For three springs now Zobair Ahrar has watched helplessly as annual flooding washed away 1,500 square meters of his land – about five percent of his property. A former dam designer turned farmer, Mr. Ahrar estimates it would cost $1 million to build a dam that could control the floods eroding the land in his and a hundred other villages.
Mr. Ahrar approached the provincial Ministry of Irrigation for help. Officials told him they were investing in other places and he needed to fix the problem himself. Unable to afford the dam, he and his neighbors will either get outside help or eventually have to move.
Thirty years of war have left Afghanistan’s irrigation canals clogged and pitted, and farmers are beginning to feel the weight of decades of neglect. Aside from erosion, farmers lack the resources to build the canals capable of irrigating large swathes of land – and this in a country where agriculture employs more than three quarters of workers.
In order to develop, Afghanistan must revamp its water infrastructure, but doing so could spark tension with neighbors who’ve come to rely on excess water flowing from Afghanistan.
“Agriculture is really the economic driver at this stage,” says Allan Kelly, deputy country director of the Asian Development Bank, which has committed $400 million in grant money to irrigation in Afghanistan. “Improving irrigation is critical to agricultural sector growth … [otherwise] we’ll have the continuation of widespread poverty and declining irrigation.”
Most water flows abroad
Afghanistan doesn’t face a water shortage – it’s unable to get water to where it’s needed. The nation loses about two thirds of its water to Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and other neighbors because doesn't harness its rivers. The government estimates that more than $2 billion is needed to rehabilitate the country’s most important irrigation systems.
“The farmers are poor people. They cannot buy some machines to dig the canals,” says Khalil Entezari, head of irrigation in Herat for the Department of Agriculture. “If we don’t solve this problem it will continue to get bigger and bigger and farmers will continue to leave their land.”
One of the biggest attempts to address the problem is under way in Herat Province along the border with Iran, where India is funding the construction of a $180 million dam. The project, called the Salma Dam, will regulate river flow during flood season and reduce the amount of water that flows from the Hari Rud River to Iran and Turkmenistan from 300 million cubic meters per year to 87 million cubic meters.
“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.
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.
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."