June 05, 2008

SIUC will play key role in assisting Afghan farmers

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Afghanistan's farmers, struggling to grow crops with very little water, will get some help over the next three years from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and three other American universities.

Supported by a $20 million federal grant, agriculture faculty from SIUC, Colorado State University, New Mexico State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will work with their counterparts at four regional Afghan universities and with government ministries and other agencies on a project called Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer, or AWATT.

The project focuses on developing a national water management plan, determining the best means of increasing the country’s ability to grow crops, fostering agricultural research and outreach, and designing policy changes related to access and use of land and water.

While New Mexico State faculty will administer the grant, SIUC’s team plays a key role.

“We and UIUC are the two universities with people who have actually been on the ground in Afghanistan, so we bring an important in-country perspective,” said John S. Russin, associate dean of SIUC’s College of Agricultural Sciences and one of the University’s Afghanistan “veterans.”

“We have had a number of ongoing and completed projects there over the last five to six years, we have worked with several international agencies, we have Memorandums of Understanding (cooperative agreements) with most of the major regional universities and have worked with their faculties in a number of capacities.”

Work will begin at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and at Nangarhar University in the eastern city of Jalalabad, later moving to Herat University in the western city of Herat and Kandahar University in the southern city of the same name.

“The U.S. Agency for International Development (the granting organization) wanted to focus outside Kabul,” said SIUC’s Oval Myers, who has worked in Afghanistan for more than five years.

“We have agreements with all of these universities except for Kandahar. Our contribution will be in working with them and other agencies to determine how best they can utilize the resources they have to improve their water conditions.”

Even before its series of wars destroyed so much of Afghanistan’s water-related infrastructure, water was scarce there. In recent years, rainfall -- never generous -- has grown more meager. Watersheds are drying up earlier; forests, which play a role in staving off drought, are being cut down. At the same time, Afghanistan’s population is growing and its economy is beginning to rebound, placing increasing demands on an already scanty resource.

“Better use of existing water is critical,” Myers said.

SIUC’s 12 team members will take on a major part of the project’s training and outreach portions.

“Our strength will be in interfacing with the end users of the appropriate technologies to help integrate them into both the university communities and into the daily lives of the farmers,” Russin said.

“We’re looking at very practical solutions for how to make money and grow food with limited water.”

Workshops will focus on such topics as irrigation, pest and weed management, mulching, soil conservation, use of local plant and seed varieties, use of vegetation to protect rivers and watersheds, storage methods, credit, co-operatives, natural resource management and household reforestation. Research and demonstration plots are also part of the mix.

“I think this could be the most sustainable of our on-the-ground activities,” Myers said.

In addition, the AWATT project includes development of a watershed model, which will provide the data needed for recommendations on policy changes regarding water use and agricultural production while taking into account local customs, traditions and Islamic values.

“That could be helpful for years,” Myers said.