UNHCR helps Afghan villagers to improve irrigation system

News Stories, 9 July 2008

© UNHCR/J.A.Belleza
Before the project, the canals of Ambarkhana were clogged by mud and wild vegetation.

AMBARKHANA, Afghanistan, July 9 (UNHCR) The food basket of eastern Afghanistan is filling up slowly but surely as returnees and water projects turn abandoned marshland back into fertile farmland.

With its moderate climate, proximity to major rivers and elaborate irrigation system, Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan had always been known for its agriculture. However, the Soviet invasion of late 1979 and the ensuing civil war drove many villagers into neighbouring Pakistan, leaving their land untended. The canals that fed the crops clogged up with mud, grass and wild trees. Water seeped into the farmlands and turned them into marshes.

Ambarkhana village in Nangarhar's Batikot district, 50 kilometres from the border with Pakistan, was a classic example of such neglect. But thanks to a project funded by the UN refugee agency, the canals have been cleaned and the mountainous land is flourishing again.

"Due to the ongoing drought, shortage of water and blockage of the irrigation canal, we were not able to get even one season of harvest from the land," recalled Haji Samiul Haq, the head of the local shura (council) who approached UNHCR to start the project. "But after the excavation of the spring and cleaning of the canal last year, the project enabled us to get two seasons' harvest."

Villager Gul Ahmad, who was working on his farm, added, "Given the current food crisis, hundreds of people would have abandoned their homes by now either for bigger cities within Afghanistan or for neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, if we had had no access to water."

Zafar, a 55-year-old who returned last year from Katcha Gari camp in north-western Pakistan, agreed: "Improving the irrigation system helped us to enhance our income. Thanks to UNHCR for improving our water resources and enabling us to live in our homeland."

At least 60,000 returnees living in 26 sub-villages in Ambarkhana have benefited from the US$75,000 project. The World Food Programme supported it by providing food and cash in exchange for work by the villagers, many of them returnees.

"Small-scale, but essential, projects cleaning water canals and improving the irrigation system have a great impact on the life of people who are particularly dependent on agricultural products," said Haji Samiul Haq.

Nonetheless, many basic needs go unmet, and access to water remains highly difficult. The villagers in this remote area traditionally relied on the karez system, an underground water network that was damaged by the protracted conflict. Most of the families now get their water from tankers.

The situation has been exacerbated by the recent return of more than 10,000 people to the village after Katcha Gari and Jalozai camps were closed in Pakistan.

Elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan, some 5,000 families who recently returned from Jalozai camp are living in poor conditions in a number of makeshift settlements. They cite tribal conflicts, insecurity, landlessness and unemployment as the main obstacles to their return to their places of origin.

The eastern region, particularly Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman provinces, have received more than 60 percent of all returns so far this year.

Mohammad Nabi is one of the new squatters in lower Sheikh Mesri, a recently-opened spontaneous settlement in Nangarhar. "I did not find the relocation option in Pakistan attractive," he said, referring to the alternative to repatriation when Jalozai camp was closed in May this year. "Yet I cannot go back to my home village of Torghar in Khogyani district due to severe living conditions including the lack of access to road and water."

Drought and the lack of food security are also affecting millions of vulnerable Afghans in far-flung areas of the country's north and west. Some people have had to leave their homes because of these problems, including an estimated 1,800 families in Balkh province.

© UNHCR/V.Virdis
Ambarkhana sprouts wheat after the canals were cleaned.

Sustainable return remains a long-term challenge that UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are able to address only initially. The answer to socio-economic problems for all Afghans lies in the success of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy endorsed in Paris last month.

A subsequent conference hosted by the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR is scheduled this November in Kabul to focus on return and reintegration challenges.

By Mohammed Nadir Farhad in Kabul, Afghanistan




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Food and Nutrition

UNHCR strives to improve the nutritional status of all the people it serves.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

Humanitarian organizations in South Sudan are working to deliver emergency assistance to some of the tens of thousands of people displaced by armed conflict in Jonglei state. Most of those uprooted have fled into the bush or have walked for days to reach villages away from the fighting. Others have journeyed even greater distances to find sanctuary in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Gaining access to those affected in an insecure and isolated area has been a significant challenge for aid workers. Since mid-July, an airlift has been providing food supplies to families living in two previously inaccessible villages and where humanitarian agencies have established temporary bases. As part of the "cluster approach" to humanitarian emergencies, which brings together partners working in the same response sector, UNHCR is leading the protection cluster to ensure the needs of vulnerable individuals among the displaced are addressed.

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

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