Six years on from their initial implementation, questions are being raised about the applicability of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in places of extreme poverty. To celebrate this year's World Water Week, we're reflecting on progress made towards accessible clean water and sanitation facilities in Afghanistan, particularly in the face of COVID-19.

What is SDG 6?

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation aims to ensure water and sanitation for all by 2030. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, hand-washing has been deemed by experts to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. This gives SDG 6 a renewed sense of purpose as 3 billion people lack basic hand-washing facilities at home and, as of 4th May 2021, there have been over 154,631,280 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide.

SDG 6 is made up of eight targets that take on two key dimensions: the health of people and the health of the planet. Regarding the former, the goal endeavours to achieve access to safe and affordable drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities for all by 2030, paying close attention to the specific needs of women and girls. The goal also aims to protect and restore water-related ecosystems, improve water quality and efficiency, and implement integrated water resource management, in order to address water scarcity for the sake of both people and the environment.

SDG 6 is broad, but the survival of our people and our ecosystems are at its very core and thus it is crucially bound to the other SDGs - for example, SDG 1: No Poverty and SDG 15: Life on Land.

How does this apply to Afghanistan? 

The SDGs were established with the view of being realised everywhere by 2030, irrespective of country-specific challenges.

Afghanistan is a land-locked country that shares five river basins with bordering countries. This, in addition to it lacking infrastructure to store water, means that it only uses one third of the water that originates there, as the rest flows into the neighbouring countries.

According to Unicef:

  • One third of Afghans do not have access to clean drinking water; 
  • 80 per cent of the population have toilets;
  • Only 43 per cent of the toilets are considered safe, meaning they separate human waste from human contact.

As for the country’s climate, it experiences harsh winters, low rainfall and high temperatures, which mean it is prone to both droughts and flash floods. The latter occur when spikes in temperature cause snow to melt and rush down the mountains.

In order to achieve SDG 6 in Afghanistan, we know that we must not only be attune to the challenges posed by its extreme climate, but by the conflict that has destroyed water and sanitation facilities and internally displaced millions of people.

Afghanaid and SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

We’ve been working towards SDG 6 by:

1) Installing clean water systems in villages and schools across Afghanistan

Women in 27-year-old Gul Bahar's village used to walk up to 1km to fetch drinking water from nearby rivers. It was difficult for them to collect any water during the winter months due to the heavy snow and every year, as a result of the cold weather, many of the women who collected it would catch pneumonia. On top of this, the water wasn’t safe enough to drink, and each month, numerous villagers would fall sick with diarrhea, typhoid or other water-born illness. Young children were at the most risk and, every year, at least one of the village’s 31 families would lose a child.

Three years ago, we began working with Gul Bahar's village, who identified access to clean water as the most pressing need. We supported the community to build a water supply network to connect the 31 households to a constant supply of clean drinking water. The new pipe system has multiple access points, so that families in the centre and outskirts of the village can have 24-hour access to potable water. As a result of the project, rates of water-born illness and disease have fallen dramatically and this year, no child died as a result of unclean drinking water.

“Before Afghanaid came to our village, we didn’t have access to any clear water - it was too hard for us to collect safe water, as the nearest source was so far away. This meant that people were often sick from the dirty water, and our children were dying.”⁣ - Gul (pictured).

Over the past three years we have installed 532 solar water pumps like this one across Afghanistan.

    2) Distributing hygiene equipment and PPE, building hand-washing stations and educating on the importance of personal hygiene in the face of COVID-19

    “Our children use the masks and gloves provided by Afghanaid and, if they do leave the home, they follow Afghanaid’s advice and when they return they wash their hands thoroughly using the soap and hand-washing liquid that came in the kit.” - 50-year-old Ozran, mother of three (pictured).

    So far we have reached over 10,800 people with our COVID-19 response, including the provision of hygiene packs, PPE and hand-washing facilities.

    3) Training communities in natural resource and disaster management

    “This year’s drought has meant that there is currently no natural water source in the village, so we have distributed watering cans for people to make sure that their saplings do not dry out.” Ansari, husband and father of five (pictured). 

    In the last three years we have established and trained 33 local Natural Resource Management Associations across communities in Afghanistan so that they can improve and manage rangelands in an inclusive and sustainable way.

    Rangeland activities focus on soil and water conservation, which have played a major role in: 

    • Reducing soil erosion; 
    • Reducing natural disasters, including flooding and avalanches;
    • Increasing surface water storage;
    • Increasing vegetation.

    Over 90% of the population where we work is dependent on agriculture as their primary source of income. This means that training farmers in sustainable management of water and disaster preparedness is vital to the long-term success of our livelihoods projects.

    Ansari is a member of a community-based Disaster Management Committee that we established in his village. These committees are intended to empower locals to understand how climate change and natural disasters affect their lives and how they can reduce risks accordingly. 

    “We have also told the whole village to not waste water. As well as this, we are collecting small amounts of money from each of our pockets, so that we can pay for the construction of a small water pipe to bring the spring water to the bottom of the village." 

    What challenges are there for realising SDG 6 by 2030? 

    In many cases, people in Afghanistan have been unable to restore the water sources that have been destroyed by internal conflict. Furthermore, people who have been displaced by conflict or climate have little choice in where they go - this can mean leaving behind clean water and sanitation facilities to settle elsewhere where such facilities are simply not available. Adopting new habits and lifestyles regarding water is a particular challenge in rural areas where illiteracy is widespread and people lack the knowledge of the importance of clean drinking water.

    On a systemic level, Afghanistan’s national and local water service providers have low capacity to be able to improve and react to the impact that unpredictable conflict and natural disasters have on water availability and quality. The drop in implementation of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects by the international community in recent years in Afghanistan has made it difficult to account for lacking funds, capacity and infrastructure in the country. Without long-term support, we can only run shorter-term projects, which have a significant positive impact, but not in the consistent, incremental manner that will truly achieve the SDG 6 targets.

    What can you do to help? 

    Your support ensures that we can continue to improve community access to clean water and sanitation facilities and respond with vital emergency support when disasters like COVID-19 strike. 

    Thank you for joining us in working towards SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, which continues to feel more and more urgent as Afghanistan battles COVID-19.

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