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UNCE to help National Guard help Afghan farmers

Posted 6/18/2010

Logar Province southeast of Kabul

A group of 60 Nevada Air and Army National Guard members headed to Afghanistan to work with farmers will get some technical advice from the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension during their nine-month mission.

The National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team is headed to the Logar Province southeast of Kabul in July to help rejuvenate the area’s crippled farming industry. Farming families in the relatively fertile valleys of the Logar River have been disrupted by 30 years of war, and the Afghan government is eager to see the decimated agriculture industry there revitalized.

"Our job is to help these farmers get back into production and in doing that help legitimize the Afghan government," said Staff Sgt. Eric Ritter, a public affairs officer with the Nevada Guard who will be part of the mission. "After 30 years of war, many of these people need to regain the ability to grow the foods they were world famous for, like almonds and pomegranates."

Robert Morris

Robert Morris

Although the team includes 11 experts on different aspects of agriculture, including irrigation, pest management, animal husbandry, forestry and veterinary science, they will be consulting with various university specialists back home in Nevada. Those experts include Sue Donaldson, a weed and water quality expert with Cooperative Extension in Washoe County; Bob Morris, a horticulturist and irrigation expert with Cooperative Extension in Las Vegas; and Wally Miller, a soils expert from UNR’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science.

The Logar Province, where the U.S. military established a Forward Operations Base two years ago, has a climate very similar to Nevada, so the irrigation challenges and climatic influences on agriculture will be familiar to the UNCE experts.

"The similarities between the two areas will help us apply what we’ve learned about irrigation and growing things here in Nevada to the farms there in Afghanistan," Donaldson said. "So when the team there runs into any questions or problems, they can contact us and we’ll help them work through any obstacles they encounter."

Sue Donaldson

Sue Donaldson

A real challenge for the agribusiness team will be to help farmers utilize the equipment and techniques available to them. Farms there don’t have sophisticated equipment and technology, Ritter said, so the Nevada experts will be helping them grow things with methods they’ve used for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Morris has first-hand experience with that. He has traveled several times to Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, as a volunteer for a nonprofit organization that helps developing countries around the world. He’s helped farmers there with drip irrigation of fruit and vine crops, and helped organize farmer cooperatives and water user associations.

"I enjoy being thrown a curve ball and having to figure out the best way to approach a particular problem," said Morris, who traveled to Tajikistan under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Program. "It’s a mind challenge."

Logar, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, is a relatively flat river valley surrounded by rugged mountains and laced with underground irrigation and canal works known as karez. Donaldson say the karez system in the valley has been heavily damaged over the years and needs to be cleaned out to restore the flow of groundwater to local fields.

Ritter stressed that the National Guard will only be advising Afghan farmers. Afghan officials will initiate contact with farmers, and all the work will be done by Afghanistan people. Because of war and poor water management, the average amount of agricultural acreage per family in Afghanistan has been declining, and families often struggle to feed themselves.

The Pentagon sees efforts like this by Cooperative Extension and the Nevada Air and Army National Guard as essential to stabilizing the Afghanistan economy and returning the country to self sufficiency.

"In 2007 we realized you can’t win a war through guns alone; now it’s time to turn toward the heart and minds of the people," Ritter said. "As Gen. Stanley McChrystal said, ’We can’t fight our way out of Afghanistan, we have to farm our way out.’"


Karez systems are vital to Afghanistan’s agriculture

Diagram showing the layout of a typical karez. The dotted line shows where the groundwater area is tapped by the long, sloping horizontal tunnel. The vertical shafts are access points for cleaning out the tunnel.

Diagram showing the layout of a typical karez. The dotted line shows where the groundwater area is
tapped by the long, sloping horizontal tunnel. The vertical shafts are access points for cleaning out the tunnel.

While Nevada farmers use wells and pumps or siphon off surface water from rivers to irrigate their crops, farmers in many parts of Afghanistan utilize a series of underground tunnels to bring groundwater to their crops, vineyards and orchards.

The tunnel system is known as a karez. According to Dr. Guy Fipps of Texas A&M University’s Irrigation Technology Center, karezes have been used in the Middle East for drinking and irrigation water for thousands of years.

Karezes are designed with a gently sloping, elliptical-shaped tunnel that runs horizontally into an alluvial fan at the base of a mountain, tapping into the groundwater deep beneath the surface. The tunnels are often lined with rock, although some are just bare earth.

Farmers access the tunnel through a series of perpendicular shafts that run from the surface down to the main tunnel. The deepest shaft is at the head of the tunnel where it taps into the groundwater source and is known as the "mother well." When a shaft or tunnel collapses, blocking the flow of water, farmers crawl down into the shafts and clear out the debris and restore the flow of water.

Over the many years of drought and war in Afghanistan, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and continuing through the U.S. invasion in 2001, many of the Afghan karezes have been damaged or blocked, and farmers have often been unable to get the water flowing again.

In one case, the U.S. built a military base over the top of two karezes in Gardez, the capital of the Paktia province adjacent to the Logar Province, and local farmers had difficulty getting permission to clean out the karezes because of the U.S. military’s security concerns. Villagers turned down the offer of wells and diesel pumps because they didn’t have the income to pay for fuel and maintenance, Fipps said.

A karez in Gardez, Afghanistan begins flowing again.

A karez in Gardez, Afghanistan begins flowing again.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Guy Fipps, Texas A&M University)

Fipps, a senior water advisor for the Afghanistan Reconstruction Group of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, examined the situation and recommended the military install pipelines and manhole covers to secure access to the karez shafts.

Restoring the karezes can have a big influence on Afghani confidence in their new government. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, villagers near Ghazni turned to their provincial government for help cleaning out its neglected karezes and got additional assistance from USAID. After water started flowing again to the region’s vineyards and orchards, local villagers for the first time registered to vote in upcoming national elections.

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