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Running Water Uphill

Afghanistan, January 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A view of the hydraulic ram pump that is helping irrigate Agha's pistachio trees. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Agha Mohammad inspects his pistachio saplings. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps

Following Agha Mohammad up the steep slope behind his family farm is not an easy task. While the lean 25-year-old glided up the well-worn path, his hands locked calmly behind his back, I had to stop at least twice to catch my breath.

This route is second nature to Agha. Nearly every day, he follows his flocks of grazing sheep and waters the array of pistachio trees that are scattered along the hillside.

"We had to fill up big plastic containers with water," he remembers, "and strap them onto the backs of my donkeys to irrigate these plants. We lost a lot of water along the way."

Keeping his pistachio trees freshly watered is much less of a chore these days, thanks in part to Mercy Corps. The destination of our steep climb was the eight-foot-square concrete reservoir near the top of the hill. Filled with 20,000 gallons of water, all Agha has to do now to water his plants is to turn a small tap at the base of the reservoir.

By the time I reach the top - about 400 feet up and a full five minutes after Agha - I find him crouching on the edge of the reservoir, idly picking leaves and bits of cotton out of the water while marveling at the very idea of storing water at such a high elevation.

"When they told me about this," he remembers, "I thought it was ridiculous. 'What do you mean you're going to take water from down the hill and bring it up here?'"

What Mercy Corps meant was to install a hydraulic ram pump. It uses the pressure produced by a fast flowing nearby stream to send water from the stream up the hill through a series of plastic pipes buried in the ground, feeding the reservoir.

Mercy Corps has installed three of these water systems in Taloqan as part of our Catchment Development Program, an effort designed to solve irrigation and water-management issues in five impoverished districts of northeastern Afghanistan. The pumps were donated to the farmers as long as they were willing to provide 50 percent of the labor needed to install them, such as laying the reservoir foundation and doing some stone masonry work.

This construction also included another 20-foot-long reservoir to help collect water from the stream and siphon it to the ram pump. Initially, though, Agha thought he was being set up for another venture. "When I saw the plans for this," Agha says, "I though it was going to be used for a fish farm. Even after it was done, and I saw what it was for, I thought eventually this is going to be for fish."

The reservoir at the bottom of the hill is also but helping generate energy for Agha's other home business: a small mill that sits in a room connected to his home. Agha charges his neighbors a small fee to use his mill. Villagers stop by throughout the day to grind up their wheat stores for flour as well as to extract a spicy cooking oil from seeds and other grains. It is a modest but welcome addition to the meager income he earns from the sale of sheep's milk and wool from his small flock.

Someday, Agha hopes to earn as much as 7,000 Afghanis for a good pistachio harvest, enough to buy better food for his family and higher-quality clothes for his young daughter and son. There's still a great deal of time before that happens, though: pistachio trees don't reach their full potential until seven or eight years after they are planted. Agha still has about three years to go before he will be able to get a full harvest of nuts.

As you can imagine, it took far less time for us to climb down the hill than it did to climb up. But as we reached the bottom, and I looked back up the hill, I realized that our trek was a perfect metaphor for Agha's future. He has a steep hill to climb. But with Mercy Corps' help, it'll be a little easier to reach the top.