Afghanistan Visit: Managing Mountain Water Flow

Afghan walls

Contour walls built to reduce erosion and restore the water table line a mountainside in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Lisa Bandari/Aga Khan Foundation

CRS Senior Legislative Specialist Jill Marie Gerschutz filed this report following a recent trip to Afghanistan:

It is hard to imagine a winter in Sare Ahangaran; perhaps hibernation is a close parallel. The desolate mountainside which is grazed by animals during the 5 months of warmth becomes a snow-covered avalanche threat. As the snow, (called “barf” in Dari) melts after a winter of heavy accumulation, floods pour down the mountainside causing erosion and sometimes wiping out roads and homes.

Afghan mountain

Snow-covered mountains in Afghanistan are a source of water for communities below. Photo courtesy of Lisa Bandari/Aga Khan Foundation

Surviving this roller coaster of water is all about water management, our Kabul Head of Office tells me. The unpredictable snow and rain throughout the year mean the community often suffers from too much or not enough water – and sometimes both in the same year. With basic technological interventions and community-wide efforts like watershed management, CRS helps communities to prevent erosion and enjoy enough water even during the dry season. Moreover, water management helps to restore the water table. It’s all about gulley plugs, contour walls, trenches and bunds, protection areas and a reservoir.
One of nature’s few gifts to this community is a steady mountain spring for clean drinking water. As we approach it, a woman with her child and donkey is accessing the water. She is in the heart of the reservoir, a product of last year’s cash-for-work project with CRS.

The project continues this summer, and we watch as more than a dozen men lug immense rocks to build contour walls in the hillside nearby. These walls are more than twenty yards long and 12-20 inches high. They are built only of rocks, organized by size. They slow the fall of water down the mountainside, preventing erosion. Gully plugs offer the same result.

The result: last year the gully around the mountainside where no work had been done flooded, but the land below the walled slope did not. The walls should last at least five years, during which time the newly planted apple or birch trees will have grown enough to prevent erosion. Another side benefit of this project is that rocks are cleared from the land, making it more hospitable for plants and even cultivation. The community has agreed not to graze their animals on this land for those five years in order to allow the soil to rest and eventually for plants to establish themselves. This community mobilization is a linchpin in the success of these technical programs. The cash-for-work project enables them to buy fodder for their animals in the meantime.

The communities clearly understand the technology employed by CRS, as their past attempts at employing it were visible. Unfortunately, unless precisely executed, these walls can actually expedite and exacerbate erosion. Through the training of local foremen, CRS passes along the technical knowledge and experience necessary to ensure success. Communities begin to learn how to ensure that walls stand at the appropriate angle and appropriate distances apart.

Results are not immediate, however, and not without challenges. On a site visit to monitor the progress of the walls, program officer John Briggs, the manager for this program, tells me he encountered three concerns in one day. He halted the work immediately, sat down to lunch with the community’s water management team, and had a talk. Comprised of the traditional community leaders, four women, and others who have shown interest in the work, this team was pulled together by CRS. John helped the community to identify their concerns – some technical, some relational – and asked them to resolve these matters before continuing the work. Thanks to this intervention, all the hard work of the community and the financial investment was not lost. Given the success after last year’s winter, the proof of the concept is catching on around the community. And the peaceful vision of a woman collecting reservoir water with donkey and child will be replicated throughout the valley.

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