The Optimist

Change Afghanistan Can Believe In

10 years later, life isn't just better -- it's much better.

After 10 years of war and reconstruction, and as tens of thousands of international troops and aid workers in Afghanistan gear up to spend yet another holiday season a long way from the comforts of home, a lot of people are wondering: Was it worth it? Certainly Dec. 5's international conference in Bonn, Germany, on the future of Afghanistan was a subdued affair -- boycotted by Pakistan after NATO aircraft killed 24 troops on its border and rapidly overshadowed by a rare act of sectarian violence in Kabul (against Afghan Shiites) that killed 59 people. Expectations were considerably below the high hopes of the first Bonn conference 10 years ago on building a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Then, in 2001, the talk was of making the country a haven of peace and prosperity after 30 years of war. Last week, it was the hope of good-enough government over a stable-enough country.

Nonetheless, the answer to "was it worth it" is yes. For all the waste, corruption, and death, Afghanistan is a much better place to live than it was 10 years ago, and the international community can take a considerable part of the credit for that.

First, the country remains considerably more peaceful and united than it has been for most of the past 40 years. The 1990s saw battle deaths in Afghanistan average around 9,000 a year, according to World Bank data. From 2003 to 2008, though, despite an uptick of violence in the last few years, that average was down to below 3,000 deaths. Yes, negotiations with the Taliban have foundered since the September assassination of the government's chief negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Still, militant attacks were down by more than a quarter in the three months to September this year over the same period last year. Asia Foundation polling suggests people feel more secure, support for the government is up, and about two-thirds of the country reports no sympathy for the Taliban.

The economy is also in better shape than it was 10 years ago. According to World Bank data, GDP per capita climbed from $569 to $879 between 2002 and 2008, a rate of growth that suggests average incomes might have doubled over the course of the decade since the fall of the Taliban. The World Bank suggests that as the troops leave and aid flows diminish, GDP growth rates may slow from around 9 percent to 5 or 6 percent. Nonetheless, rising average incomes suggest at least some Afghans are living life a little further away from absolute destitution. One positive sign: 71 percent of Afghan households have a mobile phone.

World Bank data and the recent Afghanistan Mortality Survey suggest heartening progress in quality of life over the past decade as well. Not least, adult mortality has been declining both because of reduced violence and improved conditions for good health. Death rates among men ages 15 to 59 has approximately halved over the last 10 years. For men and boys together, war and other violence now account for about the same number of deaths as drownings and traffic accidents combined. War-related injuries kill about as many males as die from diabetes-related complications and one-quarter the number who die from infections and parasitic disease. Additionally, deaths from infectious diseases have also been declining, not least because the proportion of the population (some 48 percent) with access to clean water more than doubled between 2000 and 2008.

Furthermore, female adult mortality declined by about one-third over the past decade -- not least thanks to improved maternal health. The risk that a woman could die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes has fallen by one-third since 2000, though it is still at a shockingly high level that kills almost one in 10 adult women. Once more, that is in part thanks to expanded availability and use of health services. The percentage of women of childbearing age using contraceptives climbed from 5 to 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the percentage of births attended by skilled personnel more than doubled.

Moreover, the percentage of women seeking medical care and advice for their newborns increased from 16 to 60 percent between 2003 and 2010. Meanwhile, immunization rates against measles climbed from 35 percent of 2-year-olds in 2000 to 76 percent by 2009. Partly as a result, under-5 mortality fell from nearly 11 percent of kids dying before their fifth birthday to around 8 percent over the past 10 years. Combined with rapidly dropping birth rates, this suggests the chance that a parent will go through the pain of watching one of his or her children die before age 5 has declined from a likelihood of roughly three in five to around one in three.

Also, the growing numbers of kids who survive to school age are far more likely to actually end up in class. In 2001, 774,000 Afghan children were in primary school, virtually none of whom were girls. By 2009, nearly 5 million kids were in primary school, 40 percent of them girls.

Beyond improved access to health care and education, women in particular have been able to play a far greater role in public life: 27 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament are now held by women. Government initiatives including the National Solidarity Programme, which channels resources to projects building roads, schools, electricity networks, latrines, and other infrastructure across the country, have ensured that women have a voice in financing decisions at the local level by mandating gender balance on the councils that select projects. One more sign of changing attitudes about women: In 2010, only 4 percent of 15-19 year-olds reported they were first married by age 15. That compares with one-fifth of women now between 25 and 29 who were first married at 15 -- they would have reached that age under Taliban rule.

It would be ridiculous to deny a role for the international community in supporting this dramatic revival in the fortunes of a benighted country. At the same time, it would be as ridiculous to suggest that the cost has been anything but high -- far higher than it needed to be. Leave aside the incalculable cost of lives lost and look only at the monetary expense: There has been fraud and waste on a colossal scale. Even the successful programs carry a high price tag. The National Solidarity Programme, for example, has raised the proportion of villagers who report improvements in their economic conditions by 5 percentage points -- but at a cost of $200 per household, estimates Justin Sandefur, my colleague at the Center for Global Development. That's a reason to think of alternative approaches to foster peace and development, like cash transfers conditional on declining violence, and to keep on pushing for institutional reform alongside more transparent leadership.

Doubtless, the cost of sustaining progress will remain considerable. The Afghan government suggests it might need as much as $10 billion in aid each year over the coming years -- about $300 per person in the country each year. It is a huge sum. But in the context of a war that currently costs the United States alone about $10 billion a month, it is worth it. The substantial investment the international community has already made sustains a quality of life and a semblance of peace in a country that is in far better shape today than it has been for decades -- if not ever before. Let's not abandon such hard-won gains now.

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

The Optimist

Trickle-Down Economics

There’s a free-market solution to the world’s water crisis. Make people pay by the drop.

As the U.N. climate change meetings meander on in Durban, South Africa, with little sign of major breakthrough -- and soon after news that the last year saw the largest rise in carbon emissions in history -- it is a good time to think about how to deal with some of the impacts of a global warming that appear increasingly inevitable. One big impact involves water -- both that there's soon going to be too much of the salty stuff subsuming low lying areas as the ice caps melt, and too little elsewhere. A warmer world will be wetter overall, but current models predict that climate change will make some dry parts of the planet -- Northern Africa, for one -- even drier. Many of the places are already the very regions suffering from the greatest shortages. Even without climate change, global patterns of water usage are unsustainable, but global warming is a big reason to start using the stuff with greater care. The simplest way to encourage that? Make people pay for it.

Water is essential stuff, and sometimes we're willing to price it accordingly. How else to explain why U.S. consumers spend $7 billion on bottled water a year when they can't tell the difference with what comes out of the tap in taste tests -- and despite the fact it often costs more than three times as much per gallon than gas. But at other times we demand, like air, that it should be free -- or at least significantly subsidized. Farmers in California alone received about $236 million per year in effective subsidies from access to cheap water in the 1990s, for example. But California is far from the worst example of subsidizing unsustainable water use worldwide. And unless we start charging consumers what it costs to deliver piped water, many parts of the planet are simply going to run out -- even absent the impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, the world's poor consumers, mostly unconnected to piped delivery, will continue to pay considerably more for their water than the connected rich -- adding inequity to unsustainability as a cost of mispricing the stuff.

One-third of the world's population already faces water shortages. A recent McKinsey report estimates that based on current trends, by 2030, a third of the world will live in areas where the gap between water needs and accessible, reliable supply is greater than 50 percent -- so they'll have to be planting and drinking on borrowed time by that point. Agriculture is the big problem -- irrigation of cropland is responsible for 71 percent of freshwater needs worldwide, and accounts for over 93 percent of the freshwater we take out of rivers, lakes, and the ground and cannot then clean and re-use, according to the World Bank. By 2030, without efficiency improvements, global water requirements will climb from 4,500 cubic kilometers (about the volume of Lake Michigan) to 6,900 cubic kilometers each year -- largely thanks to the growing demand for food. That is some 40 percent above current accessible, reliable supply.

The picture is not that grim, however. For a start, we have seen a 1 percent improvement in efficiency in water use in agriculture per year in the period 1990-2004, alongside irrigation network growth that has occurred at a similar pace. If these trends continue, between them, these may address 40 percent of the gap between supply and demand in 2030, according to McKinsey.

Second, there are a number of methods to dramatically, and very cheaply, increase water efficiency at a considerably more aggressive rate than 1 percent a year. No-till farming, irrigation scheduling, reduced over-irrigation, and irrigated drainage all can have a dramatic impact. And a number of water-saving investments are very cheap -- including proper maintenance and repair as well as  the use of drip irrigation. McKinsey estimates the total global cost to close the 2030 water gap to be $50-$60 billion a year -- around 0.06 percent of the world's predicted gross domestic product that year.

Increasing the efficiency of water use and finding the money to extend efficient irrigation are problems linked to water pricing -- in developing and developed economies alike. When Italy charges about 60 percent of costs for irrigation water or Pakistan charges only about a third of the costs of water delivery, connected farmers in both places waste water -- and the system doesn't produce enough revenues to finance either repair of existing services or expansion to unconnected farmers who are usually among the poorest. About eight years ago, an early experiment in democracy in China showed that it is possible to reform dysfunctional irrigation systems. Farmers in the Yangtze Basin elected "water user's association" executive committees to oversee the operation of local irrigation systems -- raising funds for operation and maintenance from water pricing. Since the introduction of the associations (and pricing water by volume), farmers are using less water per hectare, delivery losses have fallen, and despite lower water use, grain yields have actually increased by 6 percent. Each user's association has saved an average of about 1.2 million cubic meters of water a year.

International trade provides another important part of the answer to looming global water shortages. Rather than farms forming circles of green in the middle of the Saudi desert (this in a country which spends billions of dollars on desalinizing sea water), Saudi Arabia should just import more food from places with more H2O. Whatever the recent spikes in agricultural prices, it remains far cheaper to grow crops where there is substantial natural rainfall than in places where there isn't, which is why about three-quarters of the country's cereal needs are already imported. The only reason that number isn't higher is because -- once again -- of considerable subsidies.

The problem of underpriced water affects people living in cities as well, with similarly harmful consequences for the poor. World Bank analysis suggests that utility water prices in developing countries cover about 30 percent of costs on average. Just as with irrigation systems, if water companies don't charge enough to cover their supply costs, they can't sustain the current network, let alone lay pipes to new customers. A small elite of richer consumers is left with a degrading quality of service -- sewage-tainted supplies that run for only a few hours a day, and pipes that lose huge amounts of water.  Think Nairobi, where taps have remained dry recently despite unseasonably wet weather.  Leaking delivery systems in the developing world lose about 16 billion cubic meters of water each year -- enough to meet the water needs of 200 million people. Meanwhile, poor households are usually not connected to the utility network at all. They are forced to buy water from vendors at five to 16 times the metered price, or more. If they had access to a tap delivering water properly charged at the price to deliver, they would pay a fraction of what they currently do for water.

The idea that water should be free or nearly free is a convenient one for large farmers and elites in the city. But subsidies are flushing global water security down the toilet -- it's time for them to end.  Properly pricing water is a multiple win: It will reduce the impact of climate change, ensure future generations have access to water for drinking and food, and improve the quality and reach of piped supplies, saving money and improving health for billions worldwide. All that, and it doesn't even take an international climate agreement -- which is great news, given everything that hasn't been happening in Durban.