Hajji Qetbiddin has lived in Shashtepa all his life. At 55 years of age, he the eldest of Shashtepa's village ‘shura' (council of eldest) who lead the community. Every year, Hajji Qetbiddin and Shashtepa built a mud dam to regulate the stream running by their village and increase water levels in the irrigation channels leading to their fields. Being made of mud, the dam never held more than a few days before the stream returned to its previous course. Every year, Hajji Qetbiddin made regular trips to Taloqan to visit government officials and NGOs to solicit support for his community but he never received the help he was looking for. Shashtepa struggled on and tried to make the best of its situation.
Shashtepa is a small village of 200 families in the northern Takhar province of Afghanistan, about 1.5 hours drive away from the city of Taloqan, the capital of the province. Traditionally all families in Shashtepa are farmers who grow rice, wheat and vegetables and raise livestock. Most of the production is used for subsistence, and some of their harvest is transported to Taloqan for sale. The community has about 2,000 jeribs of land (400 ha or about 1,000 are) of which half is watered over irrigation channels from a nearby stream, while the other half depends on rain for its water.
In the past decade, Afghanistan has been struck by a prolonged drought, and the land of Shashtepa never had sufficient water to support more than one harvest of wheat and vegetables per year. Rains would fail and after spring the water in the stream would sink too low to reach all irrigations channels in the fields. Most villagers had to take on seasonal work in Iran and Pakistan to sustain their families.
Mercy Corps' Afghanistan Rural Recovery Program (AARP) is helping rural communities improve their food and livelihood security. Shashtepa was chosen as one of the 55 communities to take part in this program in northern Afghanistan. Mercy Corps supported Shashtepa to analyze what the most urgent needs of the community were. To make sure that the community would identify projects that were relevant to all community members, a democratically elected village council of men and women was created in Shashtepa in addition to the existing shura. The new village council identified the construction of a dam to regulate the water levels of their stream and an access road to the village as the two most important projects for Shashtepa.
The people of Shashtepa contributed to the projects as they could: they provided all the gravel (230 cubic meters) needed for the dam construction, the villagers undertook the excavation of the foundations themselves and also took care of backfilling (filling up holes created during construction) after the dam was completed. Mercy Corps hired the villagers in a cash-for-work scheme for some of the basic construction work that was needed, thereby also providing the community with a source of income and an injection of cash.
The construction of the dam created a small lake and raised water levels sufficiently for the farmers of Shashtepa to continuously irrigate their land. The increased irrigation now allows them to double their production and grow two crops rather than only one per year; one of rice and one of wheat and vegetables. The completion of the dam in April 2005 coincided with the beginning of the rice planting season. For the first time in a many years water levels were again high enough for the villagers to plant rice. Hajji Qetbiddin is delighted that he doesn't have to buy rice at the market anymore, but can now grow his own.
Access to the community had always been difficult, as there had only been small pathways with roughly constructed bridges to the village. Small pickup trucks could only get through to Shashtepa in the summer when the weather was good and the stream was running low. The community had identified the construction of a 4 km long road with a bridge and several culverts as their second most important project. The village donated 5 jeribs of their agricultural land for the construction of the access road, as the existing path was not wide enough for a road. Good agricultural land is precious in Afghanistan and the willingness of the community to donate this land is an indication of how important they considered this project to be. In addition, they agreed to undertake some of the leveling needed for the road themselves for free. Mercy Corps engaged the villagers of Shashtepa in a cash-for-work scheme where they were paid for building the gravel road under the supervision of Mercy Corps' technical team.
The road has had a significant impact on the community's life and income. Before the road existed, transporting 1 seeb (about 7kg) of the villager's harvest to Taloqan cost them 3 Afghani (about 6 USD cents); now the transportation costs have sunken to 1 Afghani per seeb. In the case of Hajji Qetbiddin who owns 100 jeribs of land (1 jerib produces 80 seebs of rice) he can now save up to 160 USD in transportation costs per harvest. In a country where the average yearly income is 300 USD, this is a fortune.
The new road has also made it much easier and safer for the children of the village to walk or ride their bicycle to school. In the past the timber bridge that crossed the stream was regularly swept away in spring floods making it very difficult for children to cross the stream and get to school.
Hajji Qetbiddin will never let Mercy Corps team members leave Shashtepa without inviting them to at least a cup of local tea or ‘chai' at his home. He believes Mercy Corps has made a substantial difference in his village's situation: "Our life is agriculture. Mercy Corps has saved our life."