A lifeline in peril


The highly polluted Kabul river affects health as well as livelihoods of millions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, besides endangering aquatic life.

Herd of buffaloes
Teaser Image Caption
Charsadda: Herd of buffaloes wade through the Kabul river for taking a bath. Water pollution due to disposal of untreated waste badly damaged river quality making it hazardous for public health and aquatic species.

PESHAWAR: The 700 km long transboundary Kabul river that emerges from Afghanistan’s mountains and empties into the Indus basin at Pakistan’s plain serves as a lifeline for 20 million inhabitants of both the countries by providing water for drinking, irrigation and livelihood.But increasing pollution due to dumping of untreated waste has turned this useful resource into a serious health hazard for its beneficiaries and aquatic species as well.

Scientists researching on water quality of the Kabul river have warned that high level of contamination is posing serious threats to public health and fish population. Bushra Khan, Associate Professor from Environmental Science Department, University of Peshawar, and Shahid Iqbal, a research scholar associated with International Water Management Institute (IWMI) of Pakistan, said that if the practice of using the Kabul river water for human consumption continued without proper treatment, it would have very detrimental impacts on public health.

“Our three years’ research on the project titled ‘Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in Kabul and Swat Rivers[i]and their Impact on Fish Population and Rural Community Livelihood’,[ii] has found high concentration of phthalates, a dissolved form of plastic,” said Khan, also a post doctoral scholar from Purdue University in USA.

According to her, phthalates are a known carcinogen, which not only causes decline in fish population but can also spread cancer among humans because the same water is used for irrigation besides entering into food chain.

Water samples collected from eight locations in the Kabul river from Warsak to Attock revealed more than two dozen types of chemicals including pesticides, pharmaceutical and contaminated sediments. She further said that Bisphenol A, another plasticiser known to disrupt the endocrine system, was also found in most of the samples, but at lower concentration than phthalates.

These chemicals are getting accumulated in the river water due to direct discharge of untreated municipal waste and industrial effluent of different big cities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Gushing water pass through a channel to take the sanitary wastes of Peshawar
Peshawar: Gushing water pass through a channel to take the sanitary wastes of Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkwa province of Pakistan with a population of five million, for direct disposal into the Kabul river.

Khan also made a startling disclosure on the basis of the findings of her research: The number of fish species has decreased from 59 to less than a half due to high levels of pollution in Kabul river. During the examination of polluted water and its impact on fish health, a number of fish were found to have a defective reproduction system due to hormonal changes, caused by the presence of phthalates in water, she claimed.

Iqbal said that the high concentrations of Escherichia coli (E.coli) have been found in the Kabul river due to discharge of untreated municipal waste causing waterborne contamination.Sharing details of his research work titled “The impact of socio-economic development and climate change on E.coli loads and concentrations in the Kabul river”[iii], he said that E.coli concentrations were large in the Kabul river and expected to double in a business as usual scenario.”

“Waterborne pathogens may cause diseases, such as diarrhoea, which is the fourth leading cause of death in children under five years of age globally,”
he said.

Iqbal stressed on a survey by the Health Department in catchment areas of the Kabul river to evaluate the wellness of people residing there and using water for drinking and other domestic uses.

Youngsters dive into a canal of the Kabul river
Peshawar: Youngsters dive into a canal of the Kabul river to get respite from severe heat wave. They are unaware of threats posed by the river water due to the presence of harmful chemicals.

The concerns of both the scientists are corroborated by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources in the findings of its recent research on “Water Quality Assessment along banks of River Kabul”[iv],which declare most of water sources along the Kabul river to be unsafe for drinking.

“The river water quality showed that it is being deteriorated similar to drain water quality due to addition of municipal, industrial and agriculture waste without treatment and pollution level are found to be as COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) 170 mg and BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) 98 mg/l,” the report says.

Vulnerable Sher Mahi

According to Zaigham Hassan, Assistant Professor of Zoology in Peshawar University, major cities like Kabul in Afghanistan and Peshawar in Pakistan, having a population of around five million, are disposing of sewage and industrial waste directly into the river, making its water unsuitable for human consumption and aquatic species. Among the fish species affected due to pollution and impacts of climatic changes on the Kabul river, Hassan said, the most vulnerable one is `Sher Mahi’, a local fish with few bones. Sher Mahi is known for its unique taste and high demand among fish lovers.

A shopkeeper is arranging fish
Peshawar: A shopkeeper is arranging fish on his stall to attract customers in city area of Peshawar.

Scientifically known as Clupisoma Naziri, Sher Mahi is only found in the basin of Kabul river. According to Hassan, Sher Mahi’s habitat stretches between mountainous region of Afghanistan and very limited portion of Indus basin in Pakistan and it is not found in any other river of both the countries.

The species, however, faces serious challenges to its existence because of its highly sensitive nature restricting its survival only in the natural environment of river water. Sher Mahi cannot be reared in ponds or farms. As a result, the population of this special fish of Kabul river has declined to an alarming level due to water contamination, global warming and excessive hunting. 

Other fish species also show decline in population in the Kabul and other rivers. But the scarcity is being compensated through fish farming. In the case of Sher Mahi, the farming practice is not found useful for replenishing its population. Hassan said that experiments of rearing Sher Mahi in ponds by the Zoology Department of Peshawar University met with failure as the fish died after a few days despite a lot of care and concentration by researchers. According to him, construction of Warsak dam in Pakistan in the 1960s for generation of 240 megawatt (MW) electricity and irrigation of 120,000 acres of land also impacted the population of Sher Mahi by obstructing its migration route between Afghanistan and Pakistan on seasonal basis.

Pressure of cash

“High demand for Sher Mahi among fish lovers put extra pressure on its population, registering a deep plunge of around 60 per cent,” explained Fawad Khalil, Deputy Director, Headquarters Fisheries Department, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

He added that as Sher Mahi was the most sought after and top priced fish in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, located in northwestern region near Afghanistan, fish catchers focused more on netting the variety for gaining maximum profit.

A fisherman throws a net to catch fish
Charsadda: A fishermanthrows a net to catch fish, especially Sher Mahi, at a tributary of the Kabul river.

A small haul of around 2 kg to 3 kg of Sher Mahi fish can fetch thousands of rupees for the

Two fish hunters
Peshawar: Two fish hunters, in black attires, were arrested along with their gadgets including inflatable plastic tube, electricity generator and net.

catcher and such an amount of profit is a big attraction causing extensive hunting of the fish. Khalil said that due to lenient fines in the colonial era fisheries rules that were still in vogue in the region, the hunters were at liberty for excessive hunting of fish.

“The fine over-hunting of a single fish without having fishing licence is only Rs.25 (0.12 US cents) while it costs Rs.600 (3.03 US dollars) to buy a Sher Mahi fish weighing just 400 gm from the market. When demand for fish is comparatively less during summer,1 kg of cooked Sher Mahi delicacy costs Rs.1,500 (7.5 US$),”said Janisar Khan, district officer of fisheries.

The fisheries officer added that the most damaging practice adopted by hunters was to release electric shocks in water through generators and poisoning, damaging the whole ecology in its range area. He said that the department lacked adequate human resource to implement the law and check overfishing along the Kabul and its tributaries.

Squeezed earning for fishermen

A handful of Sher Mahi fish
Charsadda: A handful of Sher Mahi fish caught by fisherman Maqsood is put in a steel bowl for weighing by a shopkeeper.

On the other hand, pollution and climate change have contributed to decline in the earnings of the fishermen. Drastic decline in fish population has entailed bad impact on lives of people living on the embankment of the Kabul who depend on fish catching and selling as their source of livelihood.

Maqsood Ahmad, a fisherman in Charsada district near Peshawar, earns Rs.2,880 (US$14.54) by selling 2.4 kg of Sher Mahi fish, but he is not happy over the income. “Earlier we used to catch 7 kg to 8 kg Sher Mahi daily. The catch has reduced to 2.4 kg, that too for a couple of days in a week,” Ahmad said.

He blamed climate changes causing lower water level, flooding and electric shocks to catch fish as main reasons behind reduction in fish population.He said that Sher Mahi that flourished in fast running water had been greatly impacted by decrease in precipitation and depletion in water level. He, however, did not feel that the discharge of urban wastes into the river and the pollution were a big problem. This shows the ignorance of people living on the embankment of river about the serious health threat they were facing while using murky water for irrigation.

A billboard erected by a restaurant owner
Charsadda: A billboard erected by a restaurant owner on the embankment of Kabul river in Charsadda district is making claims about availability of pure Sher Mali fish for attraction of picnickers.

An official of the local Rural Development Department said that a water treatment plant was installed in the suburbs of Peshawar in late 1990s but the project failed due to mismanagement, lack of planning and shortage of required funds.  According to him, now a plan is under consideration under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cities Improvement Project to install a filtration plant with Asian Development Bank assistance, but it may take a long time to implement.

A dismantled water filtration plant
Peshawar: A dismantled water filtration plant established in late 1990s on the periphery of Peshawar district for treatment of waste before discharging of sanitary water into Kabul river is now serving as playing ground for youngsters of the area.

Less snow, less water

“Less snow in low altitude of Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last few years due to global warming is reducing water discharge, which not only affects irrigation practices but also fish fauna,” said Nasir Ghafoor, Chief Engineer, Irrigation Department,Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In Pakistan, the Kabul river irrigates around 32,000 hectares of land through four major canals. Ghafoor said that due to reduction in water discharge, they operated these canals one after the other. In current year, he said, downward trend was being observed in water flow due to less ice in low altitudes, a reduction of around 28,700 cusecs in outflow of the Kabul river.

Ghafoor is hopeful that soon upper altitude ice will start melting and after monsoon rains water shortage be recovered. He also stressed for joint efforts between Pakistan and Afghanistan for management of the Kabul river, its cleanliness and distribution.

Exposure of the Kabul river beds
Charsadda: Exposure of the Kabul river beds at a picnic spot in Charsadda districts during prevailing summer season depicts the level of water depletion due to less snow in mountainous regions.

“Use of highly polluted and sanitary water for irrigation purpose is harmful and prohibited under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Authority Act 2014,” said Abdul Sattar, Director, Technical, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Authority. But, he hastened to add that realising dependence of hundreds of thousands of farmers on water being supplied through canals, the law cannot be implemented in letter and spirit. The problem could only be resolved through adopting an integrated approach by government departments and public by creating awareness about importance of clean water for drinking and irrigation, he added.

Hope for the future

According to Fawad Khalil, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is in the process of passing a new legislation aimed at providing protection, preservation, conservation, regulation and management of fisheries biodiversity and aquaculture in the province.

Under the new law, tabled on 23 May2022 in the Legislative Assembly, stringent punishment ranging upto Rs.500,000 (US dollars 2380) or one year’s imprisonment or both is proposed over destruction of fish fauna by explosive, electrocution or poisoning.

Officials of the Fisheries Department
Nowshera: Officials of the Fisheries Department and District Administration are patrolling in the Kabul river to keep a check on illegal hunting, use of explosives and release of electricity current in water for catching fish.

Khalil said that the Fisheries Department had purchased two motor launchers for patrolling and it had shown positive impact in containing illegal hunting. The fleet of launchers is expected to be enhanced soon. 


Remark by the author:

For incorporating input in the story from the Afghanistan side of the Kabul river there and its impact on public health and fish fauna, especially Sher Mahi, a number of officials including Zabiullah Mujahid, Central Spokesman for Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, Ikram-ud-Din Kamil, Special Assistant on Water and Energy at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ezatuallah Siddique, Former Deputy of National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) and Abdul Wali Mudaqeq, official of NEPA (National Environment Protection Agency) were contacted repeatedly for their comments, but no reply was received till filing of this report.



[i] A glacial fed river that emerges in Hindu Kush mountain range at Pakistan and ends up in Kabul river at Charsadda near Pesahwar before merging in Indus.