KABUL, 6 March (IRIN) - As farmer Ghulam Sakhi sat picking corn at a government-run nursery in Qarghah on the -outskirts of the capital, Kabul, he told IRIN nothing brought him as much pleasure as to see crops growing once again on land that had been fallow for years. "We are being given our livelihoods back. This used to be such a beautiful place, full of fruit and vegetables," he said.
Sakhi has three hectares, or 15 jeribs, of his own in the district, but has been unable to grow anything on the land for years due to fighting in the vicinity. He is now working at an agricultural nursery, earning US $40 per month on which to feed his family and work his land.
The nursery belongs to the agriculture ministry, and serves as a research station for the production of good fruit and vegetable seeds, including potatoes, tomatoes and Afghanistan's famous grape vines. Produce from the nursery is given to the poor. The irrigation system for this land is being rehabilitated through a nationwide programme operated by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
"The nursery was last seen in its glory some six years back, before the Taliban and other factions turned it into a battleground," Ahmed Shah, an FAO engineer, told IRIN. The agency is helping to reconstruct 200 metres of the pipe system, rehabilitate a water pump and rebuild a reservoir at the cost of $14,000.
Afghans with expertise in this field are keen to see land in their country revert to its former glory. "I want to help my people and help this country get back on the right track," Mohammad Marouuf of the agriculture ministry, told IRIN.
Funded by the governments of Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, the aim is to rehabilitate community based irrigation and strengthen national institutions, particularly the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment.
"Afghanistan's agricultural sector has suffered badly over the years and particularly over the past three years due to a devastating drought, which wiped out hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops," a water resources and irrigation officer, Sayed Sharif Shobair, told IRIN in Kabul.
Some 85 engineers and technicians from the ministry and NGOs have been trained, with a further 24 staff in long-term training. "We have distributed more than 1,000 manuals in Dari and Pashtu with information on irrigation," he said, adding that emergency rehabilitation of traditional irrigation systems and the securing of water supplies would have to be carried out in order to resuscitate agriculture and the supply of potable water.
War conditions, coupled with the worst drought in 40 years, have devastated the country's food-production capacity and depleted its critical seed stocks, leaving the nation heavily dependent on food aid from international donors. Its prewar economy had been based primarily on agriculture and livestock production.
Despite its difficult terrain, adverse climatic conditions and limited arable land, Afghanistan used to be largely self-sufficient in food, and a significant exporter of agricultural produce. But now, the country has one of the lowest levels of per-capita food availability in the world.
Key agricultural regions in the country are nurtured by irrigation from eight significant river systems. The Amu Darya river basin, located on the northern border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, supplies water for irrigation to the provinces of Konduz and Takhar in the northeast, Balkh and Jowzjan in the north, and Herat via the Hari Rud river in the west of the country.
The Helmand and Arghandab rivers form the major irrigation sources in the semi-desert plains of southern Afghanistan in Kandahar, and Helmand provinces. The River Kabul in eastern Afghanistan caters to some of the most densely settled and populated regions in the country.
Most of the rivers are perennial, but with uneven flows. Water in them rise gradually in the spring, reaching a peak in June-July, before receding to a minimum in December. For the past four years ground-water levels have fallen because of drought and the indiscriminate and unregulated drilling of tube-wells in parts of the country.
Many kilometres of karezes, or the ancient, traditional underground irrigation channels, have been destroyed by new drilling, drought, mining and conflict. The devastation of the country's irrigation system has led to severe interruptions in the agricultural cycles, thereby threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers.
The disruption of agriculture has also resulted in the loss of seed stocks nationwide. Farmers are in desperate need of good seed of appropriate varieties, and other technical assistance. "Two criteria are important for seed used in Afghanistan: an appropriate seed variety for various agroecological and market situations, and quality seeds to ensure good yields," Shobair said.
In February 2002, FAO presented a strategy for the early rehabilitation of the agricultural sector to the agriculture and animal husbandry minister. The strategy, implementation of which will cost $202 million, was subsequently endorsed by the ministry and is now being supplemented by an action plan.
The key elements to be addressed immediately are irrigation and agricultural infrastructure rehabilitation, development of small enterprises such as bee-keeping/silkworm production, the processing of agricultural produce and the strengthening of rural livelihoods/food security, as well as training.
With no reliable statistics to hand, FAO is currently carrying out a survey to determine how badly damaged irrigation systems are in Afghanistan. Estimates suggest that at least 40 percent of the systems are damaged. "We need some basic information so we can establish the scale of the problem of rehabilitation in water management and water supply schemes, which are needed to help the recovery of agriculture and livestock production as well as the delivery of safe water for domestic purposes," Shobair said.
Shobair stressed that rehabilitation was also essential for returning farmers. "Farmers need to go back to their land in rural areas, and they will only return if they know there is some hope in terms of being able to produce good crops."
With the next harvest due in June/July, agriculturalists are optimistic. There are some good signs of recovery this year. According to FAO, recent rainfall countrywide of roughly 160 mm was close to normal. However, the aftereffects of the severe drought could hamper efforts to produce a healthy yield.
"The recent rains are a good indicator, but they could also cause flooding in April or May, particularly in the southern desert areas where the land is very dry," Shobair said.
Meanwhile, farmer Sakhi says he can only dream of the day when his land will once again flourish with fruit trees and vegetables. "All we can do is pray for more rain and hope that someone up there is listening to us," he said.
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