Regulating the urban anarchy of war-torn Kabul

KABUL (AFP) – In the alley winding between the earthen walls of Old Kabul, Wakil Mohammad Saddeq insists on honouring his visitors with a cup of tea. “You are the first to offer us help without asking for money!” he said.

Wakil’s home is one of thousands of unregulated houses stuffed into the Afghan capital, whose boundaries have long overflowed as refugees fleeing war are added to a surging young population.

Now Kabul authorities are trying to bring order to the snarl of informal housing, as Afghanistan 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,” said Koussay Boulaich, head of communication at United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which is running the project in partnership with the Kabul government.

“The only attempt at urban planning dates from the Soviets” in the late 1970s, he noted.

Photo above taken on June 19 shows a general view of the city from a hillside in Kabul. – AFP

Today, Kabul has more than four million inhabitants. Nearly 40 years of conflict have driven hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas into the shelter of the capital, creating entire new neighbourhoods without plans or records.

The majority of their inhabitants live with no safety net, at the mercy of an overnight eviction.

And 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 people displaced by war.

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

Most of the fragile 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 Wakil’s, and the opulent, expensive villas on clean, paved streets in Kabul’s wealthy areas.

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

To find owners, the UN-Habitat team first checks with the municipality and its archives, then with neighbours, explained Sayed Sadullah Wahab, coordinator for the ‘City for All’ programme.

If no owner is found, 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 explained with a smile.

AFP accompanied Wahab’s team of investigators to another house. Salim Ahmad, the owner, was killed last year by the Taleban, so it is his father-in-law who comes to justify 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, the identity of the occupants, and takes measurements of the land and the house. This data will be used to establish the occupancy certificate and the amount of house tax, or safayi.

President Ghani has already distributed the first certificates in Kabul, as well as in the western city of Herat and the eastern city of Jalalabad.