By Shafiullah Noorzada in Mazar-e Sharif (ARR No. 117, 29-Apr-04)
The chronic flooding of the Amu Darya River, which separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, has in recent months displaced hundreds of families and washed away some of the most fertile land in this northern region.
Thousands of sandbags are being used in an attempt to keep the waterway within its banks. The surging waters have so far claimed numerous houses and farmland in the Shortepa district.
Officials in Shortepa, which lies 125 kilometres northeast of Mazar-e-Sharif, blamed deforestation and stepped-up patrols by Uzbek police boats for the weakening of the sandy bank on the Afghan side of the river, allowing the river to overflow and costing Afghanistan acres of precious land.
"I think if serious action is not taken to stop these overflows, Shortepa district will disappear in the coming years," said Shortepa Governor Abdul Satar.
When the flooding was at its worst this winter, some 500 families in eight villages were forced to flee their homes. Many went to Mazar or stayed with friends and relatives elsewhere in the district, said Khal Morad, a Loya Jirga delegate from the border district.
"We have become internally displaced people within our own district," said Mohammad Sadiq, who lost his house. "Our homes and lands were badly destroyed."
In February, the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mazar donated 8,500 US dollars for 50,000 sandbags and 4,000 litres of fuel to build a dam to stop the overflow.
"We realize that those people need help. They are in trouble," said Major Lance Ball, a US liaison officer to the British team. He added that stopping the flooding and soil erosion in Shortepa is "a long-term project".
Villagers are now using tractors and their bare hands to build a dam at a fork in the river in hopes of diverting the water away from the flooded areas, Morad said.
So far they have filled about 28,000 bags with sand and sticky red clay and built a dam about 60 metres long - a third of the river's width - and two metres above the surface of the water. Bushes and tree limbs are being used to fortify the sandbags.
Shafaq, a local non-governmental organization, brought the bags and fuel to Shortepa. The United Nations World Food Program will provide food for 50 families who are helping to build the dam, said Engineer Abdul Baasit, head of the rural rehabilitation and development ministry in Mazar, which is overseeing the work.
Although Baasit said the dam appears to be holding for now, officials emphasised that it is only a stopgap measure.
Flooding has been a fact of life for so long in Shortepa that it has woven its way into local legend.
People say that the hill from which the district takes its name -Shortepa means salt hill in Dari - was covered with water decades ago and now sits in the middle of the river. Another smaller hill was nearly cut off from the mainland in the recent flooding.
The district is 120 kilometres long and in some places as little as 1 kilometre wide. Its entire length runs alongside the Amu Darya, and some of its most fertile agricultural land is at the river's edge.
Ninety percent of the land destroyed in the most recent flooding was farmland, Morad said. He estimated that as many as 200 hectares of agricultural land were covered with water.
"In some areas the riverbank has moved two kilometres, in some areas seven kilometres," he said.
Morad said the problem had become worse in recent years because people in the district have been cutting down trees, weakening the riverbank. On the Uzbek side, no one is allowed to remove trees and there are concrete walls along the riverbank to stop erosion, he said.
But Satar blamed the recent flooding on the increasing number of Uzbek security boats on the river. While the riverbank has been collapsing for decades, Satar said the pace has sped up over the last two years as the number of patrols hunting down refugees and drug runners increased.
Col. Juma Gildi, the commander of Afghanistan's 7th Boundary Police Force, visited Uzbekistan last month with delegates from Shortepa and Kaldar, another Afghan border district, to discuss the flooding. Gildi said that the Uzbek riverbank has also been damaged but because the Afghan bank is more sandy, the damage on its side has been more severe.
"The Uzbek authorities are aware of the problem, and they felt sorry," Gildi said. He said Uzbek officials promised to reduce the number of patrols on the river.
Morad agreed that the Uzbek patrols were contributing to the flooding problem but doubted that they were the primary cause. After all, he noted, much larger ships, with much more powerful wakes, had plied the river for years.
"We cannot blame ships entirely," Morad said. "A decade ago, there were large ships [carrying 5,000 tonnes of cargo on the river.] That's not happening at all anymore."
Shafiullah Noorzada is an independent journalist in Mazar-e-Sharif.