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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.

Amina and her brother fill up a water jug in Faizabad, Afghanistan. An effort by Afghanistan to improve water management is under way in areas.

Monique Jaques / Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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By Tom A. Peter, Correspondent / June 15, 2010

Herat, Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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