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$20 million grant hopes to help Afghanistan restore its water, agriculture infrastructure

A $20 million grant has been awarded to New Mexico State University and other university partners to research and develop the best means to restore Afghanistan's war-torn water systems so it can sustain an agriculture economy.

AWATT, or Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer, is a three-year project that will involve a consortium of universities in the United States as well as universities and ministries in Afghanistan.

NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics will lead the project along with Colorado State University, University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University researchers.

"The nature of this project is identifying issues, information and making policy recommendations for changes as well as demonstrating and building up institutional capacities. The whole thrust of the project implies that there will need to be a follow-up," said Terry L. Crawford, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business at NMSU.

The seemingly daunting task will have to deal with many factors affecting Afghanistan today, such as the political atmosphere and the long-established tribal and cultural mores. The country's many years of turmoil have left much of its infrastructure in shambles and transformed Afghanistan into a country with few economy-stimulating choices.

"Afghanistan is a country that has been ravaged by war for at least 30 years. This country has been in turmoil for a long period of time as the communists took over and then the Russians and then our differences with them as they sheltered al-Qaida. As a result of these internal and external warring parties, much of the country's infrastructure has been destroyed, including water facilities and processing plants for their products. In a nutshell, their economy has been in a shamble," Crawford said.

AWATT is specifically designed to develop a water-management plan, best use of technologies for water management and the steps to use the technologies to increase the agricultural potential for the area. The project will also develop a structure for agriculture research systems and recommend policy reforms that will provide the mechanisms for security in land tenure and ownership.

Other factors researchers will have to surmount are getting the Afghan people, faculty and government officials to buy into the project's goals. For example, many faculty members moonlight to make ends meet. They teach and leave for other jobs, Crawford explained.

"My experience in Iraq, Jordan and other countries is that there are a majority of the universities' faculty who are demoralized. They teach their class and do something else. But there is a core of people that are really committed to a cause and they are trying to work hard and do have a perspective on research. They see how research has an impact in helping the people and their communities. The challenge will be to identify these individuals," said Octavio Ramirez, professor and head of the department of Agriculture Economics and Agricultural Business and Extension Economics at NMSU.

And if working in a dangerous, war-torn country was not enough, another of the biggest challenges facing researchers who will be based in Afghanistan will be in involving the women of the country. The grant hopes to incorporate all walks of Afghan life to provide the most thorough picture of their needs. But the cultural customs in an Islamic world makes it difficult to approach women without the permission of the male influence, Crawford said.

Despite the challenges, some of the research has already been done since much of Afghanistan's terrain is so similar to the area around Las Cruces, Crawford said. The consortium will be drawing from many of the water and agricultural research projects that have been done in the area and hopes to use this knowledge and apply it to some of the situations in Afghanistan, Crawford and Ramirez said.

The $20 million grant is sponsored by the United States Aid for International Development, an arm of the U.S. State Department, Crawford said.