The September 11th attacks although devastating provided a window of opportunity for humanitarian assistance organizations to make a significant impact in Afghanistan. With the collapse of the Taliban government last year, humanitarian access and attention immediately increased. The challenges ahead are immense. But signs of hope for a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan are emerging.
Today, Afghans are heading home in record numbers. This unprecedented migration demonstrates the hope and optimism of the Afghan people, but also presents new challenges to the relief community and the Afghan government.
Many Afghans are returning to villages that have been destroyed during the 23 years of conflict and where livelihoods were devastated by the ongoing drought. Mercy Corps has made rural reconstruction and agriculture projects a major priority. With funding from the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), Mercy Corps is operating programs in southern and northern Afghanistan to rebuild the rural economy.
With assistance from the OFDA, massive distributions of wheat seed were made to farmers early in the spring to ensure crops could be harvested this year. These programs provided food and income to some of the most vulnerable families. To ensure a high-quality and dependable source of fruit trees for farmers in southern Afghanistan, 16 nurseries have been developed and are being operated by Mercy Corps.
Livestock herds, a major source of livelihood and food for many Afghans, were decimated by the drought. But with assistance from ECHO, PRM and the OFDA, Mercy Corps is operating 39 Veterinary Field Units to feed and vaccinate remaining herds and facilitate community-based livestock replenishment.
To begin to rebuild the rural infrastructure, Mercy Corps is working with the support of USAID, OFDA, PRM, the Taiwanese Government and ECHO on many large-scale programs in Afghanistan. Provision of water is crucial for returning families restoring their communities, and Mercy Corps has completed the construction or deepening of over 340 wells, and the restoration hundreds of springs, canals, karez and irrigation systems. Additional completed projects include the reconstruction of over 240 kilometers of roadway and 14 culverts, the reconstruction of eight schools, and numerous other initiatives.
Many of Mercy Corps' reconstruction initiatives are being carried out on a cash-for-work model in which local Afghans provide the majority of the labor. This approach not only results in major improvements in Afghanistan's infrastructure, but also infuses cash into local economies and provides much needed employment opportunities to impoverished families.
Today the situation for women in Afghanistan remains difficult. The majority of Afghan women are illiterate and traditional practices still prohibit many women from working outside the home. But despite these challenges, on the streets of Kabul some women are daring to enjoy their new rights.
At the Mercy Corps Women's Center reconstruction project in Kabul, women are working side-by-side with men, sharing tools and even jokes. In this GTZ funded program, women are learning new skills and working as carpenters, masons and general construction workers. When the Center is completed it will be used to train women in skills such as pastry making and pottery.
Hope is alive in Afghanistan, but much work remains to realize the dreams and potential of this battered nation.