World Politics Review, October 18, 2007
Afghanistan Faced with Severe Housing Shortage
A two-bedroom apartment in Kabul can cost 0 to 0 a month, compared to for a three-bedroom home in 1978.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- It's a daily ritual for 8-year-old Bismillah. Every morning, five grimy plastic cans slung over his tiny shoulder, he descends a rugged hillside, negotiating the steep pitches of scree and gravel with goat-like agility.
At the bottom of the hill, he waits under the broiling sun in a long queue leading up to a spigot. But wait he must or his family will be left without drinking water for the day.
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Bismillah lives with his handicapped father, mother and four sisters in a mud-and-wood house in a cramped settlement clinging to a shale-brown hill overlooking Kabul. With no direct water supply, dwellers of these rudimentary housing settlements -- all illegally built -- must lug their water from the bottom of the hill.
"Life is hard," says, Suraiya begum, Bismillah's mother, her face hidden behind the lavender fabric of her burqa. "We wouldn't live here if we had a better choice."
Six years after the invasion, ask ordinary Afghans the biggest challenge they face, and their answer isn't likely to be the Taliban. It is, in fact, to find a roof over their heads.
Kabul is in particular need, because of the destruction of nearly 70,000 houses in almost thirty years of war. And a steady inflow of returnees has further exacerbated the problem. With a population of 800,000 before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Kabul is now home to over four million, many of them refugees that have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. It is estimated that as much as half of Kabul's population lives in squatter settlements.
The city is sinking under the weight of its own citizens. Kabul 's most urgent urban planning issues are linked to its rapid population growth.
The situation is the same in other larger cities as well -- like Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. According to U.N. estimates, from 2000 to 2015 the national population is expected to increase by 14 million to a total of about 37 million; more than half of this growth will be in urban areas.
So far, foreign firms have invested $4.5 billion in rebuilding Afghanistan, but very little of it has gone into housing construction, according to Omar Zakhilwal, the director of the Afghanistan Investment support Agency (AISA) in Kabul.
In fact, an acute shortage of affordable housing is forcing people to recklessly building mud houses on the slippery slopes of denuded hills around Kabul. And overcrowding has put a lot of pressure on the already-frail civic infrastructure of the city.
The U.N. says Afghanistan is the world's sixth least developed country. Only 13 percent of Afghans have access to safe water, 12 percent to adequate sanitation, and just 6 percent to electricity. Life expectancy is 44 years (compared to 59 years for low-income countries worldwide).
For Suraiya Begum's family, life in this overcrowded settlement is unforgiving. When it rains, her porous roof leaks and a flood of muddy excrement flows down the slopes, filling up sewers and cesspits already choked with garbage. Mounds of trash collect in heaps in the alleyways leading up to her house. The open sewers are besieged by flies and disease.
Sanitation facilities are scarce. There is a dearth of potable water. (Piped city water reaches only 18 percent of people in Kabul.) Daily power cuts last from dawn until dusk in the winter -- longer in the summer.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Urban development, with World Bank assistance, is now in the process of upgrading formal and informal settlements in Kabul city. This $28.2 million project, which will take at least a few years to implement, will help improve infrastructure and provide basic services like drinking water, sanitation, surface water drainage, concrete roads and street lighting.
"Given a vast majority lives in these settlements, the solution is to upgrade, not demolish these homes and make more people homeless," says Yousaf Pashtun, the Afghan minister of urban development, who is an architect and town planner by training.
But despite the government's efforts, Kabul is facing a chronic shortage of housing for the poor. The per capita income in this post-Taliban nation, according to the World Bank, has increased from $180 in 2002 to $300 in 2006. The figure is expected to reach $500 soon. Still, buying a house or an apartment remains a distant dream for most of Kabul's citizens.
The Afghan urban development minister says land is being appropriated illegally by powerful individuals at a rate of two sq km (0.8 sq miles) a day.
"There is a land mafia which has stolen 5,000 sq km of land this year", says Yousaf Pashthun.
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A two-bedroom apartment in Kabul can cost $200 to $400 a month, compared to $7 for a three-bedroom home in 1978. In the neighborhoods of Wazir Akbar Khan and Shahr-e-now, private housing rents have reached $7,000. That makes it impossible for the poor to pay for housing in Kabul, and dramatically widens the class of impoverished Afghans.
Last year, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief expressed concern that Afghanistan's housing prices are spiraling out of control and making a difficult situation worse for the Afghan poor.
"I didn't think we would face so many problems when we came back to Kabul," says Sangar Khan, a 24-year-old Afghan who returned to the country from Pakistan, where he had fled during the Taliban's reign. "We keep hearing so much money is being given to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but getting a [home] is the biggest challenge. Renting a house is just not affordable any more."
Khan lives in a squatter shack in another informal settlement that isn't rent-free. As most land in Kabul is claimed by one or more owners -- individuals, companies or government institutions -- squatter households are usually obliged to pay some amount to remain on a property.
Minister Pashtun says he is aware of the acute housing shortage. The Afghan government, he says, with an investment of over $200 million, is in the process of building a small satellite town in northeast Kabul called Shar-i-Sabz, with 100,000 units of housing due to be completed in the next three years.
But beyond the efforts of the government, Pashtun says, the private sector can play a big role in building housing for war-weary Afghans.
At a dust-choked construction site some 20 miles north of Kabul, a private firm is in the process of building a swanky new housing complex that, its builders promise, will change the face of Kabul's rustic skyline forever.
Called "Green City," this ambitious $10 million housing project being financed by Khawar, and Afghan NGO, promises housing for over 3,000 families in multi-storey buildings and row houses spread over 2.5 million square feet. The project is due to be completed in the next two years.
Enayat Sahary, Green City's Iranian-born chief engineer, bent over an expansive blueprint of the township, a cigar dangling between his lips. "The Madrassah will be over here, the Masjid here, the shopping complex here," he says, jabbing his finger at different sections of the blue print.
"At the moment, Kabul stinks. It needs a makeover," he says. "Green city is something Afghans have never seen before."
However, the prices of the apartments being built are almost beyond the reach of ordinary Afghans.
Sahary attributes the high cost to the rising price of overhead. Cement, diesel, labor -- prices of all have sky rocketed since 2002. "Fifty kilos of cement cost 100 Afghani in 2002, now it costs 400; the cost of diesel has nearly doubled since then," he says.
Afghanistan today is facing unprecedented population growth and rapid urbanization, which is widening the gap in demand and supply of housing in urban areas like Kabul and Jalalabad.
"Increasing access to housing finance is key to developing a large-scale housing market in Afghanistan," says Sahary.
At a workshop conducted jointly by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation in April, to present the findings of a study on Afghanistan's housing sector, experts recommended introducing microfinance loans for home renovation, construction, and purchase.
"Mortgage," says Minister Pashtun, "is the only way we can make homes affordable to our middle class. People can't afford to pay lump sum amounts."
At Shar-i-Sabz, in order to make apartments within the financial reach of Afghans, banks will buy homes from the government and then mortgage them to buyers who will pay up to $150 a month for 15 years before becoming owners. Pashtun is hopeful Afghanistan's 14-odd banks will show keen interest in buying them up, and offering them to buyers.
Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist based in Pune, India.
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