Group of Afghan men gathered
With 75% of irrigation systems ineffective, a prioritisation of tasks must be negotiated

Improving irrigation to strengthen food security and income from agriculture in Afghanistan

NIRAS just commenced collaboration in a consortium with lead partner Sheladia Associates to improve water availability for irrigated agriculture through better water distribution and management in the Panj-Amu River Basin.

07. Nov 2018

“Agriculture will determine whether Afghanistan will succeed or fail.” Those are the stark words from a 2009 draft development plan for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock.

This isn’t hyperbole.

Although 80% of Afghanistan’s economy depends on agriculture in some way, most of the people active in the sector are trying to scrape by on subsistence farming only. Because of damaged infrastructure (such as irrigation) and climate change-driven droughts and shifting weather patterns, a significant proportion of farmers in Afghanistan aren’t succeeding at producing sufficient amounts of food for themselves, let alone the rest of the country. In short, Afghanistan is an agrarian economy with a fragile agricultural sector that relies on the importation of food to get by.

As bleak as this sounds from an economic point of view, the true cost of this weakened economy is felt by the people of Afghanistan, with the rural population taking the brunt. 55% of the population live under the national poverty line. As of 2010, 75% of women and children suffered from some form of nutritive deficiency, with almost three million children being chronically malnourished.

Examining damaged canal banks caused by water logging and lockage. Farhad sub-project, Baharak-Badakhshan

Therefore, strengthening the agricultural sector will strengthen Afghanistan as a whole. Other challenges and complexities aside – 1.8 million Afghans were internally displaced due to increasing conflict in 2017 – one of the best ways to build up the sector is to make it less dependent on rainfall. After three decades of conflict, only an estimated 25% of Afghanistan’s irrigation systems are in working order, and most of these are inefficient traditional systems that result in high water wastage. As a result, most farmers are forced to rely on rainfall, but the driest time of the year falls in late summer, one of the most crucial periods in the cultivation cycle.

Improving agriculture in the Panj-Amu River Basin

Since July this year, NIRAS has been supporting lead partner Sheladia Associates in implementing the Panj-Amu River Basin Sector Project. The goal is to increase agricultural productivity in the river basin by improving access and use of water at farm, scheme, and river levels as part of a larger government strategy of raising per-capita income and reducing poverty in rural and pastoral communities.

The volatile security situation in Northern Afghanistan obviously presents some additional challenges for project management. For example, the guest house where staff stay is under 24/7 armed security protection and project sites are covered by a site security plan implemented by Sheladia. In addition, NIRAS's partner provides an armed security escort on an as-needed basis to accompany expats or other personnel to meetings, airports, and site visits; and a Security Project Manager is on call 24/7 in the country. Moreover, staff can face restrictions on their movements. One expert recently shared that they had been recommended not to leave the guest house during a large and boisterous religious celebration which could have resulted in a greater risk for attack of foreign nationals.

Despite these logistical and personal challenges, staff remains upbeat and the project on track, focusing on three key outputs:

  1. Improving water allocation and availability by providing the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW), as well as associated river basin and sub-basin agencies (RBA and SBAs) in the Panj-Amu River Basin with the capacity and resources to rehabilitate and upgrade head works and main canals in priority schemes with command area of over 400 ha; establishing and strengthening the capacity of 112 water users’ associations (WUAs) to operate and maintain conveyance infrastructure in these schemes, as well as to work with the RBA and SBAs to facilitate water sharing between schemes; and enhancing the capacity of the MEW, RBA, and SBAs for more effective water allocation between schemes to benefit downstream users. Support will also be provided to Afghan members of the Afghanistan–Tajikistan transboundary technical working group to prepare them for technical meetings and strengthen their ability to conduct negotiations regarding the set-up and operations of the Pyanj River Basin Commission.
  2. Providing the capacity and resources for the  Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL) and associated Directorates of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (DAILs) in the Panj-Amu River Basin to improve irrigation infrastructure at the secondary and tertiary canal level in the identified priority schemes to secure an integrated approach; establish and strengthen the capacity of approximately 105 irrigation associations to operate and manage irrigation infrastructure in these schemes to improve distribution of water within schemes; and improve water use efficiency at the farm level through improved on-farm water management and agronomic techniques (such as land levelling, bed and furrow irrigation, and intercropping).
  3. Properly managing and protecting watersheds in the basin by providing the MAIL and associated DAILs in the Panj-Amu River Basin with the necessary capacity and resources to improve community-based watershed management. This will include activities such as preparing a community-based natural resources management technical manual and guidebook; training DAILs’ staff as master trainers who will conduct future training of communities; identifying watershed and/or rangeland sites for restoration and protection; creating community forestry and/or rangeland associations for these sites; and preparing and implementing natural resource management plans for these sites.

NIRAS’s contribution

NIRAS has provided five international key experts who will be working on the project: the hydrologist/modeler, GIS specialist, trans-boundary specialist, environmental safeguards specialist, and watershed management specialist. These experts’ duties will include training, setting up systems and procedures, providing technical assistance and oversight of the project, and fostering coordination and synergy between the MAIL and MEW in their provision of project interventions.