World Water Day
For Mark Harvey, a senior infrastructure advisor from the Department of International Development in the Afghan province of Helmand, World Water Day [22 March] has particular resonance this year. Harvey, deployed by the British government’s Stabilisation Unit (SU) as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team based in Lashkar Gah, is leading an ambitious project that puts water at the very heart of peace-building in Afghanistan.
“Water is central to the livelihoods of Helmandis,” he says. “Most of them benefit from the large irrigation system built some 50 years ago. A key challenge is that many are involved in illicit livelihoods associated with poppy and the narcotics industry. The Helmand River Basin Project, working with other programmes, is aimed at delivering the means to enable people to shift from the illicit to licit economy; and therefore to cut links to the insurgency. So a short term objective is contributing to the counter-insurgency effort.”
The Helmand river basin covers 43 per cent of Afghanistan’s landmass and serves a population of 7.1m people, more than a quarter of the country. For many years, the irrigation system, whose assets are worth an estimated $300m, has been deprived of maintenance and development. As a result, the infrastructure is in critical disrepair. River banks and canal banks have eroded, canal regulator gates have become defunct and silt deposits in both irrigation and drainage canals have become a major problem. The current use of available water in the catchment area is estimated to be only 59 per cent.
Water is often highlighted as a source of conflict around the world. The Pacific Institute, a California-based research organisation, lists water-related disputes – many of them fatal - in China, North Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia and Pakistan, among other countries, during the past decade alone.
Afghanistan has not been spared the fighting associated with water resources. The Kajaki Dam, one of the two major hydroelectric dams in Helmand, situated on the Helmand River and built by the Americans in the early 1950s, has been the scene of major fighting between Taliban and NATO forces in recent years. The Taliban has consistently attempted to disrupt reconstruction work on the dam and power lines, holding back the region’s prospects for recovery.
Although it is more customary to see water as a source of conflict than an instrument to promote stability and economic recovery, the Helmand River Basin project is classic work for the SU, says Sheelagh Stewart, head of the unit. “We are the centre of expertise for the government on stability. Civil engineering plays an absolutely critical role when it’s needed. We get really good people like Mark out to the places when they’re needed.”
Under this scheme, local water governance will also be improved to strengthen the Afghan government’s ability to deliver services and to increase their accountability to the people. In the medium to longer term, the project contributes to economic growth and development by providing the means to manage the nation’s and the province’s water resources better, including trans-boundary water management and relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Donors include DFID, which is co-financing the Helmand River Basin Project with the Asian Development Bank at a cost of £2.8m; the project will work very closely with others active in the region including USAID and especially the Canadian International Development Agency which is supporting the Arghandab Irrigation Improvement Project on the main tributary of the Helmand River flowing through Kandahar province.
”This is an ambitious project to undertake at this time but it’s essential that we do so to support the government of Afghanistan in making progress in managing its water resources now and for the future,” says Harvey. “As you fly over the Helmand valley and look down at the river and the irrigation system you know that you are tackling one of the most important issues for peace, stability and development.”