A Search for Potable Water in War-Torn Afghanistan

Reprinted with permission of WTW®

Afghanistan relies on groundwater more than most countries due to its increasing population and an arid environment that causes rapid evaporation of any surface waters. Here, groundwater represents the most consistent and reliable water source in both rural and urban areas. Nonetheless, a safe supply of water can be difficult to find due to natural geochemical contamination.

Afghanistan is comprised of three distinct geological environments—the northern sedimentary basins, the central mountain ranges, and the southern basins. In the northern sedimentary basins, groundwater is not safe for consumption due to salinity and the presence of bacteria that contaminates the water table due to the porous nature of the sandy soils.

In the central mountain ranges, certain rock formations generate water contaminants like arsenic. Through complex biological and physical geochemical processes, these contaminates are released into the environment and migrate into the groundwater.

The north, west, and eastern areas of the country are the most studied due to easy access and relatively secure conditions for water quality analysts. Here, organizations like the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) have been working for more than 20 years to improve the water supply by installing wells and surveying more than 33,000 water samples.

DACAAR built the first permanent water quality laboratory in the country, and established the appropriate procedures and equipment to support its ongoing water and sanitation activities. The laboratory is able to analyze over 30 different water quality parameters, such as ions in water as well as relevant mineral, organic, and biological parameters, to ensure a safe water supply. Without a proper water analysis laboratory it would be practically impossible to assess, control or solve the water supply problems.

DACAAR also relies on 15 teams of field technicians, hydro geologists, and water engineers, each equipped with a WTW® pH/conductivity meter that is utilized extensively when monitoring village wells. The technician’s job is made easier by the simple operation and calibration of the WTW meters. The extreme ruggedness of the meters is also greatly appreciated as the heat, sand, and remoteness of locations can prevent proper analysis if meters were to fail in the field. The instruments also show excellent correlation with the laboratory-based test methods.

finding potable water

Figure 1: In Faryab province, north of Kabul, the geological basins are comprised of salty silt and clay sediments that contaminate the groundwater. This contamination can make the water as salty as ocean water and undrinkable. DACAAR conducted a salinity survey of the area, with WTW turbidity and conductivity meters, measuring 30 to 40 wells a day under extreme field conditions. Once the data was collected, the values were mapped out to better understand the distribution of saline and fresh water within the local groundwater table.

finding potable water

Figure 2: The Logar and Ghazni provinces just south of Kabul are home to some of the most serious water quality problems in Afghanistan. Arsenic has been measured in wells at levels up to 40 times above the World Health Organisation standard of 10 µg/l. DACAAR also monitored groundwater pH, conductivity, and temperature using the WTW® Multiparameter Kits, and conducted turbidity tests using WTW field turbidity meters. Overall more than 300 wells were analyzed, and the study concluded that copper mines upstream of the local villages were the source of the arsenic.