Story and photos by Chief Petty Officer Leslie Shively
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Leadership from Nimroz and Helmand provinces met with members of the United States Agency for International Development and the International Security Assistance Force, March 1, to discuss water management in the Helmand River basin.
The aim of the first summit was to bring representatives from opposite sides of the Afghan political spectrum together to establish rapport on water conservation, as water is one of the most important resources in the country.
“Afghanistan is an agricultural country,” said Haji Khan Agha, director of the Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority, adding that it also has a climate where anything can be grown. “Our economy is related to agriculture and more than 80 percent of our people are farmers.”
Presentations on Helmand River basin geography, water flow and data collection, educated an audience of more than 30 attending the summit at the Afghan Cultural Center, on the current state of water usage from the river and its surrounding areas.
Three major challenges confront Afghans with water usage and conservation said Dr. Asim Yousafzai, one of the presenters at the summit: the quantity and quality of water, and water management in Helmand basin. Yousafzai, a hydrologist who works with a civil affairs team in Now Zad, said the first step toward water conservation was a better understanding of the system.
“The solution lies in increased data collection and data sharing,” Yousafzai said. “There has to be a repository of data for those who want to access it.”
Under the Regional Command Southwest security umbrella, four monitoring stations were established and have initiated some water monitoring in the Helmand system since October.
“We’ve got to understand input and outtake,” said Dr. L.J. Palmer-Maloney, a water resources management/human geography subject matter expert with RC(SW), who presented at the summit. “We’ve also established connections with Kabul University so that the monitoring information will be analyzed and used by Afghans and international scientists.”
After the presentations, what sounded like child’s play – the clatter of hundreds of green marbles running down an inclined model of the Helmand River valley – filled the Cultural Center.
The model, a 3-dimensional representation of the Helmand River valley and its catchments, designed by Dr. Jean Jolicoeur, demonstrated proper and improper water usage in three games summit attendees played.
A container, representing the Kajaki Dam, held all of the marbles at the start of each demonstration or game. Jolicoeur released the marbles and, as they flowed downward, participants around the model diverted them into their catchments with wooden slats. Those closest to the dam caught most of the marbles. Those farthest from the dam caught the least.
Each of the three games represented different environmental conditions. The first represented a wet season with hundreds of marbles. The second represented a dry season with a fair number of marbles; and the third, a drought with few marbles. If those nearest the dam diverted all of the marbles into their catchments, nothing was left for those furthest from the dam.
Some players took more marbles than their catchment could hold, leaving none for their neighbors.
The model instilled a pictorial sense of what happens in the river basin as seasons change and with unregulated water use. Flood irrigation practices using unregulated diversion canals and ground water withdrawal through wells, takes water directly from the river.
“We want them to start looking at the big picture – the whole watershed both upstream and downstream,” said Jolicoeur, a general development officer/infrastructure advisor for the Regional Platform Southwest.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” Palmer-Maloney said. “Seeing the river out of water is really important. We can have reports written in every language, but seeing what people are struggling with makes a big difference.”
Currently, Helmand is experiencing a drought ,Yousafzai said, with no foreseeable end. “We are in a climate pattern which is very unpredictable. We are in the Hindu Kush which is part of the Himalayan series and we are definitely experiencing a lot of climatic variations.”
“Peoples’ lives and livelihoods have vanished,” Palmer-Maloney said. “The ecosystem has collapsed and we’ve had a lot of snow, so we’re fixing to have some flooding. Helping people understand the connection is critical.
Due to the stark landscape, communities in the provinces are disconnected. Nimroz is culturally and historically associated with Herat, while Helmand is much more connected to Kandahar. It is the water system is really the only thing tying them together.
“Generations from now, regardless of the politics,” Palmer-Maloney said, “whatever is happening to the water system now is going to be what they are left with.”
As the summit drew to a close, provincial leadership agreed to a joint committee, to discuss and develop a water management strategy that will span the middle and lower Helmand River watershed.