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Helping flow of Afghan returnees cope with water problems

Helping flow of Afghan returnees cope with water problems

This year's unseasonably hot weather means that water sources may dry up earlier than usual. UNHCR has installed water pumps and water points where Afghans can get drinking water. It is also working to clear karez channels that carry underground water to the surface.
4 August 2004
Recent returnees in Bagh-e-Alam using a water pump installed by UNHCR as part of the reconstruction programme helping Afghan refugees to become re-established.

KABUL, August 4 (UNHCR) - Refugees returning to their homes after years of war require not just peace and employment but a resource that is proving increasingly scarce in Afghanistan - water.

In the capital, residents are digging wells in the dry streambed of the Kabul River. In the Shomali Plain that spreads north of Kabul and once fed the city, the water table is dropping and the ancient karez network of underground water distribution channels was deliberately damaged by the previous Taliban rulers.

"Before, we grew rain-fed wheat but now with drought, it is impossible. Families with land cannot farm unless they have deep wells," said Sheragha, who has returned to his village of Baghalam after eight years in Iran.

The problem has not gone unnoticed by the international effort to revive Afghanistan. Sheragha, who was previously a farm labourer, is now drawing his family's drinking water from a pump installed near his house, newly rebuilt by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN refugee agency has allocated more than $15 million for water projects in Afghanistan since it launched a programme in 2002 to assist refugees who want to return. Nearly 3 million refugees have come home from Iran and Pakistan, with UNHCR also assisting more than 440,000 internally displaced Afghans to return to their homes.

By early this year UNHCR had installed more than 6,000 "water points" where Afghans could get their drinking water. In addition, the organisation was supporting plans to rehabilitate water systems damaged by the years of war.

But years of drought, and now the return of extra population into rural areas, has increased the problem. UNHCR has found that wells it installed only two years ago need to be deepened.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an international organisation that monitors agricultural problems, was pessimistic in its latest report on Afghanistan in June. It warned that low precipitation and the early and rapid depletion of snow on the mountains because of unseasonably warm temperatures would create drinking and irrigation water shortages in many parts of the country.

While some northern provinces showed normal conditions, shortages were predicted for many other parts of Afghanistan. Sources of water, such as the mountain streams or the underground karez channels, could dry up earlier in 2004 than they did last year.

At the best of times, water supply in Afghanistan is seasonal. Winter rains fall as snow on the mountains, then melt to provide the irrigation water needed to support crops as the hot, dry summer takes hold.

In the village of Kalota, in Kapisa province north of the Shomali Plain, UNHCR is even funding a cash-for-work project to build barriers along the Panjshir River to prevent a recurrence of the spring flooding that this year destroyed fields and village buildings.

Local villagers wade in the mountain waters - still churning but well down on the raging 350-cubic-metre-per-second torrent of May - gathering round stones to fill the 200 metres of wire cages that will line the most vulnerable part of the bank.

Villagers in a UNHCR-funded project take stones from the frigid Panjshir River to build barriers along the shore to prevent a recurrence of spring flooding that damaged Kolata village this year.

But by autumn, the tree-lined water channel that brings river water through the village for household use will run dry. The Panjshir River, the second largest stream in Afghanistan, will have only a quarter of the water seen in the spring. Villages can walk across a stream that even in July would sweep away those venturing too far.

The same seasonal flow is seen in the karez channels, which collect water well below ground level and then carry it - protected from evaporation - to eventually emerge on the surface.

UNHCR has been paying returnees to clear the underground karez channels - blocked not just by soil accumulated in years of neglect but by walls that collapsed when the former Taliban rulers threw in explosives to depopulate the fiercely contested region and to block potential infiltration routes.

In the Shomali Plain, those who descend down the narrow access wells, often 25 metres or more, crawl along the channels filling bags with soil that is winched to the surface. The difficult and occasionally dangerous work earns $5 a day, while those assisting on the surface get $2 - rates below most market wages in Afghanistan but a useful injection of cash into the economy.

A child sits beside a water channel flowing through his village in Kolata, Kapisa Province. In the spring there is a danger of flooding, but by late summer this water supply will dry up.

In the village of Pahlawan, former refugees are hopeful that their work on a kilometre-long karez will soon mean that the cool, underground water they had known before fleeing the area again flows into their fields. Although they saw some water emerge from the damaged channel a year ago, when winter rains were stronger, a survey before the start of the current UNHCR-funded work agreed the ancient karez technology should survive the drought.

"Of course the drought has affected conditions," Narullah Khan, head of the local group repairing the system, said beside the dry stones where the villagers previously washed their clothes. "But since we saw water in the first wells of the karez, we are sure when this project is completed, there will be enough water to flow here."

By Jack Redden
UNHCR Pakistan