Afghanistan: where water means food

Rebuilding centuries-old water systems for better food production and lives

A view of Hari river. @AFP Image Forum Jane Sweeney/Robert Harding Heritage/ robertharding


Agriculture makes up over a third of Afghanistan’s economy and employs about three quarters of its population.

Up to 85 percent of the country’s food comes from irrigated farming.

Farmers have been relying for centuries on Hari Rud (“Rud” means “river” in Persian) to irrigate their land. 

The river flows for over 1,000 kilometres, cutting through the red rock mountains of central and western Afghanistan, and continuing in Turkmenistan.

But rivers’ basins and watersheds have suffered greatly from uncontrolled water exploitation, overgrazing, deforestation and a gradual degradation of the environment.

Decades of civil unrest have also made it impossible to properly maintain and repair the country’s water systems.

Reviving the Shaflan - one of Hari Rud’s main and oldest canals

To address this, FAO, the Government and its partners have been working to restore and upgrade 17 water irrigation canals, covering 10,000 hectares of land in western Afghanistan’s Pashtun Zarqhun district.

An aqueduct conducting a water stream across a hollow valley. A water divider with bank protection. @FAO/Wahidullah Iodin

One of the canals is Shaflan – one of Hari Rud’s main and oldest canals. More than 60,000 people from 26 villages depend on it to grow food.

As part of the rehabilitation of Shaflan Canal, the project ensured the construction of one intake structure, 23 water dividers, seven water outlets, two aqueducts, three protection wall and 13 drop structures.

This enabled farmers to expand their fields from 3,600 to 4,200 hectares, growing more wheat, barley, and spices like saffron. Women were also able to set up kitchen gardens to grow vegetables. Both developments lead to greater food security and social cohesion.

 Twice as much water and less costs

Afghan farmers from Herat province working in their wheat field irrigated thanks to the project. ©FAO/Shah Marai

Afghanistan relies on a traditional system for managing water irrigation systems called the “Mirab”, made up of farmers and village elders.

More than 500 farmers were trained in maintaining and operating the 17 canals, and taking measures to avoid future damages. Habibulah was one of them.

“Before we had to hire labourers, buy wooden stacks and plastic bags to repair the eroded parts of the canal and divert the river flow into the main canal. It was costly. Each year, we were paying more than Afghan Afghani 500,000 or the equivalent of $7,000 (farmers earn on average $1,440 per year). We couldn’t manage water losses, and there were always disputes about this between villages as we were constantly short of water,” says Habibulah.

“Now the permanent intake structure allows a controlled and regulated water flow in the main canal to fully irrigate the land all year round,” he adds.  

Put it simply, farmers now have twice as much water and less costs. More water means more food to eat and sell for an additional income, and ultimately, better lives.

This project was made possible thanks to support from the Islamic Development Bank.

Overall, FAO’s water projects rehabilitated about 800,000 hectares of irrigation schemes benefitting more than 800,000 farming families.

Find out more about FAO’s work in Afghanistan and about water at FAO. 

Video: Taming the waters of Afghanistan. Another water system rehabilitation project made possible thanks to Japan and the World Bank.

1. No poverty, 6. Clean water and sanitation