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"We have to reconstruct our society"

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Mohammad Yusof Pashtun: "Four years ago, only 300,000 [in Kabul] had access to water. Today it is two million... there is some progress."
Mohammad Yusof Pashtun: "Four years ago, only 300,000 [in Kabul] had access to water. Today it is two million... there is some progress."

Kalpana Sharma

Afghanistan's Urban Development Minister on the challenges his country faces.

Mohammad Yusof Pashtun is the Minister for Urban Development of Afghanistan. He is an engineer, architect, and town planner by training. In 1982 he fled to Pakistan after he was released from jail and lived in Quetta. He returned to Afghanistan only to leave again in 1995 when the Taliban took over. After the war he returned once again and joined the Transitional Government. In 2003, he was appointed Governor of Kandahar. He returned to Kabul in 2004, to take over the Urban Development Ministry, a position he had temporarily relinquished for the posting to Kandahar. In an interview, he spoke about the challenges facing Afghanistan and its urban areas during the World Urban Forum III in Vancouver. Excerpts:

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan in terms of urbanisation?Our objective of reconstruction is not just physical. We have to reconstruct our society, our people. There has been damage over 25 years not just to infrastructure. It is easier to rebuild infrastructure. It is difficult to rebuild our society. We had a culture of balance of different people with different ideas. It went first to the extreme Left, then to the ultra Right, to Muslim fanatics. All this has had a subversive effect on our society.

But there are positive developments. First, the end of war has led to stopping destruction of physical infrastructure. But we need more time to rebuild our social structures again.

Kabul had a population of just half-a-million before the wars. It was a well-balanced, beautiful city. Kabul received the most amount of damage during the war. Sixty per cent of the city was destroyed. Eighty per cent of the infrastructure was destroyed. Seventy per cent of the population left the city during the troubled years. Currently the population is four million. Thirty per cent of the original Kabulis, that is 150,000 people, are still there. So today, only two out of every 40 residents of Kabul are the original people. All the rest are from rural areas. It will take some time to urbanise them, to develop social relations.

We can't claim that we are heading towards sustainability. There is a revolution going on in urbanisation. In Afghanistan, this is like an explosion. The rest of the country is not balanced. If someone is sick and you give him a high dose of antibiotics, you might cure him but you could also kill him. We can't have high doses of development but at the same time we do need development. So how do you get this without losing your balance? The disease of urbanisation is spreading so fast that all districts are asking for help to develop their urban areas.

As Minister you have to set some priorities for urban development. What is your priority?The first is housing, that is the biggest item. Then comes transportation. Environment can come later. For example the Kabul river, once beautiful, is now like a waste basket. Sanitation, solid waste disposal is so poor that people are using the river as a waste basket.

Water is another problem. At the moment only 50 per cent of the population is supplied water. Four years ago, only 300,000 had access to water. Today it is two million. So there is some progress. In the next five to six years, we hope to cover the entire population.

Power supply is another problem. It is almost stable at the moment but there is no room for expansion. We plan to build a 20,000 MW hydel capacity but that will take 10-20 years. We also plan a high transmission line that will carry power from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the rest of Afghanistan. Indian engineers are helping us with this.

Sanitation is another big problem. The municipality just can't cope. The management issue is the biggest problem. Urbanisation also means cultural values have to change and this process is very slow. Those who come from rural areas are just not concerned with cleanliness. They're willing to spend half a million on their house but will not spend a couple of thousand on paving the pavement in front of the house or walk two blocks to dump the garbage. Lots of effort has to be made for social education.

What about the private sector? We hear that Afghanistan is planning to go in for privatisation in a big way.After wasting three years, we are now concentrating on the urban areas. Private sector investment is coming into it and we are trying to give incentives so that we can move towards privatisation. The only solution is cross-subsidy, as the government will not give a direct subsidy. We have already started with water supply. We have worked out three levels of tariff. The poor will pay less and the posher areas will pay more. My argument with the government is that if those living in the better off areas are prepared to spend money to buy water, why not charge them a little more and supply them with the water they want.

Fifty per cent of Kabul consists of slums. Most of these are located in the unplanned area. They are free to build their own houses. There have been slums for the past 10-15 years but the worst slums have grown in the last three years.

Our plan is to improve their economic situation. Currently most slum dwellers are self-employed and unemployment is as high as 30 per cent. Employment could help them to improve their housing but the government still has to tackle the sanitation and waste problem and here cross-subsidy is needed. The rich areas should pay more taxes. But sometimes, political implications are pushing the government not to take such a step. Last year, I proposed a 4 cents to 10 cents increase in the water tariff but the Cabinet was against it. It took them two months to finally approve.

We are pushing for corporatisation in water and sanitation. At the moment, it will be a government owned company until we are sure that the deprived areas are covered. This will not be before 5 to 10 years.

What about Kandahar where you were the Governor? Does your Ministry have any power to manage that city?I admit that Kandahar is a problem. The population is very religious. The government should improve its administrative system. The link between the administration and the people was broken. The Taliban are creating terrorist attacks. Their objective is to disrupt the process of reconstruction. But as a result, even U.N. agencies don't want to go there. I argue that if security has to wait for reconstruction and reconstruction for security, then we will never move forward.

The situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as the press is reporting. I don't want to underestimate the problem but Afghans are optimistic because they need peace.

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