Saving the Darwishan Canal


August 27, 2003

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    Mercy Corps workers act quickly to repair the Darwishan Canal. By repairing the canal, an estimated $2 million in crops were saved. Photo: Rod Volway/Mercy Corps Photo:

Engineer Amir Mohammad has worked on many projects during his four years with Mercy Corps, yet there is no question about the most important one: the rehabilitation of the Darwishan Canal.

At more than 70 meters, the Darwishan Canal feeds five sub-canals. "Ninety-five percent of the people in Hazarajuft District irrigate their land from it," he states. "They grow wheat, watermelon and cotton. Some even have vineyards full of grapes."

The Afghan Government built the canal between 1955 and 1957. A 50-kilometer ditch was dug as were 88 kilometers of sub-canals and drainage ditches. A concrete intake was installed to control water flow.

The canal transformed the landscape. Once arid land soon supported 22,736 hectares of orchards and crops.

Nearly fifty years later, however, the structure was in an advanced state of decay. Prolonged war and drought prevented maintenance. It filled with mud and silt. People had to look for new ways to support their families.

In January 2002, Mercy Corps initiated the Stabilizing Drought Displaced and Recent Returnee Communities in Helmand Province, Afghanistan program with funding from the US State Department's Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration. As part of the program, Mercy Corps would rehabilitate canals utilizing a cash-for-work methodology, which delivers short-term, immediate benefits to economically challenged communities by paying vulnerable individuals for labor-intensive work.

The Darwishan Canal was an obvious choice for Mercy Corps' program. Poor families would be able to earn an otherwise nonexistent income. Landowners would benefit from improved irrigation systems, thereby enabling them to hire more workers.

In September 2002, a Mercy Corps team was sent to assess the condition of the canal and discovered that the bank separating it from the Helmand River was in danger of being washed away. At many points, the bank was only two meters wide. Once the canal's protective wall was gone, the Helmand River would take over the canal and destroy it. Mercy Corps had to act quickly.

Mercy Corps dispatched Engineer Amir Mohammad to develop a plan to save the canal. He finalized designs for the construction of a massive gabian wall - a structure built by weaving strong, galvanized wire into cages, which are placed in the water and filled with stones. As river water washes against it, silt and sand gets lodged in the spaces between the stones forming a non-porous structure.

In mid-November construction began on a five-level gabian wall built in steps up the bank of the river. On average, 195 unskilled laborers worked each day throughout Afghanistan's harsh winter and summer for over eight months to complete it. Had they not been able to participate in the project, most would have had no other way to support their families. Instead, they each earned the local equivalent of $1.50 per day.

Twenty skilled laborers completed the stone masonry, weaved the gabians and operated the heavy equipment for the project. The gabion baskets were filled with 4,600 cubic meters of stones. Mercy Corps also cleaned 95 kilometers of sub-canals and installed cement culverts and wash spillways.

Mercy Corps completed its work on the canal in summer 2003. Pleased with the results, Engineer Amir Mohammad comments, "If Mercy Corps and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration had not intervened to reinforce the riverbank with this gabian wall, the Helmand River would have destroyed the land between it and the Darwishan Canal before this next winter." The local Department of Agriculture estimates that up to $2 million worth of crops were saved thanks to irrigation made possible by the Darwishan Canal.