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.
“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.
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:
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.