Greening Afghanistan


July 20, 2010

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I’m just going to say it — people think of Afghanistan as a pile of rocks. I see where the mental image comes from; photos on the news do seem to showcase the sand and rocks in their effort to capture the grittiness of soldiers at war. But I know an Afghanistan of a different color: green.

In northern Afghanistan — where I work on a project promoting improved livelihoods through agriculture, infrastructure and livestock — there is the rich green carpet of potato plants in Takhar, the red-tinged green leaves of saplings in our timber plots in Badakhshan and technicolor green seedlings in the new rice paddies in Baghlan.

Our agriculture projects are not the only opportunities for supporting a greener Afghanistan. Now, we are using ‘greening’ techniques on our infrastructure projects as well. Northern Afghanistan is home to snowy mountains and rushing rivers, and as a result flood protection and erosion control are a major concern. The project builds retaining walls, wash culverts and canals to channel and control the water, but recently we have started looking far upstream to try to address the deforestation and soil erosion that make these floods so devastating.

The Yakatal "super passage" wash culvert in Taloqan, Takhar province, serves as a testing ground for this approach. This massive culvert is 120 meters (almost 400 feet) across and protects a local irrigation canal from being washed out by floods by channeling water up and over the covered canal. The culvert basically serves as a highway that contains the water as it runs downhill. This year, the new culvert contained the spring’s heavy flooding, but the sheer volume of water convinced Takhar Program Manager Kerry Sly of the need to work with the local shura (council) to control flooding at the source.

Yaka Zarang village resident Mohammad Ahmad explains the nature of the problem with relying on super passages alone: “Construction of super passages has its benefits, like quick protection of an area which is under threat of flood. After years, the passage will be destroyed by heavy floods anyway. All heavy floods are caused by consecutive rain fall in naked land which has nothing in its soil, and flood washes out everything from the surface of the land, like top soil and fertile land, and eventually farmers or people can not use that land for anything. Also, the river becomes full of mud and dirt which is washed away from the hills of upper areas.”

The Yakatal village elders remember a time when the hills above the village were covered with trees and shrubs and there was better land for grazing. They were eager to work with Mercy Corps to mitigate the current problems with soil erosion and deforestation to protect their downstream land. The shura agreed that the village would provide labor for starting nurseries, replanting trees and constructing a reservoir, as well as a promise to ensure that no more trees would be felled for fuel.

Mohammad Ahmad explains, “If we cover the area with forest and plants, we can easily reduce the floods' effects. Trees, plants and bushes absorb the water into soil, and roots keep the ground strong not to be swept away by fast rain. If we made terraces around the hills it is another way of reducing the flood flow, in the terraces we can plant pistachio, Russian willow and acacia, and these are all soil erosion controllers.”

With the help of the community, Mercy Corps targeted a 200 hectare (almost 500 acre) area that will be replanted with local varieties appropriate to the current dry conditions — and best suited for preventing erosion and improving soil moisture — such as pistachio, lilac, aspen, juniper, acacia, Russian willow, almond and walnut.

Trees thrive in Afghanistan, if given half a chance. By rebuilding a watershed, the community will restore the horticultural tradition and protect their agricultural land from future floods.