Kabul's illegal hillside homes get a dash of colour

Painters adding colour to the front of a hillside home in Kabul. While many residents have been supportive of the effort, some activists feel it is better to focus on paving paths to the homes high up the mountains or providing water to houses whose
Painters adding colour to the front of a hillside home in Kabul. While many residents have been supportive of the effort, some activists feel it is better to focus on paving paths to the homes high up the mountains or providing water to houses whose residents still have to carry buckets on their backs.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Many residents supportive of move but some activists say it is a whitewashing of poverty

KABUL • What does a city do when housing needs grow so quickly that illegal settlements spread up steep hills and mountainsides?

In Kabul's case, the municipality has decided to accept that reality and paint the homes in bright colours.

One of the fastest-growing cities in the world, Kabul has already expanded to more than five times its intended size. About 70 per cent of houses in the capital city of about five million are informal and unplanned.

Many are in settlements, but there are also tall apartment buildings, as well as cafes, restaurants and shopping centres popping up in town, giving Kabul a new look.

For the authorities, the challenge is twofold: How to regulate the jumble of unplanned neighbourhoods to create a presentable capital city, and how to plan for a future when, by 2060, one in every two Afghans is expected to be a city dweller.

Kabul's population growth is part natural and part born of a long conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people from the countryside were forced by earlier wars to flee to Pakistan and Iran, where they were introduced to better standards of living.

Now back in Afghanistan, they prefer to live in the capital than to return to their home villages. The relentless recent fighting in the provinces has also forced people to take to Kabul.

The Kabul municipality has had a drastic change in leadership over the past year... The new team is trying to standardise roads, increase parks and green areas, and improve trash collection. It also hopes to take over the traffic department from the police to better integrate it into the city's services.

Once, "poppy palaces" - opulent villas favoured by former warlords and bureaucrats - that had dozens of rooms were hastily built to be rented out to military contractors at ridiculously expensive prices.

Now, new, modest apartment buildings are erected, catering to a more sustainable urban economy.

For the informal dwellings up the mountains, such as the ones in a neighbourhood called Joy Sheer, the Afghan government tries to provide at least basic security. Police checkpoints dot the neighbourhood, and officers often make the steep climb multiple times a day to patrol and project a presence.

Private businesses have stepped in to provide other basic needs such as water. Joy Sheer resident Shamsul Haq said 80 per cent of his neighbours are provided water by a private piping network. "We pay about US$10 (S$14) a month for every tap of water," he said.

The Kabul municipality has had a drastic change in leadership over the past year, with the government appointing younger officials, many of them with graduate degrees from abroad. The new team is trying to standardise roads, increase parks and green areas, and improve trash collection. It also hopes to take over the traffic department from the police to better integrate it into the city's services.

Recently, the municipality decided that the informal mountainside settlements needed a makeover. As a pilot project, the municipality is painting about 2,000 homes in the Joy Sheer area in shades of blue, green, yellow, white, pink and brown.

While many of the residents have been supportive of the effort, it has also stirred some backlash among activists who say it is a type of whitewashing of the poverty that prevails in those neighbourhoods.

Mr Musa Khan, a resident of Joy Sheer, said the government was better off focusing on paving paths to the homes high up the mountains or providing water to those houses whose residents still have to carry buckets on their backs.

"Every day, children slip and fall down on their way to school and return home with broken arms or broken heads," Mr Khan said.

But Ms Gul Jan, 50, who was transporting buckets of water on her back from the foot of the mountain, was less critical. "Water is important," she said. "But colour is also important."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Kabul's illegal hillside homes get a dash of colour'. Print Edition | Subscribe