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Improving Afghanistan’s irrigation infrastructure

By Mitchell U.S. Air Force Capt. Dale , RC-East Media Support Center

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NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (November 14, 2011) — Decades of drought, conflict and economic strife has contributed to the decimation of critical irrigation infrastructure within Afghanistan.

With the support of U.S. agribusiness development teams, canals across provinces in eastern Afghanistan are being restored to protect the nation’s valuable water resources.

In provinces across eastern Afghanistan, ADT Soldiers are placing an increased emphasis on providing for the sustainability of Afghanistan’s water resources.  

Major ADT initiated irrigation rehabilitation projects in Nangarhar have focused on strengthening the capacity of the provincial level agriculture ministry’s ability to develop, execute, monitor and assess water management projects.  

“Our team is committed to finding new and innovative ways for Afghans to meet the demand for water and improve agricultural livelihoods; in order to accomplish this goal we have built in a monthly agricultural training seminar, as well as project management courses for our Afghan partners.  These are great opportunities for collegial discourse between the provincial ministry of agriculture, local universities, and research facilities in the area,” said U.S. Army Capt. Allan Sharrock, an agribusiness specialist with the Nangarhar ADT.

“Ideas such as these lead to the growth of long-lasting business relationships which will continue long after the ADT mission is complete.”

With ADT support, the Nangarhar Provincial Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock has recently rehabilitated 24 major rural irrigation systems and returned more than 240 hectares of cultivated land to full production.  

These projects included installation and repair of retaining walls; de-silting and refuse removal efforts; and installation of water-control systems such as sluice gates.  Additional projects included water intake replacement; canal bank restoration to include planting of foliage to support stability and water-conservation; concrete reinforcement; and construction of concrete caps to seal and reinforce underground channels.

For centuries, Afghans have manipulated major waterways to support arable crop land.  As nation-wide demand for fresh water continues to increase, efforts are being put in place to ensure adequate stores of water remain for economic growth in the form of agricultural development.

“The political turmoil of the past three decades has left Afghanistan’s irrigation infrastructure in a state of tremendous disrepair,” said Sharrock.  

“The majority of irrigation canals surveyed are extremely inefficient due to many factors including refuse build-up, degradation of retaining walls, and silt build-up.  The farmers of Afghanistan are beginning to feel the weight of these decades of neglect.  The future of Afghanistan depends on continued, sustainable access to safe water for human consumption as well as irrigation.”

Mohammed Ayas, a tenant farmer, stood amidst an endless sea of corn; ready for harvest.  Like many farmers across Afghanistan, Ayas knows the vast environmental issues facing Afghanistan; specifically the looming freshwater crisis.  

“All of the projects completed are helping to alleviate the factors aggravating water scarcity,” said Sharrock.  

As Ayas tends to his crop, he is well aware of the crucial work underway to provide a continued source of irrigation water to his homeland, Alma Dewa Village.  

“After the last canal project, the water flow in my canal has increased significantly,” he said.  “I now have access to more water to irrigate my corn, wheat, and rice fields.”

In Ayas’ home district; local agriculture extension agent Hanyoun Aikhil is leading several projects with the intention of restoring the underground karez irrigation systems servicing the district. Karez systems are comprised of underwater irrigation canals consisting of vertical wells, underground canals, above-ground canals, and small water reservoirs.  Melting snows from the Hindu Kush mountains are the primary water source for the karez system.

Aikhil’s first two-month karez rehabilitation project, implemented through Nangarhar Agribusiness Commander’s Small Scale Project funds, improved the irrigation of 600 jeribs of agricultural land, supporting over 255 families with irrigation and safe drinking water.

“This project led by the Agricultural Extension Agent, immediately improved the lives of the Afghans living in this community,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Mays, of Sikeston, Missouri, an agricultural liaison officer for Dari Nor.  “Having our Afghan partners take the lead in implementing projects improves the public image of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).  Citizens can now see their needs are being met by their government.”

Nearby, meetings with local community members and the District Development Assembly has brought about another karez rehabilitation project.

“These projects are crucial to empowering local citizens to take an active role in the future of their country,” said Mays.  “These projects represent many citizens first taste at what a legitimate, democratic government can do to enhance their livelihoods.   Partnering with our counterparts and allowing them to take the lead, is vital for a seamless transition from Coalition forces to GIRoA.  As an ADT liaison, I continually assess and monitor the project management capabilities of my Afghan counterparts, providing guided support and enabling tools as necessary.”

In time for the fall planting season, the rehabilitation of these irrigation systems has proven itself to be a community-building endeavor as citizens, both young and old, provided unskilled labor.

According to Malik Ghul Rahman, a village elder and the project supervisor, farmers in the immediate area previously purchased water at a rate of 150 Afghani per hour, pumped to their fields from a private well owner.  

“This cost is not affordable by many, and leaves farm land underutilized.  Restoring this once vibrant karez will alleviate the financial burden on my people,” said Rahman.  “We are so thankful for the support of our government in making this project a reality.  This project has brought our community together; all of us are willing to lend a helping hand to ensure a better future.”

With the support of the ADT and dedicated citizens willing to support their communities, conservation of Afghanistan’s supply of critical water assets will be a reality.

“Yes, of course all that you are doing to help our government is helping us; the farmers,” said Ayas. “I am looking forward to the future of Afghanistan.  Improvements in our water systems, better sources for our fields, this is hope for my family.”