Development blues

Posted by Richard Friday, 20 November 2009

A central part of the quest for "hearts and minds" of the Afghan peoples is the ongoing development programme. Nowhere is this more vital than in Helmand province, which sustains the heart of the Taliban-based conflict and where much of the fighting is currently taking place.

Helmand, though, is no stranger to development projects. From 1946 to 1979, it was the subject of one of the largest and most expensive schemes in the history of Afghanistan, known as the Helmand Valley Project.

Yet, far from providing the untold benefits, it was – as one commentator put it - "doomed to failure". It was, he says, a factor (if not the factor) in pushing Afghanistan a step closer to the USSR and therefore to the Soviet's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

That latter assertion is perhaps an exaggeration, but even if that was the case, it is not difficult to see why the project was launched in the first place. Its importance stems from the river itself, the River Helmand. It is the longest in Afghanistan, carrying forty percent of the country's total water as it snakes down from the Hindu Kush for 350 miles, to join its major tributary, the Arghandab, at Qala Bost – now called Lashkar Gah.

It is this river, flush with the meltwater of the northern snows, which forms the Helmand Valley as it carves its way through south-western portion of Afghanistan. From there, it continues another 250 miles to the Sistan Basin, spanning the Iran border, losing itself in the salt marshes and lakes of the region, without ever reaching the sea.

Crucially, in Helmand province itself, it serves an area with a mere four inches of rain a year. Without the life-giving waters – which also feed some of the numerous boreholes in the area – there would be little to support the current population estimated at 1.07 million. Most of these - either directly or indirectly – earn their livings from agriculture.

The densest agriculture in the central area, the so-called "green zone". This, coincidentally, provides cover for Taliban movements, while a close network of irrigation ditches and canals makes movement difficult and provides natural fighting positions, from which to ward off coalition troops.

Yet it is this irrigation system which was at the centre of the Helmand Valley Project, including a system of reservoirs and dams, the largest dam being further north at Kajaki, also fitted out to provide hydroelectric power.

Nor even was that the first attempt at development. Some of the original system goes back into antiquity, with tales of an ancient "Sughra" Canal in the Seraj region. The first modern development was actually started in 1910, when some of the old irrigation canals were reconstructed. In 1914, the government also constructed the new canals. In the 1930s, with German and Japanese assistance, nine more miles of canals were dug at Boghra.

The purpose of the development, then and later, was two-fold. It was to improve the water management and thus increase agricultural productivity in the region, but it also aimed to bring in a substantial area of land into production, especially in the flood plains, where the water would be channelled and the drainage improved.

Precisely that was achieved in the 1930s, when the land in the Seraj district was opened up. The government then took the opportunity to invite Uzbek and Turkamen settlers to farm the land, with unexpected results. Where perhaps 1000 settlers had been anticipated, about 10,000, including other Afghans from the Helmand area, moved in.

Here may lie one of the seeds of discord. Pashtun nomadic pastoralists had since time immemorial had grazed their animals on the best of this land during the winter before returning to the green mountain pastures in the summer after the snow melt. Bringing in Uzbeks and Turkamen, some of whom whom had traditionally been cultivators, from the north would have done nothing to mollify the local Pashtun who regarded the land as their own - even if they only used it for a few months irregularly each year.

This had the makings of a classic clash - like the Bushmen of the Kalahari - the Israelis taking over Palestinian "wasteland" - or the European settlers of "Happy Valley" in Kenya - marginal Maasai land.

Not until after World War II, however, did the really major works get underway, although the Afghans themselves managed to add another 16 miles between 1941 and 1946. By then, local engineers were coming up with plans of larger schemes, which required the use of modern equipment and engineering techniques far beyond that which the Afghans themselves could supply.

With a healthy surplus of foreign currency – mainly in dollars - arising from reduced wartime imports and healthy exports, the government had enough funds to hire foreign expertise. The defeat of Germany and Japan ruled out those countries and Russia and Britain had long been considered foes. But the United States appeared sufficiently remote, disinterested and well equipped to meet the need. So the government turned to the Idaho firm of Morrison-Knudsen, initially as a purely commercial partner.

From detailed accounts of the technical progress of the project, and a (somewhat polemical) historical overview, it was clear that, right from the start, there were grave technical problems which, had they been heeded, would have resulted in a far more limited project.

Not least of the problems was the nature of the subsoil, and the lack of drainage, the combined effects of which brought heavy saline deposits to the surface, considerable waterlogging and silting. With the inherent poor quality of the soil, its lack of conditioning and previous tillage, the land was far from suitable for primitive subsistence cropping, yet that was precisely the purpose for which it was intended.

Alongside the civil engineering works, there was to be a major element of social engineering, resetting Pashtun hill tribes, weaning them off their nomadic existence and introducing them to a more settled, peaceful way of life.

That indeed was achieved. By January 1958, 20,624 acres in Nad-e-ali were settled by 1248 new families, averaging 5-8 persons, and another 100-150 families were awaiting settlement. Each family had an allotment of about 15 acres within one kilometre of the village, as well as a small garden plot adjoining the mud-walled, multi-family home. According to contemporary reports, between 1953 and 1973, 5,486 farm families were settled. Then, from 1973 to 1978, just over 4,000 families were moved in under an accelerated programme.

Before that stage was reached, however, the project had to overcome numerous hurdles, not least as the scope of the scheme expanded, costs spiralled to the extent that by early 1949 the Afghan government was running out of money.

It could, of course, have called a halt to the half-completed works, especially in view of the soil and drainage problems which were becoming apparent, but this would have resulted in a serious loss of face for both the government and the contractor.

The alternative was to turn to the United States and the government-owned Export-Import Bank, which was done in February 1949 with a request for a $55 million loan. This was rejected although a smaller loan of $21 million was approved in November 1949. This was not accepted until April 1950 and it was actually March of 1951 before the government could draw on the loan funds.

It was only at that point that the Afghan government, unable to provide the technical and administrative expertise to continue the partnership, was pressured to hand over the entire responsibility to Morrison-Knudsen which, by December 1952 led to the established the autonomous Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) based on the Tennessee Valley Authority model. The Authority was later reinforced by US government aid employees and Peace Corps personnel.

It took complete authority over processing settler applications, determining plot sizes, farms and village locations. It also helped the settlers construct their homes, prepare their land and follow superior cropping and water use practices. It had become, effectively, an all-American project.

Lashkar Gah became a replica of a modern American suburb, to the extent that it was known as "little America". Mainly, it housed American staff and professional Afghan workers brought in from the capital and other provinces, creating an enclave where there was very little mixing - or communication - with the local population.

April 1953 saw the inauguration of the Kajaki Dam, towering 300-feet above the valley, spanning an 887 feet gorge was holding back a 32-mile long reservoir holding 1,495,000 acre-feet of water. But even then, the project was unravelling, as costs spiralled and engineering problems mounted. From 1946 through 1963, to costs reached $150 million, including $60 million or 25 percent of the total US aid to Afghanistan.

As to the settlers, the original policy was to locate related family groups in single villages, maintaining a degree of tribal and ethnic homogeneity. However, in the early 1970s, after problems with draining the unlevelled fields, the Authority decided to repossess much of the land allocated in order to carry out grading works. The villagers, unconvinced that their land would be returned, met the bulldozers with rifles and refused to be budged.

Following that, the HVA adopted a policy of settling ethnically heterogeneous groups, to avoid strong group loyalties. This not only weakened the settlers politically, it eroded tribal discipline, to the extent possibly that thirty years later, young men were easy prey to Taliban recruiters.

Such a dynamic might have been strengthened by the social inequalities unwittingly perpetuated by the scheme. Existing farmers, used to the soil and the conditions, were better able to adapt to the availability extra water. Many of the settlers, however, often without farming experience, produced lower yields, exacerbating social divisions.

In the absence of a properly functioning financial system, poorer farmers found it almost impossible to get credit, the richer farmers thus being able to afford tractors and other equipment, further widening the social divide and creating, in effect, a social underclass which transcended tribal divisions.

At the end the project was a failure in other ways. Of the 539,834 acres of land that was aimed to be irrigated as a result of the project only 170,000 (about 31 percent) acres actually received adequate water and most of these were already being farmed. Of the several ambitious objectives only flood control seemed to have been achieved.

Of the land settled, between 1956 and 1967 period, some 7,000 acres had been abandoned and, despite the many years of continued effort and enormous subsidies, a large number of nomads left the valley because they could not make a living due to the poor quality of the soil. Many of the yields were lower than before the dams had been built.

Between 1963 and 1965 investigators were finding low crop yields, poor agricultural practices, minimal mechanisation, low fertiliser usage, major weed infestation and poor control programmes. Prices paid for many of the crops were low and marketing limited, while credit was difficult to obtain and the rates exorbitant. Taxes were low, but even then delinquency rates were high.

Interestingly, at that time, no opium was being grown. But already the problems were multiplying. In 1973, inadequate maintenance and water management was being reported, a situation which was to grow worse with the Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion.

By 1988-9, as the Soviets departed, the canal and infrastructure in an advanced state of disrepair and surveyors were finding large acreages of poppy growing.

Nearly ten years later, in the Seraj District where it had all started, almost a hundred years previously, a report found poverty and a weak local economy due to high unemployment rate and low agricultural and livestock production levels and quality. The majority of local residents relied on agricultural and livestock activities as their primary source of income but they lacked adequate access to modern farming methods such as improved seeds and chemical fertilisers.

The district also had a high illiteracy rate and most of its schools suffered from the shortage of essential education equipment and teaching materials. The area had limited number of health centres, most of which were inaccessible to residents of remote areas, who further suffered from the uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases.

In 2006 a consultant was despairingly writing that security in the region had deteriorated. In part, he noted, this reflects the farmers' dissatisfaction with local government actions and services. This, he ventured, related to the growing belief that things were not getting better under the present system and that the promises of massive reconstruction were hollow.

He added that, in areas where military operations and bombings have killed civilians, especially women and children, no amount of reconstruction funding will help "re-win the hearts and minds of the people". If you kill a relative of an Afghan, you have made an enemy, and Pashtuns have VERY long memories.

In can be no coincidence that this and the other areas in the Helmand Valley which have had the most expensive and prolonged "development" in the whole of Afghanistan are now the major poppy-growing areas in Helmand, and the seat of the Taliban power.





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