Only 27 per cent of Afghanistan’s population has access to safe water sources, according to the government in Kabul. Faryab, a province in the country’s north, is an example of where access to potable water causes major problems for the inhabitants. Storing water for dry periods has always been a challenge there. Now problems have become larger because many water sources have become saline. As a consequence, many locals are forced to use water from open ponds, while others use traditional water storage methods. But they are not safe and can cause a variety of diseases, AAN researcher Obaid Ali reports from Faryab.
Despite the fact that Afghanistan is rich in ground and surface water (from springs and rivers), a huge amount of this water is wasted or flows unused into the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. As a consequence, Afghans are facing a serious water shortage, particularly in most of the northern provinces, which provide most of the country’s grain and fruits(1) as well as livestock, from which various kinds of wool and, subsequently, handmade carpets (one of Afghanistan’s most well-known export products) are made.
Faryab province is rich in natural resources. Salt, marble and some oil have been found in Andkhoy, Almar and Qaysar districts. There are pistachio forests in Kohistanat, Khwaja Sabz Posh and Belcharagh districts. The province also has a large area of range land, which is mostly used as summer pastures. The Faryab women are considered the primary earners of income for their families because of their incredible talent in making handmade carpets, which are very famous in the markets under the label ‘Maimanagi’, and qaqma, long coats made of camel wool. Water is essential for these crafts and for the economic survival of many families, but Faryab’s inhabitants face a serious crisis in accessing potable water resources.
At least seven districts in Faryab face serious problems related to obtaining potable water. Particularly in Andkhoy, Daulatabad, Almar, Shirin Tagab and some parts of Pashtun Kot districts – some 30 to 40 per cent of the province’s population – much of the locally available groundwater, the only source of water there, has become saline and can only be used for irrigation and as drinking water for animals. The locals frequently have to walk 30 to 40 kilometres to collect drinking water for themselves.
In Andkhoy, Shirin Tagab, Daulatabad, Almar and parts of Pashtun Kot district, a traditional method for storing water is still in use: digging a kanda. The local people dig a cave into the bottom of the hill, where they find clay that can hold water. The length of a kanda is approximately eight metres, the width two and the depth one to three metres. Rainwater is channelled into the kanda and stored there. The kanda has a door that is usually locked, and the key is kept with the owner of the kanda.
Locals say that digging kandas was joint communal work in the past, but nowadays, as families have gotten larger, they often dig them separately and the kandas become private property. In other cases these caves are jointly owned by a number of neighbours. During winter, when the farmers have no field work to do, groups of them jointly dig the caves.
But kanda water is far from safe. Floodwater can contain decayed bodies of animals, rainwater can carry animal droppings or harmful insects that can contaminate the water before it reaches the kanda. Worms and insects can pollute the storage water from the inside as well. There are no mechanisms to replace the water and clean the kandas once the dry season has ended. Nevertheless, kanda water is considered as pure as natural water amongst the locals. They use each kanda for five years; then it is refilled with soil and a similar kanda is built.
However, if a dry year occurs, the kandas remain empty. Prolonged drought over a number of years has caused considerable loss in agricultural production and livestock as well as a lowering of the ground water table all over the province.
A similar alternative ‘cave scheme’ is used by some villagers in Kohistanat district, but there they store snow as a reserve for potable water. These traditional refrigerators, called sardaba or sardkhana (cold house), prevent the collected snow from melting for several months. The collective knowledge of the locals helps them to find a location where the soil does not contain salt to dig the caves, as salt would make the snow melt more quickly. The person in charge oversees the caves regularly, and only he is allowed to open a cave when the locals need ice. This scheme not only provides ice and water for the locals, but it is also a business and a financial source for them, even just for one month or so.
Some families use another method to collect potable water. They build their houses close to hills and cover the roofs with plastic in order to channel rainwater into their yards, where they build pools, one or two metres deep, two metres wide and four metres long. Rainwater travels through narrow channels all the way down the hills to the roofs and then to the backyard pools. This scheme works well, and the collected water is used for cleaning, watering animals or even as drinking water during dry periods. But undoubtedly, people catch various diseases like diarrhoea or kidney and bladder stones by using this open pond water.
In Shirin Tagab, Daulatabad and Khwaja Sabzposh, where the rivers carry water during some months of the year, the locals also build pools in their yards, but the pools are fed by the rivers.
A local farmer surprised AAN with a story about how he trains his animals to survive without proper watering for several months. According to him, ‘particularly sheep can survive for several months’ with only the early morning dew on the grass they eat in the faraway hills where he takes him. (According to him it would take days to return them from there to water them properly.) He adds that this is as easy as training fighting dogs or birds.
While the quantity of water available in Faryab seems to be sufficient, the quality is poor. However, the responsible bodies have failed so far to address this basic need of the inhabitants in Faryab. There are a number of NGOs and UN agencies – among them DACAAR, Cooperation Humanitarian Aid (CHA), Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), the World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF – as well as Afghan government institutions like the National Solidarity Program (NSP) in the field to help locals. Some of these NGOs only assist with digging water collection pools when the local Community Development Council (CDC) suggests it. So far only the NCA has recently provided desalination machines for Andkhoy district.
(1) Faryab just reported a good grape harvest.
Photo: AAN archive
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020