UN-backed effort tries to regulate urban anarchy of Kabul


Kabul City authorities are trying to bring order to the snarl of informal housing in the Afghan capital, as President Ashraf Ghani seeks to equip the city with a land registry for the first time in its history. [NASRULLAH ATTAR / AFPTV / AFP]

KABUL -- In the alley winding between the earthen walls of Old Kabul, Wakil Mohammad Saddeq insists on honouring his visitors with a cup of tea.

Wakil's home is one of thousands of unregulated houses stuffed into the capital, Kabul, whose boundaries have long overflowed as refugees join a surging young population.

Now Kabul authorities are trying to bring order to the snarl of informal housing, as President Ashraf Ghani seeks to equip the city with a cadastre, or land registry, for the first time in its history.

"Here, urbanisation has been guided by conflicts and humanitarian crises," says Koussay Boulaich, spokesman for UN-Habitat, which is running the project in partnership with the Afghan government.


Men do construction work on their own roof in Kabul June 19. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]


Kabul is shown from a hillside June 19. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]


Afghan surveyors from the UN-Habitat team check documents during the registration of unregulated houses in Kabul June 12. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

"The only attempt at urban planning dates from the Soviets" in the late 1970s, he notes.

Today, Kabul has more than four million inhabitants. Afghanistan's nearly 40 years of conflict has driven hundreds of thousands of rural dwellers into the shelter of the capital, creating entire new neighbourhoods without plans or records.

The influx shows no sign of slowing down. Since early 2015, cities across Afghanistan, including Kabul, have received a total of more than 2.5 million newcomers displaced by war.

"Of the 255,000 properties already assessed in Kabul by UN-Habitat, only 15% have a valid title deed, 41% have documents without legal value and 44% have no documents at all," says Boulaich.

Neighbourhood watch

Most of the houses that tumble up the dusty foothills surrounding Kabul are unregulated. Many are built of mud and lack electricity and running water.

But informal housing also encompasses ancient houses such as Saddeq's and the opulent, expensive villas on clean, paved streets in Kabul's wealthy neighbourhoods.

In the absence of any owner, residents who can prove they have been in a property for at least 15 years receive a certificate of occupation.

To find owners, the UN-Habitat team first checks with the municipality and its archives, then with neighbours, explains Sayed Sadullah Wahab, co-ordinator for the "City for All" programme.

If they find no owner, they post a certificate of occupancy that is valid for five years at the local mosque.

"After five years, if nobody claims it, the tenant will get the full property," he said.

Once the neighbours are questioned, any existing owner usually pops up within days, even if he is as far away as the United States or Germany, he adds.

"The neighbours call him," he explains with a smile.

Where the streets have no name

AFP accompanied Wahab's team of investigators to another house. Salim Ahmad, the owner, was killed last year by the Taliban, so it is his father-in-law who comes to claim the family's right to the land.

But their acquisition has never been validated, and titles laminated with care have no legal value.

The UN-Habitat team records the documents, the electricity bills and the identity of the occupants and takes measurements of the land and the house. It will use these data to establish the occupancy certificate and the amount of safayi (property taxes).

Ghani's government has already distributed the first certificates in Kabul, as well as in Herat and in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province.

For the first time in Afghanistan's history, women as well as men are receiving certificates. Women account for just 5% of the recognised landowners in the country, according to the United Nations.

UN-Habitat has 1,200 employees on the project and a budget of $63 million (4.7 billion AFN) until 2020, funded by the European Union and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

After years of lawlessness, the project is encountering challenges from residents who do not trust that paying safayi will benefit them, says Hellay Ishaqzai, 25, one of the team's investigators.

However, an awareness campaign to illustrate the use of funds in each neighbourhood is paying off.

Women, the elderly and even children may vote for the money to be used in different ways, such as maintaining roads or schools.

The programme of property registration will also see the confusing mass of thoroughfares clearly named, an innovation set to revolutionise navigation in a city where most directions depend on landmarks: behind the supermarket, second right after the mosque, left of the blue door and so on.

Since November, Wahab says, officials have collected almost $1.4 million (106 million AFN).

Back in Kabul's old quarter, Saddeq's family has paid its sayafi -- 800 AFN ($12) -- for the first time in 90 years.

He rejoiced in the payment. "They will come and clean our streets, they will remove the dirty water, and we also wish to have a clinic," he says with hopefulness.

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More than 50% of these irregular houses were built after 2001 and all the responsibility of this irregular construction goes to the government and the corruption existing in the government. If the government could have made urgent measures with proper maps and could have distributed lands as per documents in the areas where people were building houses, such irregularity will never have happened. Last year, I heard that, from tens of the new residential towns, only eight are built as per [government authorized] maps. Now you may say whether it is the mistake of the people or that of the government?