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Is Building an Irrigation Dam in Afghanistan Total Folly?

on Wed, 07/27/2011 - 00:04

Lloyd Baron, Ph.D.                                                                                                                                              

March 2011

In the 1970s, I was considered an Afghan expert. Relatively rare for the period, I was a western educated scholar who was conversant with the economy as well as the culture and society. I had lived in most Provinces of the country, was proficient in Kabuli Dari, the lingua franca of the country, and could pass as an Afghan when it was necessary for my research.  While traveling extensively and frequently in Kandahar Province in the 1970s, I never in my wildest dreams could have conceived of a future that involved a Canadian invasion as well as the construction of an irrigation dam for $50 million. Nor could I have imagined that this project would serve as a marquis component of our reconstruction and development efforts. While the ultimate effectiveness and impact of the invasion and occupation by our armed forces will still take time to determine, the consequence of the planned construction of a large scale irrigation dam in Kandahar Province is a foregone conclusion. It will be an unmitigated disaster.

How am I so sure and why am I so bold as to predict a total waste of Canadian assistance dollars for a project for which I do not know the details? My expertise in Afghanistan was anchored in agriculture and more specifically in the study of the economics of large-scale irrigation projects. The title of my Ph.D. dissertation, financed by IDRC (Ottawa) and completed for McGill in 1975, was: “The Water Supply Constraint: An Evaluation of the Irrigation Projects and their Role in the Development of Afghanistan”.  At that time, I argued that “Afghanistan in trying to provide an assured water supply necessary for increased agricultural production faces many constraints that are both technical and cultural. The critical constraint however, has not been the physical insufficiency of traditional irrigation systems, but an institutional constraint: on-farm water distribution operates according to feudal tradition that is both inefficient and inequitable.”

 35 years later, there has been no significant change in the Afghan agrarian society;water distribution laws and related agricultural organization have not changed. In economies where water is priced by the market, not only is it used more frugally, but its very abundance increases through incentives to capture and store it. However, in an economy where water has no price and its use is determined by those who control its supply, gross anomalies in the use of water prevail.  Simply stated: if you build a large dam to increase agricultural production for the population of Kandahar, you will only enrich a few large feudal landowners (known as Khans) who will consume the lion’s share of the additional supply of water. The remainder of the farmers will be no better off and the inequality between the two groups will not diminish. In the Afghan feudal water distribution system, it is not in the interest of the large owners of the water rights to improve the well-being of the other farmers who could benefit from additional water. In fact, the farmers’ continued impoverishment and dependency on the Khans fuels the vitality of this feudal relationship. In the Afghan feudal system, the Khans are more concerned about the maintenance of dependencies that signal their socio-economic status and less concerned with improving the income and resultant independence of their client farmers.

My research results in 1975 explain the complexity of the social problem of water distribution and provide viable suggestions for effective alternatives that could succeed at much lower costs, even within a feudal societal context. In the first instance, selecting farm areas where there is less control of water distribution by large land-owning khans might be a seedbed for more positive results. Alternatively, working directly with farmers to implement on-farm, low cost water conservation processes, such as drip irrigation, could be more effective than introducing major, capital-intensive projects as the precondition to augmenting water supply. I identified the successes in nearby Paktika Province where the German Aid Agency’s direct approach to water conservation had achieved significant progress with farmers.

The Government of Afghanistan has, for the whole of the twentieth century, produced no effective legislation to facilitate the transition away from feudal-agrarian relationships. The government has only introduced agricultural projects that do not threaten the status quo. There has been no legislation concerning water regulation and distribution laws, nor tenancy registration and standardization.  Who gets what water, when and who pays for their water, and how much they pay are still not resolved. My research also demonstrated that the rate of return on this large-scale irrigation was negative.

Much is now written about the competing power of warlords, the Taliban’s success in the country side, the influence of Islamic religion on the repression of human rights, the multi-ethnic struggles for power and control of the state, the rampant corruption of government officials, and the decline of the society’s social fabric as a result of over 30 years of war. But virtually nothing is written about the feudal underpinnings of the agrarian economy and its impact on the social, economic, and political structures in general and on the distribution of water in particular.

I am not proposing that the feudal water distribution systems are the primary impediment to development. What I am saying, however, is that it is possible, viewing it through feudal lens, to get a clearer understanding of the intractability of social and economic transformation in areas where the Khans’ powers predominate. Furthermore, unless we address this reality and work within its confines, we delude ourselves in thinking that development assistance will be effective. Why our military and developmental interventions are limited, why the Taliban are so effective in rural areas, or why the rural populations flee to urban areas and refuse to take up agriculture, are all better understood through the lens of a feudal-based water distribution system. While it may be possible to introduce modest gains in democratizing urban areas, or to make some improvements in the state of women’s participation in society, it is unrealistic to envision that our $50 million investment in a large irrigation dam in Kandahar Province will be a catalyst for improved and sustainable agricultural development in southern Afghanistan.