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Cultivating Afghanistan: Irrigating Khost Province

Water can be hard to come by in eastern Afghanistan, making farming that much more difficult. As a result, the farmer-soldiers of the Indiana National Guard’s 119th Agribusiness Development Team have begun working to make irrigation more sustainable.

Khost Province is a bowl, a sere, semi-arid plain ringed by the rugged Hindu Kush Mountains. The Shamal River runs diagonally across the province, carrying water from the mountains. With only about 25 inches of rain a year, farmers in Khost are dependent on the river, which frequently runs dry.

“It’s like being on Mars,” said ADT hydrologist Col. Kevin Sari of the 30 years of war which have devastated Afghanistan’s traditional irrigation system and caused widespread erosion.

To combat the water shortage and soil erosion, Col. Sari says the ADT plans to build a series of check dams, designed to slow the flow of water through a given area.

“Where we’re going to focus our efforts is at the village level, near their fields, in the streams further up the mountainside,” Sari said. “We’ll do erosion control. We’ll slow the water down. By slowing the water down, that will make the water available to the farmer to draw from either to put into their fields of to put into their intake canals into their fields.”

The ADT’s first step is to consult with Afghan officials in KLEs, or Key Leader Engagements. Because of security, meetings with provincial authorities are sometimes held in a high, defensible 19th Century British fort, which the ADT security team rings with weapons at the ready.

Then there are important meetings in the mountain hinterlands, where the ADT engages the village elders in shuras, or meetings, held under small shade trees at the edge of the clusters of brown, mud-brick houses. The men gather in tight clots around their leaders, as young boys carouse on the perimeter. A few small adventurous girls watch from the verge.

Toting hydrology equipment in a re-purposed sniper bag, the farmer-soldiers then trudge into the watershed’s mountainous upper reaches to find the best spots for the villagers to construct the check dams.

As part of the mission, the ADT also plans to grow healthy ground cover on the near-barren ranges that stretch for miles across the province. Sgt. Richard Joyce said high-protein grass will be dropped by helicopter after the check dams are complete:

“We’ll follow up this winter with what I call forage kochia seed I am able to purchase from the United States, which is a strong, vigorous plant that will adapt to this region very well,” Joyce said. “It doesn’t need any irrigation, real minimum rainfall. It’ll stabilize the soil in areas where we’re not rocking. The good other benefit is it’s a forage for their livestock.”

More on the livestock next week, as the ADT’s animal husbandry mission in eastern Afghanistan gets underway.

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