Issue 45 - Article 14

Kabul, Afghanistan: a case study in responding to urban displacement

December 16, 2009
Charles A. Setchell and Caroline N. Luther, USAID/OFDA

One in every six people on the planet currently experiences the kind of living conditions depicted in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire, set in the sprawling slums of Mumbai. Forecasts by UN Habitat and others suggest that slum communities like those shown in the film will double in size to two billion people by 2025, accounting for one in four of the world’s population, making slums the fastest-growing form of human settlement and a key facet of global urbanisation. With urban centres projected to double in size to four billion people by 2025, the equivalent of a city of nearly two million people will emerge every week of every year over the next 16 years. The challenges generated by such unprecedented growth clearly require urban stakeholders to adopt new approaches to urban management. While sufficiently daunting, however, projected global population growth fails to reflect urban growth attributable to displacement.  Enduring conflict and frequent natural disasters in parts of the developing world encourage or force migration to urban centres at rates that accelerate and exacerbate the urbanisation process. As a result, approaches to urban management must also account for the humanitarian consequences of urban growth attributable to displacement.

This article presents Kabul, Afghanistan, as a case study in urban displacement, with a particular focus on some of the factors and effects of growth, recent institutional responses and projects supported by USAID/OFDA. The Kabul case provides insights into the merging and co-location of acute and chronic needs amid significant growth, resulting in new levels of disaster risk and increasing the likelihood of a large-scale humanitarian crisis.


Kabul case study

Kabul’s population has tripled in size since late 2001, to approximately 4.5 million people,[1] making it perhaps the world’s fastest-growing city in the last eight years.  Rapid growth has not been confined to Kabul, however; in 2002, only 22% of Afghanistan’s population lived in urban areas. By 2009, the figure had increased to at least 30%,[2] indicating unprecedented urban growth countrywide, a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future. Estimates indicate that roughly 60% of national population growth during the 2002–2009 period occurred in Afghanistan’s cities.

What’s fuelling growth?

Uncertainty perpetuated by a war seemingly with no end, the ravages of 30 years of virtually uninterrupted conflict on infrastructure, government capacity and local economies and the effects of climate change and natural disasters have all eroded or eliminated coping mechanisms in rural areas, prompting, even forcing, large-scale movement to Kabul and other cities. In addition, significant numbers of refugees returned to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan in recent years due to push factors like forced repatriation and economic challenges. Pushed rather than pulled into returning, and unable to return to or remain in rural areas of origin, many Afghans fled to Kabul and other cities as a means of survival. The figures speak for themselves: returning refugees, displaced persons and migrants – both economically motivated and forcibly displaced – account for 80% of population growth in Kabul since 2001.[3]  

What are the effects of growth?

Prior to the influx of displaced people, migrants and returning refugees, Kabul confronted significant and fundamental development challenges. The Soviet occupation, failed governments, militant and Taliban rule, recurring disasters and perpetual conflict before 2001 ravaged the city’s resources, economy and infrastructure, and all but curtailed urban planning and management efforts. The factional wars of the 1990s destroyed much of Kabul’s commercial and residential infrastructure, particularly in the western half of the city. Rapid growth after 2001 set the city even farther back, with a weakened economy unable to absorb more low-skilled workers, city services inadequate to support proliferating informal settlements in hazard-prone areas and local and national government institutions reeling from the sudden demands placed upon them.

Three effects of recent growth are noted here. First, while Kabul’s population has tripled in size since late 2001, the physical area of the city devoted to urban activities has increased four-fold. Few cities could manage such rapid and expansive growth, but a local government with limited capacity – the Kabul Municipality – has been further stymied by its reliance on a master plan dating from 1978, designed to accommodate up to two million people. Although recognised as inadequate, efforts to revise the plan to reflect current and foreseeable realities have been under-resourced, hindered by a lack of basic information and affected by bureaucratic infighting, and no revised plan has been adopted despite years of trying.

Second, with negligible access to formally recognised land, returning refugees and displaced persons have largely gravitated to unauthorised informal settlements.  Although few city residents are truly homeless – a reflection of settlement construction keeping pace with displacement and return rates – the rapid expansion of informal areas has resulted in one of the highest rates of informal housing in the world. Approximately 80% of the total population now resides in officially unrecognised areas.

Third, vulnerability has increased as informal settlements have spread, and acute and chronic needs for basic services and livelihoods have merged almost indistinguishably. By compounding both acute and chronic needs, the physical manifestations of unmanaged growth – refuse accumulation, inadequate drainage, poorly-constructed housing, often perched on steep slopes – also increase disaster risks, particularly from floods and earthquakes.  The latter is a key consideration due to minimal emergency services in the city and the proximity of the Chaman Fault.   


Humanitarian interventions to address growth and support development

Humanitarian organisations have often viewed large cities as incubators of chronic poverty or places of opportunity for economic migrants, but rarely as sources of protracted displacement and acute crises, except in the event of a major natural disaster. In Kabul, displaced persons have tended to find shelter amongst the general population, in part due to the low level of economic development, the social and familial networks linking resident and newcomer, limited humanitarian engagement in Kabul to offer alternatives and limited interest in monitoring displacement. This section examines the relationship between humanitarianism and development in Kabul, with an emphasis on collaborative efforts between USAID/OFDA, NGOs and Kabul Municipality to generate and sustain the conditions necessary to undertake larger developmental activities.


The Kabul Area Shelter and Settlements (KASS) project

Working closely with Afghan government ministries and international NGOs, USAID/OFDA initiated the Kabul Area Shelter and Settlements (KASS) project in 2006 to expand construction of seismic-resistant shelter, upgrade existing structures and improve basic services. The KASS project meets humanitarian needs among both direct shelter recipients and other community members, who also benefit from service upgrades in project areas. Upgrades include improving sanitation, increasing the availability of safe drinking water and reducing environmental hazards through proper drainage and refuse disposal. KASS focuses on construction of additional one-storey structures to alleviate overcrowding and reduce associated risks to life and health. The project uses local materials and labour, increasing income within settlements and local economic activity. This shelter-driven economic activity also helps to maintain the social cohesiveness characteristic of many informal settlements by keeping workers and businesses engaged in the community.

KASS not only meets humanitarian needs in the short term but also serves to jump-start broader development initiatives by expanding and enhancing service delivery, with a view to eventually integrating informal settlements into the wider urban scene. KASS also protects future development progress by incorporating disaster risk reduction elements into shelter construction and service upgrades.

In its first phase, from 2006 to 2007, KASS helped more than 26,000 people by addressing humanitarian needs for shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, and improving access to services for thousands of other vulnerable individuals. The methods and means employed under KASS build physical and economic resilience, further reducing natural disaster and man-made risks. USAID/OFDA expects the second phase of KASS, scheduled for completion in early 2010, to benefit an additional 82,000 individuals in similar ways.


Building urban recovery management capacity within Kabul Municipality

Strong institutions are required both to expand service delivery and shelter improvements in the informal settlements and to plan for future growth in a manner that also accounts for the humanitarian needs of newly displaced arrivals. To that end, USAID/OFDA implemented a two-year capacity-building project within Kabul Municipality in 2008. The project emphasises technical assistance and technology transfer to improve the technical capacity of architects, engineers and urban planners. Advisors work to educate staff about conflict-related needs among displaced persons and returnees. Humanitarian and other vulnerability concerns are also communicated to the municipality through community councils developed under KASS. The project thus bridges the gap between civil society and municipal government, a gap that often hinders understanding of vulnerable groups and appropriate methods to protect those groups from urban disasters.

Municipal and technical assistance staff recently completed the first initiative of the two-year project – a hillside settlements assessment designed to improve settlement planning. The team methodically mapped household locations, identified hazards and calculated risks. Hazards included steep slopes, poor drainage that increases the risk of flash-flooding, structural hazards that increase earthquake risks, landslide and rockfall hazards and minefields from previous conflicts.


Summary and next steps

In a city like Kabul, with a large and growing displaced population, acute needs merging with chronic needs and increasing vulnerability to an array of disasters, a new approach to assistance is required that creates the stable conditions necessary for longer-term development projects to take root and succeed, before physical, economic, social and humanitarian conditions deteriorate further. Development actors thus have a strong incentive to work with their humanitarian counterparts to improve services and reduce disaster risk in order to build a foundation for sustained development. Alternatively, humanitarian actors have an incentive to devise projects with longer-term perspectives in order to avoid repeat responses and ultimately help people build better lives. However, it is past time for these actors to distinguish between the urban displaced and the urban poor in the way they demarcate assistance. It is, rather, time to collaborate to address displacement-related needs in Kabul and other urban settings. By design, the KASS project and capacity-building efforts promote collaboration; given the successes to date and the significant work yet to be done, USAID/OFDA plans to maintain consistent support to both.


Charles A. Setchell is Shelter, Settlements and Hazard Mitigation Advisor,
USAID Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA). Caroline N. Luther is Senior Information Officer, USAID/OFDA. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States Agency for International Development. For additional information on USAID/OFDA shelter and settlement activities in Kabul and elsewhere, go to 


[1] While current population estimates vary, and no recent census data exist, recent assessments by the World Bank and others suggest three-fold population growth since 2001.

[2] The World Bank estimates that 30% of Afghanistan’s population is urban, but the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) considers this too low, in which case urban growth challenges and resulting needs are and will be even more exceptional than the international assistance community currently assumes. See J. Beall and D. Esser, ‘Shaping Urban Futures: Challenges to Governing and Managing Afghan Cities’, AREU, March 2005.

[3] The balance can be attributed to net natural population growth and minor expansion of jurisdictional boundaries.


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