Urban planning in Afghanistan: angry warlords and no census

Informal settlements dot a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, where about 75% of the city is informally settled. Photo taken November 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

After decades of conflict and no up-to-date census, the Afghan capital is grappling with urban planning and infrastructure

By Rina Chandran

KABUL - Like any other mayor of a booming city, Kabul Mayor Ahmad Zaki Sarfaraz worries about traffic congestion, affordable housing and water shortages, but with an added wrinkle: he has no idea how many people live in the Afghan capital.

The last census in Afghanistan was in 1979, and much of the city was destroyed in the four decades of war that followed.

"We don't know how many people there are, how many settlements there are. All we have are estimates that make planning for sanitation, water, housing and public transport a huge challenge," Sarfaraz said in an interview in his office.

"A master plan is being made, and we are also engaging with the community to see what they want right away," he said.

Based on the 1979 census, the United Nations estimates there are nearly 5 million people in Kabul now.

The Afghan population will double in the next 15 years from about 38 million, with half the population living in its cities - compared to about a fourth now, the U.N. forecasts.

Kabul's previous plan, a Soviet-style 25-year master plan until 2003, was made when the city had about half a million residents - a far cry from the teeming crowds and snarling traffic that now choke the city.

While a new master plan is being drafted, authorities are implementing a City for All programme in a dozen cities including Kabul, with the support of UN-Habitat, the settlements agency.

Communities are involved in so-called strategic action plans that identify and prioritise projects including infrastructure and basic services that can be funded and implemented quickly.

"The process ensures that voices of local residents - including women and youth - are heard, and that you get doable projects and greater accountability," said Antony Lamba, chief of party, City for All Programme at UN-Habitat Afghanistan.

"A people's process starts with planning from the community. This is how you get playgrounds for children, wider pavements, more open spaces," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A woman walks with a child in a park that is being upgraded in District 1 of Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken November 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

MODERN ADDRESS

The world is seeing the biggest wave of urban growth in history – with the U.N. expecting almost 70% of its population to be living in urban areas by 2050, up from 56% today.

Cities around the world are trying to become "smarter" by using data and technology to improve security, mobility and delivery of services. All of this is based on regular census surveys and detailed future projections.

The first Afghan census in three decades, planned for 2008, was scrapped because of security concerns. A government survey that began in 2013 remains incomplete, according to authorities.

In Kabul, rebuilding damaged infrastructure took precedence after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Foreign aid agencies and non-profits have helped rebuild neglected green spaces and renovate historic sites.

More than 75% of the city is informally settled, with migrants from the rural provinces and hundreds of thousands of returning refugees building homes wherever they could.

Starting in 2016, the U.N. has used satellite imagery to estimate the number of homes in all 34 provincial capitals, and on-ground surveys to determine population size.

As part of the City for All programme, authorities are registering dwellings and mapping boundaries of neighbourhoods, or gozars, to standardise the number of households in each, as well as digitising records and modernising the address format.

One million "Occupancy Certificates" are being issued to informal settlers over the next three years to give them ownership rights over their property.

But landlords and warlords have opposed the surveys, as they did not want to declare their illegally acquired properties, said Lamba.

Still, each of the 22 nahias, or districts, in Kabul is implementing at least one project from their strategic action plans, from paving roads to drainage to renovating parks.

"It helps build the legitimacy of the state, and improves the relationship between the citizens and the municipality at the nahia level," Lamba said.

School children walk on the street in Kabul, where decades of war had damaged much of the infrastructure and prevented a government census from being completed. Photo taken November 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

RESTORE FAITH

Kabul's District 1 is the smallest in the city, and has some of its biggest markets that draw crowds of people daily.

Thousands of homes were built on the hillsides by Afghans who returned after the fall of the Taliban from Pakistan and Iran.

About 550 households - of more than 9,600 - have received Occupancy Certificates, said Wahida Samadi, deputy municipal director of District 1.

These households now pay a municipal tax, which makes it easier to fund and provide basic services, she said.

"People are now investing in their homes, and willing to pay for upgrades and services," Samadi said in an interview.

"With the strategic action plan, they told us what they want - so we are upgrading the park, added a children's playground, and improved the paths up the hill."

Delivering even basic services is essential to restoring faith in the government and for greater stability, said Pietro Calogero, a professor of urban studies at the San Francisco State University, who has studied urban planning in Kabul.

As an insurgency led by the Taliban against the administration hinders a peace deal, policy implementation in Kabul is one of the most visible ways for the national and local government to gain credibility, he said.

"Urban policies are linked directly to the struggle of the country against the insurgency," he said.

Measures from drainage and street paving to protection from evictions "would clearly indicate that the government is serving the people and deserves loyalty and support," he said.

For Mohammad Sharif, who fled to Kabul from the central province of Bamiyan 12 years ago with his family of eight, the Occupancy Certificate has done just that.

Sharif, who built a small home on the hillside in District 1, had lived in fear of being evicted. After receiving the document, he painted his home, added a gate and built another floor.

"All these years, we were not sure the government cared for poor people like us and would solve our problems," he said.

"But we can see they want to help us, and make Kabul better for everyone."

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