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Vulnerability Mapping in Urban Afghanistan

Heloise Troc is a food security officer, working for ACF for over 3 years. Her field experiences include acting as a food security co-ordinator in Liberia and Afghanistan.

Erin Grinnell is an anthropologist who has been working for over two years with ACF as a food security officer in Burma and Afghanistan.

Thanks to the entire ACF field team for their contribution and support during this assessment, and to Lisa Ernoul, ACF HQ, for her work on this field article.

This article describes vulnerability mapping carried out by ACF in Kabul, and how it has been used to inform programming and tailor interventions in the field1.

The past 23 years of unrest in Afghanistan have had a significant impact on Kabul, with up to 60% of housing destroyed and infrastructure decimated. Since the fall of the Taliban, there has been a massive return of refugees to Afghanistan, mainly coming back from Pakistan and Iran, and placing an enormous strain on municipal resources. In 2002, a total of 393,582 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) arrived in Kabul in a matter of only ten months. The Central Statistics Office's current estimate of numbers in the city is 2,799,300 persons.

Action Contre la Faim (ACF) has been working in Kabul for eight years, implementing nutrition, food security, water and sanitation, and medical programmes. In light of the returning population, a vulnerability assessment was undertaken by ACF between October and November 2003. The assessment aimed to provide an overview of the main determinants of vulnerability2, as well as map vulnerability in the city, and so provide qualitative and quantitative information that could be used both by ACF and other agencies, to guide programming. This type of assessment has rarely been carried out in a post-conflict urban setting.

Mapping method

Vulnerability can be delineated by two types: structural vulnerability and inherent vulnerability. Structural vulnerability is determined geographically by where one lives, which affects access to, and availability of, health services and quality of services, including water and sanitation and housing conditions. Inherent vulnerability is determined by the socio-economic characteristics of a family or household, in particular, being a woman of childbearing age, lack of regular income and renting accommodation.

In addition to reviewing ACF and external agency reports on Kabul, two levels of mapping were used to explore types of vulnerability in the city:

  1. Mapping livelihood zones. Livelihood zones are zones that share similar characteristics such as sources and level of income, access to services and infrastructure, as well as the way populations respond to food insecurity or shocks, using the resources and opportunities available to them.
  2. Mapping highly vulnerable gozars (neighbourhoods) within the city zones.

The livelihood zone mapping was based on purposive sampling of representative neighbourhoods in the city. Unlike rural populations, where livelihoods are determined largely by agro-ecological factors and access to markets, urban livelihoods are also shaped by community assets in a given neighbourhood, i.e. services, infrastructure and housing.

Baseline information on the city's infrastructure, including electricity coverage, water and sanitation, health centres, roads and markets, was aggregated to provide a score with which to delineate relatively homogenous livelihood zones. Zones comprised of districts (numbered 1-16). A series of workshops were then held with representatives from ACF Kabul's technical departments, in order to define key criteria of vulnerability for Kabul city. Using these criteria, the team ranked the different neighbourhoods in the city through qualitative scoring, and delineated relatively homogenous zones.


Fieldwork took place over a three week period in October 2003. Depending on the size of each livelihood zone, one to two neighbourhoods (gozars) were selected to represent the zone. Once selected, the team then underwent further data collection at the community and household level. On average, 50 household interviews (randomly selected) were conducted in each zone. A total of six extensive group discussions were also held with women throughout the city, to gain an understanding of women's specific vulnerability. At least one male focus group discussion was also conducted in each livelihood zone.

The team identified the most vulnerable gozars, regardless of their zone location, to ensure a qualitative coverage of these areas. Focus group and semi-directive interviews were conducted in these gozars, to develop a profile of living conditions and coping strategies.

In parallel, discussions were also held with returnee families in different parts of the city. ACF carried out a systematic screening at Pol E Charki encashment centre3 and the team met with several returnee families, to understand their living conditions upon arrival in Kabul.

Main findings

The assessment allowed ACF to draw a map of the livelihood zones (see figure 1).However within the livelihood zones, vulnerabilities varied. The inner city area (Zone A-central Bazaar), for instance, had serious house destruction but enjoyed nearby services and job opportunities. One of the most significant factors determining the level of vulnerability of an area in the city of Kabul was its relation to the urban plan, laid out in the late 1970s. This city 'master plan', as it is known, determined the quality of roads, drainage and sewage networks, the level of water provision and the quality of housing.

Under serviced areas

Eleven gozars stood out within their zones as highly vulnerable. These neighbourhoods physically lie outside the boundaries of the city 'master plan' and are not, therefore, included in any present or future scheme to improve access to basic services. However, the large number of families in these gozars rules out any possibility of either expelling or relocating inhabitants. The original urban plan, laid out in 1978, was only meant for a population of 2 million people. These vulnerable gozars are not really targeted by the municipal authorities, although exceptions have been made for drinking water projects. Current water access, and above all, sanitation conditions in these areas raise serious public health concerns and need immediate intervention, e.g. water access, night soil and refuse collection.

Within these 11 highly vulnerable gozars, five appeared to be specifically at risk due to their physical location, i.e. they were hillside communities or new settlements in dry riverbeds. The lack of available land in the city has pushed people to settle in more and more precarious locales. Hundreds of new houses being built illegally can be seen all over the city, the majority perched on steep hillsides. These are characterised by greater exposure to environmental hazards, poor water and sanitation, with latrines being difficult to empty. They are also at higher risk in case of earthquake or flooding.

Status as a returnee does not seem to determine vulnerability. Indeed, many people returning from Pakistan and Iran arrived with assets. They already had social networks in Kabul, they received significant assistance from international and non-governmental organisations, and had at least one able-bodied male in the household. Similarly, those in temporary settlements were found to be no more vulnerable than other groups.

Nutrition and food security analysis

In November 2003, ACF conducted a nutrition and household food security survey. This confirmed a consistent decrease in levels of severe malnutrition (see figure 2), especially over the preceding year. The survey also highlighted an annual peak in prevalence of malnutrition during the summer months, which was probably linked to the increase in diarrhoeal diseases also observed at this time of year (see figure 3). The changes in prevalence of diarrhoea occur slightly earlier than changes seen in prevalence of malnutrition.

Food security had improved over the last year. Out of 526 households surveyed, 53% affirmed they were able to eat more than the same time last year. Yet food remained a significant concern, ranked third after income and owning one's own house as the main preoccupation. Food was also the primary reason people gave for taking loans. As the bulk of Kabul's population is almost exclusively dependent on purchase of food, the lack of regular incomes directly affects food security at a household level. People regularly reduce food quality, i.e. stop buying eggs or meat, when faced with insufficient income. In the poorest areas, i.e. central Bazaar (A), low serviced east (D), and in remote north (H) in figure 1, there are fewest vegetable gardens and therefore even more limited self- reliance. Indeed these three zones are also the most crowded, with some of the lowest average salaries.

Household information

Results from the household level data collection showed an overwhelming reliance on daily waged labour throughout the city. One third of all primary income earners were unskilled, waged labourers. In seven of the nine zones, over 30% of the household's primary income earners relied on daily wage labour. Once again, zones A, D and H were more at risk compared to others, with more than 40% of family's primary income earners being dependent on daily wage labour. In the areas with the poorest housing, like central Bazaar, or where there is a lack of services, like poor serviced east (D), income levels were lowest. Besides the actual amount of earnings, the insecurity linked to daily labouring renders the household more vulnerable to unexpected shocks and decreases coping capacity. Discussions with informants revealed that the irregularity of income was seen as even more of a problem than the limited daily wage rate.

A number of coping strategies were identified in focus group discussions and household interviews. These included:

Though no conclusions can be drawn, there is a striking correlation between the average income in a given area and the percentage of families who do not have children under five with diarrhoea (see figure 4).

In summary, the main household constraints identified were financial insecurity and irregularity of income opportunities for the majority of the population, increasing insecurity in housing due to increased demand, dependence on the purchase of food, and the need to borrow or take out loans to meet food needs.

Conclusions and recommendations

At the time of the assessment, the perception of most of those in Kabul was that their current situation was positive with noticeable improvements, especially in the provision of services. ACF's recommendations arising from the assessment translate into geographic and sector specific interventions, first concentrating on the highly vulnerable zones - A, D, H and G respectively, and at risk vulnerable households, with comprehensive programmes related to health, water and sanitation, income generation and housing capacity (see table 1).

Table 1 Recommended interventions related to vulnerability assessment findings

Zone A: District 1 - Extremely high global vulnerability
Urgent need for assistance to Saraji, Bagh Ali Mardan, Reka Khana, Shor Bazar, and Kohi Chindawol Sanitation: latrine rehabilitation Health and hygiene education Income generation and skills training Lobbying for housing security

Zones D, H and G: Districts 7, 8, 9, 16 and north of District 10 - Outside master plan, overall lack of services
Water provision
Health education
Income generation
Lobbying for housing security

At-risk - Dispersed extremely vulnerable neighbourhoods
Gozar Gah (District 7)
Cement Khana (District 16)
Deh Afghanan (District 2)
Afshar Selo (District 5)
Deh Dana (District 7)
Shaharak Khurassan (District 16)
Dewan Begi (District 5)

The food security analysis component of the assessment highlighted a number of issues. Insecurity of regular income is the one most significant threat to livelihoods in Kabul where the majority of the population has to purchase food with no, or limited, alternative food sources. Unskilled workers (those working in construction, as porters, physical or manual labour) cannot depend on finding work on a regular basis, especially in winter. Demand for labour fluctuates with the markets and seasons. Subsequently, they are the least able to cope when shocks occur. Similarly, civil servants receive a modest salary and have been known to go unpaid for months at a time. Efforts to promote regular income among vulnerable groups should therefore focus on strengthening existing coping strategies.

The main ACF recommendations for strengthening food security are:

Even though the influx of newcomers is receding, Kabul remains a very attractive city for many, with people continuing to arrive from rural areas. The very high population concentrations justify continued support to the city, with a specific focus on neighbourhoods deprived of sufficient services.

For further information, contact: Lisa Ernoul, Head of Food Security Services, ACF Paris. Email:

Show footnotes

1Kabul Vulnerability Mapping, January 2004, Action Contre la Faim, Afghanistan. Internal report.

2In this article, vulnerability refers to the degree of susceptibility to a threat, risk or shock as well as the ability to cope and recover from these threats, risks or shock without jeopardizing one's future well being. (Ref: Grace, 2003. One Hundred Households in Kabul: a study of winter vulnerability, coping strategies, and the impact of cash-for-work programmes on the lives of the 'vulnerable.' Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Kabul).

3An encashment centre is a centre set up by UNHCR through which the entire returnee population should pass in order to be registered for humanitarian assistance.

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Reference this page

Heloise Troc and Erin Grinnell (). Vulnerability Mapping in Urban Afghanistan. Field Exchange 22, July 2004. p19.



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