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Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture


The Ministry of Water and Energy (MWE) is responsible for mapping, monitoring and management of surface water and groundwater resources. Following the United States invasion of Afghanistan the Ministry had the task of coordinating an effort to reintroduce power to areas of Afghanistan that had been cut off.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) has the mission to restore Afghanistan’s licit agricultural economy through increasing production and productivity, natural resources management, improved physical infrastructure and market development (MAIL, 2011).

Urban water supply is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Works. Water supply and sewerage disposal in the Microrayon area of Kabul is the duty of the Microrayon Maintenance Department.

The mandate of the Central Authority for Water and Sanitation is urban water supply within the areal limits of the Master Plan of the city.

The Ministry of Mines is responsible for groundwater investigation and survey, especially for ‘deep’ hydrogeological mapping of strategic plans for optimal exploitation of resources.

The municipalities are responsible for surface water drainage and solid waste disposal.

The Ministry of Rural Development is active in designing deep wells and networks for parts of Kabul City outside the Master Plan, where shallow groundwater is salty.

Water management and finances

As described in Rout (2008), overall system management is led by a senior representative called wakil (Herat) or mirab bashi (Kunduz and Balkh). This person is usually a well-respected community member and landowner with experience and knowledge of the system as well as influence with the local government. In addition to system management, the representative also has the broader responsibility of liaising with adjacent irrigation communities, particularly over customary rights on the location and operation of the sarband. In some locations, a main canal committee supports the wakil or mirab bashi, while in others by a mirab or chak bashi. In both cases, the supporting role represents the different upper, middle and lower sections of a system. In larger systems, a badwan is responsible for operation and maintenance of the sarband because of its importance and high maintenance requirements.

Through a mirab (water master) (Herat) or chak bashi (Kunduz and Balkh) or a village committee, the recipient community is usually responsible for the management of operation and maintenance of all canals and structures downstream of the secondary canals to farm turnouts. The mirab or chak mirab is typically a well-respected landless sharecropper with a working knowledge of system operation and maintenance. This official, may have one or two assistants, and is usually elected by water rights holders (landowners), or their sharecropping representatives, and serves as a link between the government water authority personnel and farmers. Mirabs generally receive some compensation in the form of farm products, such as wheat, for performance of their duties (ICARDA, 2002). Payment for the services of system representatives is traditionally set as a unit weight of crop (e.g. wheat). The amount of payment received depends on the level of the official.

Surface water systems are largely managed as autonomous units. While there are variations in structure, they essentially follow similar principles regarding election of representatives, payment for services, and contributions to maintenance and capital works. These organizations follow many of the concepts behind water user associations: stakeholder participation, community-based representation, financial independence and hydraulic integrity. Government involvement is generally minimal and largely confined to provision of emergency rehabilitation, dispute resolution and, in some instances, holding the register of water rights.

System maintenance generally takes place in early spring to coincide with low or no-flow, when labour is readily available.

Three decades of conflict have adversely affected the performance of irrigation systems and the ability of communities to sustain them. Since 2001, several initiatives have been launched to develop the irrigation sector and to better manage water resources. MWE, the lead government institution for revitalizing the irrigation system sector, receives support from international and bilateral donors. The major programmes are:

  • Emergency irrigation and rehabilitation project (EIRP), financed by the World Bank, in all the basins (budget: US$75 million);
  • Emergency infrastructure, rehabilitation and reconstruction project, financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR), in the northern river basin (budget: US$15 million);
  • Balkh basin integrated water resources management project, financed by the JFPR (budget: US$10 million);
  • Kunduz river basin project, financed by the European Commission (EC) (budget: US$15 million);
  • Western Basins Project, financed by the ADB, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Abu Dhabi Fund (budget: US$ 90 million), in the Hari Rod-Murghab basin;
  • Amu Darya river basin management programme, financed by the EC (budget: US$5 million).

Numerous other agencies have contributed to rehabilitating irrigation systems, among them: the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development; the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees; German Agro-Action, Urgence Réhabilitation Developpement, World Vision and USAID (Rout, 2008).

Since 1990, FAO has actively been involved in irrigation rehabilitation and development activities (FAO, 2008). The nationwide Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project (EIRP) financed by the World Bank, started in June 2004, implemented by the MWE with support from FAO. With this project farmers and their families will benefit from improved, reliable and equitably distributed irrigation water, which leads to increased agricultural productivity, better income, improved food security and reduces the farmers’ vulnerability to drought. As of May 2008, 495 299 ha of agricultural land had been rehabilitated, of which about 80 000 ha was brought back under irrigation.

Project monitoring and evaluation recorded that satisfactory changes have been achieved by the project, for instance the average yield in irrigated areas has increased by 24 percent. Significantly increased wheat yield has improved rural household income, farm employment and poverty alleviation. The provision of irrigation water has contributed to increased production of high-value crops including barley, maize, rice, vegetables, cotton, orchards and horticulture, which could potentially earn foreign exchange (FAO-Water, 2011).

Maloma canal, in the Karokh district of Herat province, is one scheme that has been recently rehabilitated under the EIRP, with a capacity of 2 m3/s. Dawandar Wash feeds this canal. During the period of conflict this irrigation scheme suffered from the direct and indirect impacts of the war such as bombing, lack of proper maintenance because of farmers’ displacement or migration, erosion, river regime change, etc. This canal is the only source of water for irrigation as well as drinking for four main villages with 1 330 households. Since 1990, FAO has rehabilitated more than 1 200 similar schemes. More than 700 schemes at an approximate cost of US$460 million were ready for implementation on availability of funding (FAO, 2008).

In the north of Afghanistan, at Kokcha river in Kunduz and Takhar provinces, EIRP is completing a feasibility study for a Lower Kokcha Irrigation and Hydropower Project. Once completed, this project will supply water to a further 132 000 ha of agricultural land (FAO-Water, 2011).

In light of the success of EIRP, the World Bank has agreed to allocate a further US$28 million with additional scope of work for the next two years in addition to the US$75 million originally allocated. During the period, preparations for a follow-up phase will be launched to target up-scaled irrigation rehabilitation, restoring incomplete bulk water supply systems (such as dams and reservoirs), installation and operation of hydro-meteorological networks; preparation of river basins water master plans in addition to capacity development and institutional strengthening. The World Bank also plans to allocate US$200 million for a four-year follow-up phase based on multi-donor funding basis and inter-ministerial coordination (FAO-Water, 2011).

Between 2004 and 2011, FAO-assisted irrigation projects helped Afghanistan increase its crop productivity and coverage of irrigated land. Some 778 000 ha of land have been rehabilitated, of which 158 000 is newly irrigated. As a result, wheat productivity in project areas has increased by more than 50 percent (FAO, 2012).

USAID has rehabilitated three major rural irrigation systems – Char Dara, Bala Doori and Darqad – and returned more than 300 000 ha of cultivated land to full irrigated production. This included de-silting and widening irrigation canals, repairing and replacing water intakes, canal banks, protection walls, turnouts and sluice gates. In general, the completed projects are providing a reliable source of water for irrigation and could potentially double the regions’ crop yields. The irrigation projects were all completed in 2004. Hundreds of local farmers were employed on the project sites (USAID, 2009).

USAID has allocated US$1.5 million to introduce hydroflumes, a simple water-saving system. The system is designed to increase domestic crop production through the efficient distribution of water. Officials at MAIL said the technology could improve productivity, but how rural farming communities access and use it will be a challenge, since most farmers are illiterate and uneasy about using new technology (IRIN, 2009).

With the support of the United States agribusiness development teams, canals across provinces in eastern Afghanistan are being restored to protect the nation’s valuable water resources. Major irrigation rehabilitation projects in Nangarhar have focused on strengthening the capacity of the provincial level agriculture ministry’s ability to develop, execute, monitor and assess water management projects. The Nangarhar Provincial Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock has recently rehabilitated 24 major rural irrigation systems and returned more than 240 ha of cultivated land to full production (US Central Command, 2011).

It is important to note that a great deal of information, resources and institutional capacity for accurate monitoring and reporting on natural resources were lost during the years of conflict. While significant efforts are underway to fill the information void, many inaccuracies and gaps remain (Rout, 2008).

Policies and legislation

The Afghanistan Government instituted the 1981 Water Law to improve the situation of water rights. The Water Law, however, needs updating and revision before it is ready to be enforced. The Water Law has seven chapters, including issues such as ownership of water, which belongs to the public and is preserved by the government. Drinking water and water for other living requirements has been given priority over other uses. Use of water is free of charge. The Law deals with special regulation of the use of water for agriculture (water rights, water distribution, water user associations, mirab, and tax breaks for converting dry cropping land to irrigated land); drinking water and water for transportation; water pollution, water distribution, etc. Chapter two mainly deals with assigning authority and responsibility to MWE (ICARDA, 2002).


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