Under a hot spring sun, Alim Mohammad, along with more than 50 other villagers, toils to stack sand bags to create a temporary embankment to stop the Amu Darya River from creating any more damage.
The river, that flows for more than 2,400 km and forms most of Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, has already swept away 40 ha of farm land around the village in the Kaldar district of northern province of Balkh and destroyed Mohammad’s house in 2005.
“Summer season flooding swept away all my farming land and now I’m homeless, something has to be done," Mohammad said while taking a breather from the back-breaking work.
Due to lack of management on the Afghan side of the great river, it causes massive damage to precious arable land and buildings every year when the snows melt in the mountains where it originates.
“The river washed away more than 5,000 ha of farming land and pastures during 2005 [on the Afghan bank]. The year before it destroyed 24,000 ha of farm land in Takhar, Kunduz, Balkh and Jawzjan provinces,” said Mohammad Naeem Tabish, a technical adviser at Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD).
Alim Mohammad, another local man working to keep the river at bay, pointed to the shells of hundreds of houses further down the bank.” That was our village, Qaranghitokai, where more than 400 families were living. But floods destroyed most of the houses, all the inhabitants are displaced,” he said.
Many villagers in Kaldar district interviewed by IRIN complained that the government had done nothing to stem the massive annual erosion that is denying work to thousands and creating homeless and destitute people of those who live along the banks of the Amu Darya.
According to Tabish, the government has allocated US $2 million to build temporary embankments at some of most vulnerable points on the river, utilising old military vehicles covered in sand bags.
But it’s a tiny amount of money to deal with a widespread problem. “An estimated $400 million is needed to construct permanent embankments along the worst parts of the Afghan side of the river,” said Habib Umerkhil, northern coordinator of the MRRD.
Observers say this amount is very conservative and as populations grow along the river, much more protection from the water will be required as new communities develop and more land is turned over to agriculture.
River traffic is also contributing to the erosion of the banks. Uzbek military patrol boats guarding the frontier plough the waterway at high speed creating strong waves that wash away the unprotected banks on the Afghan side.
Kabul has taken the matter up with the Uzbek government but it has not led to any change “Unfortunately, the Uzbek authorities have not taken any step in this regard yet,” Umerkhil noted.