Peace in Afghanistan requires good water management

Posted: 13 August 2002

Author: Biksham Gujja

The karez system of Afghanistan - an ancient and extensive system of underground irrigation tunnels - has received much attention as a hiding place for the Taliban. But this system also offers a chance for lasting peace in the country, by providing sustainable water management in this parched part of the world. Biksham Gujja reports.

Land irrigated by thekarez system, Afghanistan.© WWF/Biksham GujjaWater is a critical issue in Afghanistan. The country is larger than France, but receives less than 300mm of rain each year and shares all its river basins with neighbouring countries. Twenty-three years of conflict have left the water infrastructure system shattered. The severe drought over the last five years has further aggravated the situation. Today, only 17 per cent of the rural population and 38 per cent of the urban population have access to a basic water supply system, one of the lowest levels of access in the world.

But although bad, the situation is not necessarily dire. With a per-capita water use of 1,700m3, Afghans have more water than many in the world. Furthermore, the national per-capita water resource is about 3,200m3 - a comfortable amount, if managed properly.

Sustainable water use

And it could be managed both easily and in a sustainable manner, at least in part, by repairing the existing karez water system.

The gravity-based karez system exploits ground water without any need for mechanical devices. A vertical well is dug to tap into ground water some 30 metres underground. Instead of bringing the water to the surface at the site of the well, a horizontal tunnel with a gentle downwards slope brings the water to the surface several kilometres away. Through a series of such tunnel systems, large areas of land can be supplied with water for irrigation and domestic purposes.

Karez shaft, Afghanistan. © WWF / Biksham GujjaThe karez system is the oldest still-working feat of human engineering. It originated some 3,000 years ago in ancient Persia (now Iran), where it is called qanat, and expanded east along the silk route to China and west to North Africa, Cyprus, the Canary Islands, and even Spain.

The Palestinians used a locally adapted qanat system to cultivate olives, orchids, and vineyards for 2,000 years until 1948. Iran still had some 22,000 qanats in the mid-1900s, comprising more than 273,000 km of underground channels and supplying 75 per cent of the country's water, including the entire water supply for the million inhabitants of Tehran.

Karez systems still operate in Iran, North Africa, China, Pakistan, the Arabian peninsula, and Afghanistan, which has around 6,500 systems operating in 20 of the country's 27 provinces. Until late 1980s, some 170,000 ha in Afghanistan was irrigated by karez, with 10 provinces depending on the system for more than 40 per cent of their irrigation.

Crumbling canals

But after years of conflict, the karez are not in good shape. Most need extensive repairs. Surface irrigation channels and shallow wells tapping natural springs and ground water - which together irrigate some 367,000 ha - as well as more modern irrigation canals are also badly damaged. The result is that the irrigated area of Afghanistan is now only half what it was in 1980. This has contributed to widespread food insecurity that continues to threaten much of Afghanistan's population.

And with up towards one million people returning to Afghanistan since March this year, there is added pressure for water. The sudden increase in demand, declining ground water due to drilling, and collapse of institutional structures are placing enormous strain on Afghanistan's water management systems.

Supplying people with water is an urgent task, and a high priority in the current international effort to rebuild Afghanistan. There are plans to use external aid to 'develop' the country's water systems. But unless this money is used properly, well-intended programmes could do more harm than good.

Water management cannot be addressed as an emergency measure. It needs vision and strategy at a national level. Investment in water management should create immediate employment, improve water availability and food security, not damage the country's ecosystems, and provide equitable water sharing.

All these are factors are built into the karez.

The entire karez system could be rejuvenated for about US$20 million - not a large sum in light of the US$4.5 billion already pledged in aid to Afghanistan. Most of that money would generate rural employment, and the repairs would immediately improve the lives of millions of rural poor.

The karez system has the additional benefit of in-built equity. Each farmer depends on a water source located several kilometres upstream, and in turn may be the water source of a farmer located downstream. Community institutions manage both the maintenance of the karez and water sharing, meaning that national institutional structures do not need to be built immediately.

Sustainable system

The karez system is also intrinsically sustainable, adjusting itself to the level of available ground water. If the level drops because of lower rainfalls, then the amount of water flowing through the karez also drops. In this way, vital aquifers, upon which the springs and shallow wells also depend, do not become depleted during dry periods.

Repairing the karez system has obvious benefits. Unfortunately however, there is a tendency for development aid to focus on large water infrastructures such as dams, diversions, and deep drilling rather than traditional systems. It's true that Afghanistan cannot depend solely on existing systems, and will need, for example, water storage systems. However, any large-scale infrastructure needs to be done in such way that ecosystems are not damaged and people are not disempowered in managing existing systems.

Deep drilling is of particular concern. While in the short term this may be a quick way to supply drinking and irrigation water, indiscriminate drilling will cause the ground water level to drop - which will directly cause the karez system, shallow wells, and springs to dry up. This would affect millions of people, with all earlier investments in these systems - financial and human - going to waste. In addition, the introduction of drilling technology is already causing community principles of water management to break down, creating new conflicts.

The future of peace and harmony in Afghanistan very much depends on the proper management of water. The present transitional government in Afghanistan is aware of this, articulating its concerns at the recently held Conference on Water Resources Management and Development in Afghanistan. By adopting sustainable water management, government and external agencies have a unique opportunity to avoid the mistakes made in other developing countries.

The collapse of the qanats in Palestine has been described as "a human, ecological, and cultural tragedy" by Zvi Ron, an Israeli geographer from Tel Aviv University. Let us hope that in Afghanistan, thousands of years of social and labour investment will not become history.

Dr Biksham Gujja is Policy Adviser at WWF International. He was part of joint UNICEF-WWF mission to assess the water resource management situation in Afghanistan, which took place during March and April 2002. He prepared a background technical paper and was also part of the organising committee of the Conference on Water Resources Management and Development in Afghanistan, held in Kabul. Further information:Conference on Water Resources Management and Development in AfghanistanAt the request of the Afghanistan Interim Administration, UNICEF organised the Conference on Water Resources Management and Development in Afghanistan, held in Kabul from 29 April - 1 May 2002. The conference was attended by 250 participants from government, the donor community, the private sector, NGOs, and UN agencies. The discussions resulted in 'The Kabul Understanding', a paper pointing the way forward for the water sector. Immediate follow-up actions include establishing an advisory council to guide the Ministry of Irrigation, identifying short and medium term projects, and selecting technical advisors to assist in government planning, programme implementation, and management. Related link:WWF's Living Waters Programme