contracting firms. Linked to MUDH there are as well six semi-private state-owned enterprises (SOEs), at least two of which, Afghan Construction Company and Banai Construction Company, are large landholders and landlords in Kabul.

At the grassroots there are community groups, or shuras, in each of the city’s 18 nahias, or districts, and in most of the 470-odd nieghbourhoods within these districts. Many of these community shuras were initiated by UN agencies and NGOs, both local and international, to assist in project implementation. Furthermore, in each neighbourhood, or gozar, there are wakils, or headmen, whose authority is generally based on local patronage.

The Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MUDH) is responsible for sound urban management, including facilitating access to housing for all of Afghanistan's citizens. In order to carry out these tasks, MUDH is mandated by the Government to prepare appropriate policies, programmes and projects, as well as the Urban Management Sector portion of the National Development Budget (the NDB – the ‘aid’ budget). MUDH is also tasked with coordinating, monitoring and assessing all projects in the urban sector, and reporting back to donors, the Ministry of Finance and the Cabinet.

Kabul Municipality is headed by the Mayor of Kabul, and its employees include the directors of various departments such as roads and planning, and the administrators of each of the city’s 18 districts. The Municipality owns, or is in a position to sell, significant amounts of ‘public’ or ‘state’ land throughout the city.

Moreover, the Municipality claims responsibility for housing, land assessment and ownership records, as well as for urban roads and water supply. Furthermore, the municipality claims the revenue collection for all of these services.

In an environment where land tenure is often in dispute and where regulations may be unclear, allegations about the Municipality’s sales of land, its unsystematic provision of land ownership documents, and its idiosyncratic collection of revenues have led to charges of favouritism and conflicts of interest.

Kabul City High Commission (KCHC) is composed of representatives from the various ministries involved in urban affairs and governance such as MUDH, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Interior, as well as the Mayor of Kabul City. The KCHC’s decision-making authority extends to decisions on public, or state, land use, including evictions, e.g. the Shirpur evictions in September 2003 from land owned by the Ministry of Defense.

The Shirpur land was later made available to various members of the KCHC and others for nominal fees. This led to charges of corruption and conflict of interest against those parties.

The Consultative Group (CG) for the Urban Management sector is comprised of donor representatives, the Minister and Deputy Minister of MUDH, stakeholders from Kabul Municipality and UN agencies and NGOs as well as expatriate and national MUDH advisors. The CG is tasked with assisting MUDH with policy and programme development, budget preparation and monitoring and evaluating Urban Sector projects. These and other issues are discussed in the CG meetings and documented in its minutes www.afghanistangov.org.

Theoretically, the CG provides one means of assisting MUDH to ensure project coordination in the urban sector. In practice, this mechanism is not yet as effective as originally envisaged, particularly with regard to large donor and IFI activities.

The Urban Management portion of the NDB and the Project CycleThe Urban Management portion of the NDB includes only those activities for which aid is requested. It includes both grants and loans to the Government. Within the budget, these two categories of funding are not distinguished. For the fiscal year 1383-84 (2004-2005), there were approximately 100 projects in the NDB’s Urban Sector.

The total budget requirement for these projects is some US $400 million. Further information on NDB projects, donors and commitments is provided in the Donor Assistance Database, or DAD.

Strategies for urban revitalisationWhile unique in their specifics, the urban planning issues in Kabul are not unlike those seen in other transitional, or ‘recovering’ states, for example, in East Timor or Lebanon. Indeed, these challenges are not uncommon in developing countries globally. At the macro level, the national priority strategies for urban revitalisation, as expressed through MUDH, are similar to those seen in other rapidly urbanizing, ‘postconflict’ states, and they include:

town planning: this encompasses transportation networks, potable water, sewage management systems and shelter for planned neighbourhoods as well as upgrading services for informal or squatter settlements. As part of this strategy, policies for regularizing and providing security of land tenure in informal settlements are also under consideration.

  • mass employment creation through public works programmes: the UNDF Recovery Employment Afghanistan Programme (REAP)
  • more public-private sector partnerships: including both foreign and local investors, to raise the substantial monies that will be required for investment in urban infrastructure, services, housing and job creation. In this regard, it is encouraging that draft legislation on foreign investments is now under consideration; and that there are – as of this writing – two international banks open in Kabul for both commercial and personal banking. Public-private partnerships can be complex, and Afghanistan’s investment law has not, as of writing, been amended to allow for the tracking of domestic investment funds. It will therefore be essential for the Government, perhaps through the Ministry of Finance, to exercise a high level of vigilance over such partnerships, to exclude any possibility that they could become vehicles for laundering money.
  • building the capacity of urban sector professional and support staff and increasing salaries to be competitive with the private sector: Many senior staff at MUDH and other Kabul departments have served for over 20 years, and collectively they represent an institutional memory and local knowledge base which will be invaluable for the reconstruction process. It is crucial that these skilled, experienced staff be retained. Salaries for professional MUDH and some other civil service servants were increased under the Public Restructuring and Reform (PRR) program in March-April 2004.However, these increases are not yet competitive with the NGO and private sectors, and many civil servants are still obliged to take on additional employment to meet the rising costs of living in Kabul. Finally, capacity building also requires a change in the administrative context if it is to be more than just ‘skills upgrading’. This is a lengthy process and, as noted above with PRR salary increases, not one which fits well into donors’ usual single fiscal year budgets.
  • restoration and revitalization of historic urban centres, including commercial and residential areas. Over the longer term, it is hoped that this will as well generate tourism revenues.

MUDH is responsible for developing specific policies to support the above strategies. However, Afghanistan’s still-evolving political and economic environments, a fragmented urban management and weak financial and human resource capacity all challenge the Ministry’s policy formulation and its enforcement ability.

Summary and conclusions

Afghanistan’s most dramatic urban planning challenges are see in Kabul, and they include rapid population growth, the destruction of physical infrastructure, a shortage of low income housing, sharp increases in land prices and rents, land tenure issues and a fragmented urban management. While unique in their particulars, these concerns are not uncommon in other post-war countries or in the developing world generally.

The current regime in Afghanistan was established only three years ago, and the Government is still building its capacity to coordinate and monitor programs and projects. The implementation of urban strategies may not therefore proceed in as timely a fashion as desired by planners, donors and Afghan citizens. Some of the types and consequences of institutional fragility in the urban sector have been noted above Institution building and structural reform are long-term, complex processes, and the Government’s demonstrated commitment to them is promising.

Another challenge to the implementation of urban planning strategies is that revenues currently available to the sector – whether from taxes, aid, loans or private investment – are not sufficiently coordinated, focused or strategic to undertake the types of long-term, comprehensive development projects that are necessary. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of aid funding. Donors tend to view development through a rural perspective, and urban development is not presently a donor priority for Afghanistan.Yet Afghanistan’s stability depends, in part, upon people in urban areas having employment as well as livable environments.

The mantra of ‘poverty is a root cause of terrorism’ is now fashionable among policy makers, and previous analyses of post-war institutional approaches to urban reconstruction demonstrate that strategic and extended support – as well as equitable local partnerships – are required for this process. Yet donor governments have still not adequately acknowledged that urban revitalisation is essential to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and stability. As events over the past decade in that country and elsewhere demonstrate, international stakeholders cannot afford not to invest and work with local actors towards this goal.

Annette Ittig is an area specialist and humanitarian agency worker. She has undertaken mission throughout Afghanistan for various UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including UNICEF, the World Food Program, UN-OCHA, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), the International Rescue Committee and Deutsche Welt Hungerhilfe. She was based in Kabul from December 2002 to August 2004 on assignments for UNAMA, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the World Bank. The statements expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of any of the agencies for whom she has worked in Afghanistan

For more information on Kabul and its districts, see Afghanistan Information