When news that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden reached U.S. television and Internet audiences last week, thousands converged upon Ground Zero in New York City and the White House in Washington, D.C. to cheer, gawk and ponder the meaning of what had just happened. But behind that split-second of triumph is a decades-long saga of suffering in Afghanistan. In addition to nearly 2,500 Coalition military fatalities since the war began in 2001, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have perished. As war grinds on in the arid, mountainous country, civilian deaths could potentially rise as population is displaced and water infrastructure — left to crumble while Hamid Karzai’s government addresses other concerns — continues to deteriorate. That is, unless work underway by the U.S. and Afghan governments succeeds in reversing the country’s hydrological fortunes.
When the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, hydrological and climatic data collection and water infrastructure projects came to an abrupt halt. International and civil wars made it impossible to resume repair and maintenance work, but data collection began to revive in 2003. Taliban forces have been caught trying to blow up dams and disrupt construction projects, but Afghan authorities have pressed on, planning water infrastructure upgrades and hydroelectric power unit refurbishments. The U.S. Geological Survey began working with Afghanistan’s Geological Survey and Ministry of Water and Energy to maximize water use efficiency in the Kabul Basin by studying glacier and climatic data, recent climate change analyses, recent geologic investigations, streamflow data, groundwater level analysis, surface water and groundwater quality data, and estimates of urban and agricultural water use.
“Investigating water resources in a country affected by war and civil strife — which have left a more than 20-year gap in the scientific record — is challenging,” said Thomas Mack, USGS scientist, in a 2010 press release. “However, our collaborative investigation and the USGS’s capacity-building efforts help empower our Afghan colleagues to manage their resources and their future.”
Much of Afghanistan closely resembles the American high plains and desert, something both Uncle Sam and Hollywood have capitalized upon (the U.S. military has expansive training installations in California’s high desert, and the Afghanistan scenes in in the movie “Iron Man” were filmed outside of Bishop, Calif.). It’s high — the country’s tallest peak is 7,492 meters — dry — it only rains 25 to 30 centimeters annually — and temperatures swing to extremes. Afghanistan’s severe climatic properties are etched into the stark, but stunning features of its extensive network of craggy mountains. Getting anything to grow in such a place can be a challenge, but fruits and nuts, opium and livestock have been produced there for centuries. The country is a well-known exporter of pomegranates in the region.
Currently, about 28 million people depend upon Afghanistan’s network of rivers and groundwater aquifers for crop irrigation and drinking water supply — 3 million in the capital city of Kabul alone. The landlocked Central Asian country, which claims a total land area of 647,000 square kilometers, has only about 27,000 square kilometers of irrigated farmland. A report on Afghanistan’s water supply compiled by USAID in 1992 describes Afghanistan’s topography as resembling a peaked and rumpled hat with an irregular brim. The high, mountainous center of the country feeds four major river systems with rainfall and snowmelt, and those rivers drain onto the low, surrounding plains into desert, marsh, or surrounding countries such as Iran.
Most of the water — 99 percent — captured by Afghanistan’s several dams supplies agriculture, which in turn employs 85 percent of of the country’s population. But war damage and poorly designed irrigation systems have led to significant loss from diverted river water. The Ministry of Energy and Water plans to increase irrigation efficiency by 45 percent over the next ten years. Lack of reservoir storage space, while enjoyed by neighboring countries benefiting from the uncaptured runoff, has led to increased groundwater pumping as Afghanistan’s population is swelled by returning refugees. USGS estimates that by 2057, a combination of pumping and climate change will dry up 60 percent of available shallow groundwater as demand increases sixfold. A study is currently underway to investigate the economic feasibility of pumping deeper aquifers, a process that is more energy intensive. Rehabilitation of the Darunta Dam near Jalalabad and a number of other dam repair projects around the country are expected to increase arable cropland by several thousand square kilometers. Providing clean, potable water is another concern being addressed by water planners, as waterbourne disease transmission has been a problem in the past.
With bin Laden now at rest at the bottom of the sea, U.S. officials are now rethinking America’s role in Afghanistan. What remains to be seen is whether or not progress made over the last decade — or rather, reversal of 20 years of damage inflicted during the Soviet, civil, and Coalition wars — can be sustainable after NATO troops have gone. A lot of people are depending upon the answer to that question being yes.