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Rebuilding Opportunity

Afghanistan, July 11, 2002

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    Workers tie togther a gabian - a device used to prevent river water from flooding into a canal. The Cash-for-Work project is creating new jobs and helping communities rebuild in northern Afghanistan. Photo: Rod Volway/Mercy Corps Photo:

It was supposed to be 18 kilometers of life, flowing through rural villages and farms as steady as a summer breeze. It would be a welcome elixir that would keep families and livestock healthy, while allowing an impoverished region to claw its way to economic prosperity.

But like many things in the troubled nation of Afghanistan, this canal, designed to flow through the northern valleys, has not quite worked as planned.

Built decades ago, the canal has fallen into a state of disrepair after more than two decades of conflict and hardships. What was once seen as an answer is now a problem - putting families and animals at risk for disease.

"Half of the canal hasn't had water for 22 years," said Mercy Corps Agriculture and Reconstruction Manager Rod Volway. "In the parts where there is water, the water is really quite foul and unsanitary. Animals walk through it and people wash their clothes there. Yet, for many people it is their primary water source."

Volway, who is based out of Mercy Corps' northern Afghanistan office in Taloqan, is overseeing the renovation of the canal. At the moment, more than 120 people are working to repair its damaged infrastructure.

The project is part of a cash-for-work program funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Development Assistance (OFDA). The primary goal is to provide tangible income opportunities for as many unskilled laborers as possible. In a nation where unemployment levels are staggering, returning people to the workforce quickly is viewed by the government and development agencies as a crucial first step in the long road to recovery.

In addition to the canal reconstruction, Volway says that Mercy Corps is overseeing road construction and school renovation projects in the provinces of northern Afghanistan. It is an area that is especially in need of infrastructure repairs after serving as the frontline first during the Soviet war and later during the Taliban and Northern Alliance conflict.

"We are repairing one stretch of road that runs by a fairly wide river. People have no way of crossing it other than to use rafts when the water is not running too high. I watched people make the crossing with all their goods on the raft and cringed. When the road is done it is going to make a huge difference and will be widely used," Volway said.

Volway said that all of the cash-for-work projects involve the participation of communities and local governments so that they are not seen as a handout but rather as a partnership. One stipulation for the projects, for example, is that the local communities provide tools such as pick axes, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Mercy Corps has worked in northern Afghanistan since 1998 when it began providing emergency relief assistance to families displaced by a devastating earthquake. The agency is also currently providing agriculture and livestock assistance to farmers.