120 minutes: A story of a water master and transformative irrigation in Afghanistan

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As the local mirab - “water master” and I walked along the high-elevation canal, high winds blew sand in our mouths and eyes. The elevation canal in Herat province is famous for its “120 days of wind.” Located in the far west of Afghanistan, Herat is home to the Hari Rud River basin, giving the province the potential to be an agricultural heartland. But the area I walked was not green and lush, rather, it looked like desert.
Herati farmers cultivate wheat, barley, and vegetables, but also face severe water shortages and irrigation issues. “Poor people cultivate wheat as a major crop to have at least something to eat,” said a local villager. “Most years, the flood flushes away our soil bags and we cannot divert water into the canal.”
The water shortages are not due to the lack of water, but rather the lack of efficient water management. As Regional Manager of the On-Farm Water Management Project (OFWMP) in Herat, I was there to visit sites for potential irrigation projects in three villages: Kushk-e-Baad Saba village in Injil district, and Deh Surkh and Deh Pada villages in Zenda Jan district. Through these projects, we could work with local villagers to transform this dusty desert into fruitful farmland.

 At the farmers’ request, we took on a project to rehabilitate the irrigation canal that served all three villages. The design of the improved canal addressed the problems we had discussed with the villagers.
As we walked along the canal that day in 2013, I realized that the large mounds of soil heaped alongside the banks had been removed to desilt the canal. A little further downstream, a poorly finished structure caught my attention. It was meant to divert water into three branches, each carrying water on to a village, but was badly damaged. All along the way, I saw other technical issues.
We clearly saw that the local villagers were unable to get enough water to farm their lands successfully, but we also saw that with effective irrigation, these problems could be fixed.
A year after the construction project, I visited the local farmers again and heard about the positive changes the canal had brought. “This year I cultivated two-thirds of my lands, whereas I cultivated only a third previously,” said Abdul Zahir, who is head of the local Irrigation Association and a farmer. “The water reaches my lands in just 120 minutes. Before construction, it took 11 hours.”
At OFWMP, we work through community trust, in which local villagers invest in the projects—in the construction of the Deh Surkh, Deh Pada, and Kushk-e-Baad Saba canal, villagers contributed 10 percent of the project cost in-kind by providing labor. Rehabilitated canals are benefiting almost 4,000 households across the target villages, and these projects have led to more than 100 community requests for canal rehabilitation coming to OFWMP.

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