22 March 2010
“Water is central to the livelihoods of Helmandis,” says DFID senior infrastructure advisor in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Mark Harvey.
“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.”
Mark – one of the British government’s Stabilisation Unit in Afghanistan - is leading the ambitious Helmand River Basin Project (HRBP) for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), putting water at the heart of peace-building.
Alongside other similar programmes, it is giving people the means to move from illicit activity to the legal economy and cut links to the insurgency.
The Helmand river basin covers 43% Afghanistan’s landmass and serves a population of 7.1m people, more than a quarter of the country.
For many years the irrigation system, worth an estimated $300m, has been allowed to deteriorate and is in urgent need of repair.
River banks and canal banks have eroded, canal regulator gates have become defunct and silt deposits in both irrigation and drainage canals are now a major problem.
Water supplies are estimated to reach only 59% of people in the catchment area.
Afghanistan is another country in a long list where water resources have caused conflict.
The Kajaki Dam is one of the two major hydroelectric dams in Helmand. Situated on the Helmand River and built by the Americans in the early 1950s, it 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.
Water for recovery
The Helmand River Basin project is attempting to use water as a conduit for stability and economic recovery.
The scheme is also improving local water governance to strengthen the Afghan government’s ability to deliver services and to increase their accountability.
In the medium to longer term, the project will enable better management of water resources at provincial and national level, boosting economic growth and development.
DFID is among donors who are co-financing the HRBP with the Asian Development Bank at a cost of £2.8m.
Other groups involved are USAID and the Canadian International Development Agency, which is supporting the Arghandab Irrigation Improvement Project on the main tributary of the Helmand River in 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 Mark.
"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.”