How Water Can End the War in Afghanistan, on the Occasion of H.E. Karzai's Visit

Welcome Your Excellency.   The following is an essay addressed to the American Congress.  If Nostradamus had written "and a great fire shall spread across Central Asia, and it will be doused by water," in the best scenario, the cryptic seer could be referring to Afghanistan.  If one looks closely, it can be seen that in water lies the key to solving all other issues of great importance: poverty, hunger, the insurgency.  Water is the key.  When you ask, "How do we end this war?" - think water.

But first people may be surprised to know that there is a water problem.  In yet another overlooked indicator of the miserable in which most Afghans remained mired, and there are many, to this day two-thirds to three-fourths of the population still has no easy access to safe drinking water, and it is a problem.  Despite somewhat higher Third World immunological resistances to some kinds of waterborne bacteria, thousands of people, especially children, become violently ill and die every year for lack of basic sanitation infrastructure.

A full eight years into the occupation and after $250 billion in military spending, in a country whose entire gross national product is around $12 billion a year, one out of five children still dies before the age of five, from diarrhea, dysentery, and dehydration resulting from water-borne disease.

Even in Kabul, the most secure city, where construction crews can be seen at work every day, most of the water and sewage infrastructure  Open trench sewage channels are an ubiquitous feature of the city.   In vast rural Afghanistan, lack of basic infrastructure means people must take their chances with water directly from rivers and streams.  Because sewage treatment is rare, these rivers and streams often wind up polluted from human or animal sources of contamination.  Every day across Afghanistan a familiar scene plays out many thousands of times, that of frantic Afghan mothers in waiting rooms of clinics or sitting in the sun outside when the few seats inside have been taken, holding babies succumbing to dehydration caused by chronic diarrhea.  Antibiotics are often scarce or out of stock.  The only sources of water to address the dehydration are those sources which made the babies sick in the first place.

The incredible irony is, the very nature of water infrastructure projects has the potential to impact what by now is agreed to be a key, if not the key, driver of the insurgency.  Rampant 40-50 percent unemployment combined with the Taliban's ability to pay new recruits $10 a day, an excellent wage here, are acknowledged even at the highest levels of US command to be major factors to keeping the insurgency fueled.  This is not to say that other factors, such as anger over civilian casualties and natural Afghan dislike of foreign occupation, which occupies a place in the lore of empires, are not important.  But these are the spark and the oxygen to the combustible mixture.    

The basic fuel, the dry underbrush which caught in earnest in the years 2005 - 2006 after 3 years of relative peace, is the sea of hunger, starvation, and desperate poverty which remained after the promises of new jobs and reconstruction were broken.  At this moment, after spending 20 times Afghanistan's entire yearly GDP on military operations over the last eight years, the UN estimates that 35% of Afghans are clinically malnourished, 40% of children are underweight, jobs are non-existent, and the Taliban is the only job in town.  Former Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, said in 2007 before the US Congress, "Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to feed their families."

The one thing water infrastructure projects require is lots of labor. Labor digging trenches for water and sewage lines, labor for clearing and improving canals.  On any given day in Kabul, in at least four major city squares, the Sar-e-Chowk, Pul-e-khishtee, Timor-shahee, and Shahr-e-now, thousands of men begin gathering before daylight hoping to be selected for day labor.  The going wage is approximately $4 per day.  Immediate implementation of the first phase of a citywide water and sewage infrastructure project need look no further for an able and willing supply of labor, in a setting where security is not an issue, as it may be in the countryside.  A massive first phase involving the hiring of tens of thousands of workers will, most importantly, constitute a highly visible "down payment" on what Afghans will be able to see as their future: steady, dignified employment, on projects of which they can be proud because they help their people, which will provide the basis for further development of the informal traditional economy through access to better infrastructure.

News travels most quickly across Afghanistan by word of mouth, especially now that cellphones are fairly common.  Word that thousands are being hired in Kabul for long-promised public works projects will have an impact across the country, as Afghans wonder if perhaps their hopes for building a peaceful future are at long last being realized. The world must not let them down, as it has in the past, especially after the mujaheddin had driven out the Russians, with US help, only for the US to then abandon the Afghans to starvation and civil war.

In terms of administration of the Kabul Municipal Water, Sewers, and Work Project, project planning and leadership could be jointly owned by municipal authorities and the National Solidarity Program (NSP,) with funding from international donors deposited into the NSP account of the World Bank's Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF.) This is a measure to build confidence in the sound administration of the project, as the NSP and the ARTF have already shown the capacity to efficiently manage large amounts of money and to implement many thousands of infrastructure projects across the country.  With this partnership in place, world donors can have confidence that their contributions to Kabul's reconstruction, and to the all-important employment of Afghans, is being managed with assistance from an institution with an excellent reputation.

Those who say that "nation-building" is outside of the scope of the limited US mission in Afghanistan miss entirely the nature of the insurgency.  In 2007 a UK Guardian reporter called poverty in  Afghanistan "stunning." Without jobs and an end to slow starvation, there can be no peace, since the temptation will always be to take the organized Taliban's wage of $10 a day, even though its ideology remains unpopular.
 This is in turn enabled by the organized Taliban's income sources from opium and other illegal activities.  The existence of robust and well-paying infrastructure projects to compete with the Taliban's lure is not "nation-building," but the most vital part of a strategy to bring stability to Afghanistan in a way which enlists the  people rather than counterproductive military force.  

What the US has been doing in Afghanistan, whatever else may be said of it, has not worked.  It is time to try something else.  The cost to implement the Kabul Project would be less than what US military expenditures amount to in less than two weeks, about $2 billion.  This is what we ask the US Congress to pass as an appropriation for a donation to the ARTF, destined for this project  Time is running short.

The diarist is a co-founder of Jobs for Afghans


Men waiting for work in Kabul

Open trench sewer channels, Kabul


Tags: water, Karzai, Afghanistan, war (all tags)


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