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Afghanistan's woeful water management delights neighbors

Any effort by Afghanistan to improve water management could ruffle neighbors, who benefit from the country's losing two-thirds of its water due to lack of infrastructure.

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“We have never been able to save our water, to control it, and have a good management system that directs it towards the lands that need it,” says Faisal Ahmed Zakeri, explaining the dam’s significance. Mr. Zakeri is the director of the water management department at the Ministry of Energy and Water in Herat.

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When it’s completed in Sept. 2011, the dam, and a subsequent canal project, are expected to more than double the amount of land farmers are able to cultivate to 80,000 hectares. Zakeri also estimates that it will boost farming jobs by 20 percent and raise local wages from $3 per day to $7 per day.

Though the Salma Dam will benefit many people in Herat, its reach only goes so far. Many farmers like Ahrar, whose land is fed by a different water system, will still need assistance.

Thirsty neighbors

As Afghanistan improves its own water supply, however, it will also have to manage the diplomatic fallout over the amounts that will no longer flow to Iran and other neighbors. While the country’s river and canal systems have remained untouched over the last 30 years, its neighbors have built dams and other considerable infrastructure that depend on water flowing into their borders from Afghanistan.

“All the projects that Afghanistan will do, will have a serious impact on the downstream states,” says Matthew King, an associate at the East-West Institute based in Brussels who recently coauthored an article about water management in Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan builds dams and undertakes other water projects that reduce the flow of water to its neighbors’ without first obtaining an agreement, in some extreme cases, Mr. King says it could provoke armed conflict.

Brokering such treaties may prove difficult for Afghanistan at the moment: In the midst of a conflict and rebuilding, it is uncertain how much water it needs or even how much it has. The government could lose out if it negotiates such treaties now, says King.

Abdul Rahman, head of the Herat Professional Engineering Shura, believes difficult international negotiations over water are worth the effort. Much of the fighting in the country is fueled by jobless rural people, he says, and other violence stems from people battling over access to water.

“War lasts for a short time. Eventually it will end,” he says. “But if we are unable to manage the water system it can affect this region for a long time to come."

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