Afghan men and children fill water containers from a tap in Kabul in August. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

In affluent areas of the Afghan capital, sky-blue vans make daily deliveries of huge plastic water-cooler jars, dropping them at embassies, offices and ornate private homes surrounded by high walls.

“Water, clean and pure,” beckon the slogans on each van. “Water is life.”

But in much of greater Kabul, where the population has tripled to 5 million in the past decade, the quest for safe drinking water is more arduous. Returned war refugees camp in muddy vacant lots; trenches of fetid wastewater run beside dusty, unpaved streets. Apartment construction has soared, adding to the strain on old, overloaded water and sewer services.

With no formal water-supply systems in many areas, people dig wells in their yards, boring deeper each time they dry up. With no public sewage systems, some also build septic tanks, but many simply dig latrines. As a result, well water sometimes mixes with sewage underground and becomes contaminated. Chemicals from construction or factories can also leach into the ground, giving the water a bitter taste.

“We dug very deep to get fresh water. It tastes okay and the kids are used to it, but if we don’t boil it, my mother says it makes her feel sick,” said Asif, a computer engineer whose family lives in a neatly kept house off a dirt alley.

“The city is getting very crowded, and there is so much new building,” he said. “The system is very old, and the government can’t keep up.” 

Several recent media reports have warned that Kabul’s water is becoming dangerously contaminated, but government health officials say that is an exaggeration. They estimate that 70 percent of the urban water supply is safe. There have been scattered reports of more people being stricken with diarrhea in hot weather this summer, especially children, but no major outbreaks of water-related diseases have been reported.

Still, officials and experts expressed concern about future contamination, especially with the metropolitan area growing so fast.

A survey of household water connections in Kabul by the National Environmental Protection Agency in March found high levels of E. coli bacteria in five of 22 sites tested. The report said that 77 percent of the samples met World Health Organization standards, but that because of a lack of chlorine and laboratory supplies, the scope of the survey was cut back by half.

“We used to get a lot of support for water-testing from UNICEF and the WHO, but that has ended,” said Mahmad Ali, a public health official who oversees water testing and preventive health outreach. “We are doing the best we can, but now we have to wait for the government purchasing process, and we can’t get spare parts for lab work.” One order for a 50-gallon drum of chlorine, he said, took 18 months to be delivered.

Teams of specialists from Ali’s office regularly visit city schools and other public facilities, checking on health conditions and sampling water from wells and pumps. On a recent day, the team visited a large kindergarten program in west Kabul, where they quizzed the children on their hygiene habits.

“When do you wash your hands?” asked Anisa Popalzai, a health promoter. “Before eating!” a chorus of voices answered. “Why?” There was a brief silence, then one boy ventured, “So germs won’t get to your mouth.” Popalzai nodded and smiled, then demanded, “Who has clean hands today?” Two dozen pairs of arms shot up, palms extended.

Popalzai asked the teachers if there had been any recent cases of diarrhea among the 600 children in the large facility. They said no, but she reminded them that in emergency cases, they could use a mixture of boiled water, flour and salt to rehydrate young patients as soon as possible. “For a child, diarrhea can be deadly,” she said. 

Outside the classrooms, two other visiting team members with checklists took water samples from the school’s outdoor pump and put them in small bottles to be tested for bacterial and chemical contamination. They also asked school officials how far the pump was from any septic tanks, drains or animal waste. 

Moving to the kitchen and bathrooms, they noted with approval that the lunch dishes were being covered after washing, but they frowned at a tangle of plastic garden hoses carrying water through weedy yards to the kitchen and expressed concern that some toilets did not flush. 

One inspector, Mahmad Daoud, said fears of drinking-water contamination had given rise to sophisticated scams in which discarded commercial water bottles were being refilled from wells, resealed and sold as pure.

“We caught some people doing that, but they threatened us and we couldn’t sample the bottles to prove it,” he said ruefully. “There was nothing we could do.”

The irony of Kabul’s growing water problem is that the capital is surrounded by sources of pristine water, including the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains in the distance and dams on powerful rivers in two nearby provinces. President Ashraf Ghani has made dams a top priority; last summer, with support from India, construction began on a long-delayed major dam in western Afghanistan.

But delivering mountain and river water safely to hundreds of thousands of households in Kabul is an expensive and risky undertaking. The city has been damaged by decades of conflict and now faces frequent bombings by insurgents, who have also attacked rural reservoirs and dams. An ambitious, internationally funded project to build pipes, reservoirs and wells across the capital, launched two years ago, is still in the early stages.

Sardar Wali Malikzal, director of the Afghan Urban Water Supply and Sewer Corp., is at the nerve center of this effort. His office walls are covered with blueprints and pin maps showing new or proposed water systems across the metropolitan area

Progress has been steady, he said, but population growth and new construction — much of it unplanned and some illegal — have been faster. Malikzal said that officials are starting to force builders of large projects to provide modern water and sanitation systems, and that numerous private companies have sprung up to dig wells and supply filtered water to those who can afford it. But public piped water is still reaching fewer than a fifth of urban households. 

“Afghanistan has the best and sweetest water in the world,” Malikzal said. “It is safe to drink, and we have a lot of it. But there are 5 million people in the city now, and we all have to take responsibility. Most diseases come from polluted water, so water needs to be filtered. Wells and septic systems have to be standardized.

“The challenge is not the water itself,” he added. It’s management, and it’s money.”