In 2011, experienced civil engineer Sieger Burger left his position at one of the Netherland’s largest construction companies to join the Medair team and work in Afghanistan’s remote communities.
Sieger soon began managing an innovative flood-response project in Bamyan province—one that has been highly successful and rewarding for thousands of vulnerable people.
Tell me about your work with flood-affected communities in Bamyan province.
In 2010, massive floods destroyed the harvest and washed away a lot of agricultural land, radically changing the landscape. Losing their land and harvest caused many people to lose their hope for life.
What are the biggest problems they face?
Because of 30 years of war in Afghanistan, the knowledge that people had in the past about how to care for the land and look after the environment was not transferred to this generation. Understandably, people were more concerned with their immediate survival than their long-term future. Because of this, the land became overgrazed, most of the trees and grass are now gone, and people are dealing with the consequences of this mismanagement of the land.
Medair gave more than 6,000 people the opportunity to receive cash in exchange for working to restore their land. Why was it important to provide cash to these communities?
People needed the money to replace the harvest that was lost. If we just gave them food then we would limit their options, and we would create a problem for the local market owners who are trying to sell food. By giving people money, they were able to decide for themselves what they wanted to do with it. Usually they bought food, fuel for their fires, or repaid debts.
Tell me about the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) ideas you have introduced to these communities.
DRR training is exactly what these people need to know. I teach about what causes flash floods, and what people can do to minimise the impact of floods. I present them with solutions, which are often very simple. We give them tools and show them what work they can do by themselves, so that they are helping themselves instead of waiting for another NGO to come and help them. That is exactly what Medair’s values of hope and dignity represent.
The DRR training is a total revolution in the mindset of the people. I teach them to do things far upstream in the mountains where no one lives. They don’t automatically understand the importance of this because it’s far away from their homes and village. In the past, they had tried to protect their homes and land by building structures farther downstream but, by the time the flood reached their homes, it had built up too much power for the structures to be of any use. The floodwaters just washed everything away.
To stop the floods from becoming too powerful, you have to start your work where the floods are starting. People in the area don’t have this knowledge, at least not anymore. That is why training is so important. We explain to them the theory and then help them put that into practice. Once people understand how this can help them, they become motivated to make these changes happen.
At one of our training sessions, an 80-year-old beneficiary told a group of participants: “The things that are taught here are what we were doing 40 years ago, before the war started. Listen to him because they are teaching the right things.”
You have been particularly impressed with Kadalac village. What was so impressive about this place?
Kadalac was severely hit by the floods. The floodwaters carried in gravel and sand that covered the fields. They were very fortunate that no one was killed. The people were really shaken. They decided they never wanted to be in this situation again.
When we first visited Kadalac, there was already an urgency within the community to protect their village. I helped them focus this urgency on specific things they could do to protect themselves. They responded by working with motivation and energy to build the structures they needed. In fact, they have gone beyond the goal of this project and have done much more to look after their village.
With just 17 men working over 50 days, they built more than 25 large gabion walls that are approximately two metres wide, four metres high, and one metre thick. These structures will reduce the speed of the water and prevent flash floods from starting.
One beneficiary told me, “Because of these structures, I will start clearing my land, because I hope now that the land will not be covered again.”
During a walk around Kadalac with people from neighbouring communities, a leader from a different village was so overwhelmed by what the people of Kadalac had achieved that he called it “a superhuman effort.”
Since then, I have used the example of Kadalac to encourage other communities to do the same. The people of Kadalac are now much better off with the structures they have built, and they have knowledge now that they did not have before. We have absolutely reduced the risk of a future disaster in their village, and given people new hope.
Read the full story about Medair’s innovative food-aid and DRR project in Afghanistan