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NMSU-led project supports restoration of stressed Afghan watersheds

Among many problems facing Afghanistan, deterioration of the basic prerequisites for successful food production ranks near the top. Decades of war and political instability, a harsh environment and a lack of knowledge of current best practices are a few of the impediments to self-sufficiency and sustainability in Afghan agriculture.

NMSU nursery specialist and agronomy professor John Harrington (second from right) discusses seed development at a nursery outside Kabul run by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Harrington recently returned from more than two months in Afghanistan assessing reforestation nursery capacity and advising on watershed restoration through the USAID-funded Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program. Also pictured are the nursery seed specialist (left), nursery grower (second from left), former Afghan director of forestry H.H. Khaurin (center) and Ray Lehn (right), a district forester from Iowa. (Courtesy Photo)

Improving the country's food and water security is the core mission of AWATT, the Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program, a USAID-funded project that New Mexico State University has led successfully for the past three years.

AWATT participants from NMSU, as well as from Colorado State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, have worked with Afghan ministries, university personnel, local officials and farmers in several Afghan provinces on many issues, including their irrigation systems, farming methods, crop selection and Extension education. The deterioration of watersheds has also been a major concern. Deforestation of the upper watersheds has resulted in significant increases in erosion, which in turn has resulted in the reduction of arable land, increased risk of flooding and reduced downstream water supply during parts of the year.

John Harrington is the superintendent of NMSU's Mora Research Center in northern New Mexico and a professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. With terms like "restoration," "reclamation," and "reforestation" popping up frequently in descriptions of his expertise, it is no surprise that he was asked to join the AWATT team for a couple of months this past winter.

Harrington was in Afghanistan from mid-December to late February. His primary assignment was to assess public and private reforestation nursery capacity in Afghanistan and develop recommendations for meeting the reforestation needs of that country. He spent time in and around Kabul, as well as in Balkh Province in the north, Herat Province in the west, and Nangarhar, Paktika and Khost provinces on the eastern border with Pakistan.

The Afghan reforestation nursery sector is at about the same stage Western reforestation nurseries were in the mid-1970s, according to Harrington. "We are trying to lay out a long-term plan for how we can help Afghanistan get their reforestation program, from their nurseries to their planting efforts, back on a trajectory where it can catch up with the rest of the world," he said.

In addition to assessing nursery capacity, Harrington was asked to conduct frequent training sessions on nurseries, reforestation and watershed stabilization issues and even how to deliver outreach effectively. His audiences included representatives of Afghan government agencies, Afghan farmers, other U.S. representatives and staff of non-governmental organizations who are working on similar issues. Many of his trainees are already training farmers and Afghan professionals. He also worked with U.S. military and USDA personnel involved in rebuilding Afghanistan.

Harrington was struck by the many similarities between Afghanistan and New Mexico. The basic ecosystems in both New Mexico and Afghanistan range from cool lowland deserts to the tundra above timberline. The dominant water use is for agriculture. "Like New Mexico has been doing in the past decade, the Afghan people are beginning to look at the entire water picture from the watershed to the end user," he said.

Harrington admits that not all New Mexico approaches to reforestation, and particularly nursery activities, will work well in Afghanistan, but he is convinced that many will. "Just because a practice works in New Mexico in a similar landscape does not necessarily mean it will work over there in Afghanistan," he said. "Depending on resources available, some practices we use here in New Mexico will need to be modified to work in Afghanistan. Also, as we go through the process of technology transfer, we're probably going to make some discoveries as to what works better here in New Mexico than we're currently using now."

The knowledge transfer was in both directions during Harrington's visit. He reports several instances where the need to be innovative has resulted in the Afghans developing technology or techniques he believes will offer promise here in the Southwest. He noted the "different ways the Afghans have evolved techniques and technologies to propagate certain species, to handle certain challenges in the nursery, to handle certain challenges in reforestation that I think are highly germane and highly practical back here in New Mexico and other arid and semi-arid regions." He plans to evaluate them when he has the opportunity.

Cultural differences were important to keep in mind. "One of the challenges was how to engage women in a lot of the natural resource issues," Harrington said. One of his Afghan partners, Engineer H.H. Khaurin, is the former director of forestry for Afghanistan. He had designed a program, known as the "Foster Mums Nursery Program," to support widows and other marginalized women in raising tree seedlings that could help with reforestation efforts. Respecting the culture meant that male AWATT experts could not work directly with local women, but rather with female government employees and female agricultural development team personnel, who in turn trained the "foster mothers." Participating women are earning much-needed income as they acquire horticultural and business experience that will outlive the specific project

Harrington is enthusiastic about AWATT's likely long-term benefits. In a January e-mail sent from Afghanistan, he said, "The Afghan people are very welcoming and greatly appreciate the efforts of AWATT. This is the first program over here to lay the foundation for a comprehensive watershed improvement program. Unlike many other development programs, AWATT's work with both the producers and Afghan governing agencies will result in long-term sustainable impacts for the Afghan people."

Roger Beck is an NMSU agricultural economics professor and AWATT's Kabul-based program director. "John hit the ground running and never stopped," he said. "He immediately recognized AWATT's mode of operation, adapted himself to the needs he saw, and delivered technology transfer selflessly, efficiently and graciously. John is a tremendous asset to the AWATT program and the Afghan people."

For his part, Harrington feels that a huge personal benefit of his participation in AWATT is his continued involvement with colleagues in the program. He continues to field requests for information and technical advice, and although he won't be back over there before the program expires at the end of June, he hopes to have the opportunity to participate in similar projects in the future.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed and opinions contained in this document are those of the author and are not intended as statements of policy of USAID or the U.S. Government

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