Pacific Money | Economy | South Asia

Kabul New City: Afghanistan’s Forgotten Development Dream

The mega-project was put on hold under the previous government. If it isn’t kickstarted soon, Kabul city could be left uninhabitable.

By Hakmatullah Hamidi for
Kabul New City: Afghanistan’s Forgotten Development Dream
Credit: Flickr/ Hassan Reza

Kabul New City (KNC) was intended to be home for 3 million by 2040, one and a half times larger than the existing Afghan capital. KNC aimed to create more than a million jobs and provide a high-quality environment for key industries, education, employment, commerce, and a broad spectrum of other socioeconomic activities. Envisioned as “the city of the century” and “one of the most standard cities in the region,” this enormous development project was intended to attract mass domestic and foreign investments and contribute to the economic and social development of Afghanistan. Most importantly, the new city was planned to mitigate the urban challenges and problems of the existing Kabul city.

Almost a decade and a half after its initiation in 2006, very little progress has been made on this ambitious national mega-project. KNC is well behind schedule and it did not receive enough attention and support from the previous administration, the National Unity Government (NUG). On the other hand, the existing city of Kabul is struggling with a shortage of drinking water, insufficient basic infrastructure, pollution of all kinds, a housing crisis, and other challenges that are getting worse every day.

However, there is good potential to get the project back on track and make it an excellent pull factor for foreign and domestic investments in the post-peace Afghanistan. Strong political will and support from the newly elected government could recover and speed-up the project.

Kabul New City: A Viable Response to the Challenges of the Existing City

Afghan cities experienced a rapid increase in population after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The population of Kabul jumped from 1.78 million in 1999 (according to the UN Population Survey – 1999-2000) to 2.72 million in 2005 (Afghan official statistics). This rapid flow of population intensified Kabul’s urban challenges including a housing crisis and informal settlements, shortage of drinking water, inadequate essential public infrastructure, unemployment, crime, traffic congestion, lack of green areas and recreational centers, and air, water, waste, and noise pollution.

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Efforts to expand Kabul were triggered during the presidency of Hamid Karzai. In 2005, a high-level government commission was appointed to assess the expansion of the existing city. In 2006, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted a study in response to a request from the government of Afghanistan in which they identified and studied seven broad areas around Kabul city and recommended Dehsabz district, toward the northeast of the existing city, as “the only area which has the potential for a larger urban development.” The concept of a new city in Dehsabz district emerged as a viable response to the problems of the existing city.

Former President Hamid Karzai established Dehsabz City Development Authority (DCDA) in late 2006 as an executive body responsible for overseeing the development of the new city. The KNC preliminary concept master plan was prepared in cooperation with French and German companies and the final master plan was prepared by JICA and approved by the Afghan Cabinet in March 2009.

KNC is located in Dehsabz and Barikab districts toward the northeast of the existing Kabul city, covering 722 square kilometers (sq km) of urban area and 440 sq km of developable land in Kabul and Parwan provinces. Barikab District (120 sq km) forms the Agricultural Economic Zone of the new city. KNC was planned to provide 600,000 housing units for 3 million people.

The project was planned in two implementation periods of 15 years each, spanning from 2010 through 2040. The first implementation period (2010 to 2025) was divided into three geographical and timed phases. Phase 1 (2010 – 2015) included the construction of 80,000 housing units for a population of 400,000, development of all essential infrastructure, and construction of one-third (33 sq km) of Barikab Agricultural Economic Zone (BAEZ). The private sector, local and foreign investors, were intended to take a 70 percent financial role in the development of KNC through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) contracts. KNC has been offering investment opportunities in the construction of housing units and public infrastructure as well as the development of industrial zones, services, and trade.

What Pushed the Project Back?

Segregating government lands from the private lands of villagers and the lands taken by the Kuchi settlement has been a major issue. Dehsabz lands are technically government lands that have been largely grabbed and illegally sold. The plan was to segregate legal private lands and prevent further land grabbing. The 54 existing villages were intended to be preserved and treated as a part of the planned greenbelt around the city. Local villagers, the Kuchi people, and local commanders, afraid of losing their lands, or the lands they claim they own, and their small businesses have resisted the development of the project and created some serious obstacles. They have attacked engineers and visitors affiliated with KNC several times. Some of the local commanders and land grabbers have had strong political support, backed by members of the parliament and people within the government, giving them enough power to create hurdles for the project.

Posing another issue, KNC is located in an area where scarce water is available, certainly not sufficient for a new city of 3 million people. Therefore, an external water resource should have been utilized to provide urban water. Groundwater from Panjshir Fan Aquifer was proposed to be pumped up through a pipeline 80 km away to the new city as an urgent water resource for KNC. Also, a dam was proposed to be constructed either on Salang River in the Salang area or on the Panjshir River in Gulbahar as a long-term water resource to fulfill the anticipated annual water demand of 105 million cubic meters in the new city.

Providing enough electricity for a new city with a large volume of planned socioeconomic activities, even while the existing city was plagued with power shortages, has been another major challenge. A substation was planned for KNC to utilize imported electricity from northern neighboring countries, responding to the immediate and initial power demand of KNC development. For the long term, renewable energy has been targeted as a sustainable option for KNC. A number of international companies have shown interest in investing in the initiation of renewable energy sources for the initial phases of the project.

The overall political situation of the country under the NUG has had its negative effects on the project. A lack of sufficient technical and managerial capacity has also been a challenge. There have been many other challenges ahead of KNC that are innate in a project of this size and scope. However, what really pushed the project back was the lack of a strong political will that could turn KNC into a huge step toward the development of Afghanistan.

The project was already behind schedule by 2014, when the new government assumed office, and the progress up until then was only on paper. However, everything seemed to be ready for speeding up the implementation phase. The project was well-marketed, demand was high, and Afghan investors were ready for the project. Many foreign investors had also shown interest and proposed investments. Interface agreements have been signed by the DCDA with almost every government organization. JICA was highly interested in the project and committed to funding the infrastructure and providing technical assistance. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) was there to cooperate. A number of developers were already contracted. However, KNC needed strong political will and a push from the newly structured National Unity Government (NUG), which, unfortunately, never happened.

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In December 2014, newly elected President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani met the DCDA team and discussed KNC. He was not happy with the progress, according to participants in that meeting. Water and energy resources were his biggest concerns and he seemed dissatisfied with the proposed solutions. Obviously, he was looking for some “urgent” and “noticeable” solutions for the challenges of the existing city, and KNC did not fit the bill.

In June 2016, DCDA became the Capital Region Independent Development Authority (CRIDA) as per Presidential Decree No. 44 and the implementation of the KNC master plan become one of its subprograms. CRIDA has so far constructed schools, medical clinics, roads, and industrial parks in the capital region provinces. However, it has done little to push KNC forward, even while being the only entity responsible for the development of the new city.

KNC has been forgotten. The contracted developers are not happy. The project is lagging way behind its schedule, and the progress is tortoise-like. The physical progress by the beginning of 2020 included a few kilometers of roads, a limited number of commercial buildings, and a very small portion of the BAEZ infrastructure. According to the plan, by 2015 construction should have been completed on 100 percent of Phase 1, including 80,000 housing units, all essential infrastructure, one-third of the BAEZ, and a greenbelt around the city. By 2020, most of the work of Phase 2 and the planning of Phase 3 should have been completed based on the plan.

It was a mistake to destroy DCDA, a well-established structure with a defined and clear scope, and replace it with a new organization of a vague scope, creating turf wars within the structure of the government. There could be a number of political reasons behind the change, but it is obvious that Ghani and the NUG pushed this vital project back.

Could the Project Be Recovered?

Still, there is excellent potential for recovering the KNC project and getting it back on track. The masterplans for all three phases, detailed structure plan for Phase 1, as well as other development guidelines are ready for implementation. The technical and economic viability and feasibility of the project has been assessed. The private developers of the initial parcels are already contracted. The government of Japan has maintained its interest and commitment to providing technical and financial support.

The water supply project that brings Pol-e-Charkhi groundwater (with a potential of 5,000  cubic meters/day) as a short-term water resource for the very first development parcels of the KNC has recently been kicked off. Implementation of this JICA-funded project (JICA granted $31.6 million for this purpose in 2013) could increase the demand for housing in the initial parcels of KNC, accelerate the development of other parcels, and trigger momentum for the rest of the project.

The first phase infrastructure of the agricultural economic zone in Barikab is already constructed and ready for investment. It is expected that 400 manufacturing companies will be activated in this park, creating 15,000 direct jobs, and attracting $300 to $350 million in investment. The BAEZ is another leverage and trigger for the Kabul New City development.

Post-peace Afghanistan is aiming to attract huge local and foreign investments and KNC is an excellent pull factor. Leveraging this potential requires taking strong steps and making strategic decisions. It is recommended that the DCDA or a similar framework, with high technical and managerial capacity and strong authority, be re-established to oversee the project and tackle its technical and implementing hurdles and hindrances. The project needs to be re-marketed and the government needs to create strong incentives for Afghan and foreign investors and attract donor support. National priority needs to be given to the KNC project and it should be kept away from negative personal and political interests. The existing city is struggling with a lot of unaddressed challenges that could make it uninhabitable in a few years, and KNC is a viable response to mitigating these problems.

Hakmatullah Hamidi is a Fulbright alumnus with a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He has managed infrastructure projects for the Afghan Government. Follow him on LinkedIn.