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Water projects' past failures are hurting Afghan farmers

By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 16, 2009

KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Poor placement and management of wells and dams over several years by nongovernmental organizations and military reconstruction teams throughout Khost province have drained water tables, drying out land cultivated by thousands of farmers in the mountains.

As a result, some farmers who grow wheat, corn, rice or fruit didn’t grow enough crops to feed their families. They turned to earning money by logging and goat herding or other means, and bought food at markets.

"The depth of the wells wasn’t the issue. I think it was the amount of wells installed that needed to be better controlled," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Joyce of the 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team of the Indiana National Guard. "The effect of digging the number of wells at the lower elevations drained the water table from higher elevations."

Military officials know the wells were dug by NGOs.

Additionally, military provincial reconstruction teams erected too-large dams that, after a few years, filled with silt, allowing the water to pass over them.

"The PRT, prior to our arrival, and really over the past few years, have put in diversion dams, ‘check dams,’ dams along the Shamal River, for quite a bit of money, that didn’t last more than a couple of years because of the silting that’s coming off from the upper elevations," said Joyce, a water-erosion expert.

The solution is smaller dams that are easier to maintain and allow melted snow and rainwater to pool in more places and seep into the ground, raising the water table.

The dams, ranging from one to three feet in height, will be easier for villagers to clean and maintain, said Joyce, who before joining the Army worked as a ranch manager in western Oregon.

Watershed management is one of many projects undertaken by the ADT soldiers, who arrived in eastern Afghanistan in March as part of the U.S. military’s effort to stabilize farming, the country’s main source of subsistence and income. Roughly 85 percent of the nation’s inhabitants are farmers.

The state of Indiana has pledged to supply National Guard units for five years to maintain continuity in the effort, officials said. The 1-19th is the first.

By stabilizing the farming industry, and enabling farmers to not only survive but eventually profit, officials hope to give military-age men alternatives to fighting alongside the anti-government forces, which in the province include the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani network.

The handpicked teams of guardsmen are specialists in agribusiness, including farming, ranching and business practices, and will help Afghans with, among other things, forestry, agronomy, horticulture, range land management and animal husbandry, said Maj. Ron Crane, the educational director. He recently hosted a "train the trainer" session for Afghan extension agents.

Having Afghan agents lends credibility and validity to the Afghan government’s efforts, said Crane, who works closely with agricultural students at province’s Khost University and Shaikh Zayed University.

The military needed to step in to give farmers an alternative to raising poppies, which were eradicated in much of Khost province, Crane said.

As a result of the Soviet invasion, Afghan farmers lost a generation of educated farmers, and the lack of technology has kept them from progressing, soldiers said. But the 1-19th soldiers say they don’t say they have all the answers, not wanting to insult the populace that has been farming for thousands of years.

Instead, the aim is merely to improve practices, including showing farmers how to make their own feed, for example, rather than buy a finished product from Pakistan, said Capt. Bob Cline, himself a rancher and farmer.


Lt. Col. Kevin Sari uses a hydrometer to test the velocity and chemical makeup of a tributary that feeds into the Shamal River in Afghanistan.
COURTESY OF THE INDIANA NATIONAL GUARD

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