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In Rural Afghan War, Irrigation Water Is Tool

FILE: Most residents depend on farming for survival in Uruzgan.
FILE: Most residents depend on farming for survival in Uruzgan.

TARIN KOT, Afghanistan -- Government forces and insurgents are using access to irrigation water as leverage to pressure civilians into supporting them or force their opponents out of their villages and communities.

Lawmakers and locals in the restive southern province of Uruzgan say that during the past year both security forces and insurgents have sought to control access to irrigation water in the rural region, where most residents depend on farming for survival.

Noor Muhammad Haqmal, a member of Uruzgan’s provincial council, alleged that the Afghan Army has closed major irrigation channels near the provincial capital, Tarin Kot, and the district of Chora for more than two weeks to force residents of the Darafshan and Qila-e Ragh villages to pressure the Taliban to leave.

“This is a major economic threat to many farmers who depend on the canals to irrigate thousands of hectares of farmland,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on April 4. “Their complaints to the provincial governor were not addressed.”

Haqmal says the residents of the two villages asked the government to rid the region of militants. “They asked the governor to either detain or kill the insurgents [because they had no power over them].”

But he claims that instead of going after the insurgents, government forces shot and wounded several farmers in recent raids.

Uruzgan’s governor’s office, however, says they were not aware of complaints that Afghan forces were leveraging irrigation water against civilians.

“We got the news two days ago [and are still investigating it],” said Uruzgan governor spokesman Dost Muhammad Nayyab. “If it is true that government forces are denying irrigation water to civilians, we will hold the responsible officials to account.”

Over the past year, fighters loyal to the Taliban also blocked water to farmers living in government-controlled regions of the province. The blockage incurred heavy losses for farmers, and many lost orchards as a result.

A majority of Uruzgan’s estimated 360,000 people depend on agriculture for survival in the isolated, arid region. But their livelihoods are not the sole victim of insecurity. Last year, the insurgents forced most of Uruzgan’s 59 public hospitals and clinics to close.

Uruzgan abuts the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Collectively, these provinces are called Loy Kandahar or Greater Kandahar. The Taliban movement first emerged in the region in the 1990s and still views it as central to its efforts to re-establish control.

Civilians in Uruzgan and elsewhere in Afghanistan are paying a steep price for insurgent attacks and government counteroffensives.

Last year, the United Nations documented 10,453 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, including 3,438 deaths and 7,015 injuries.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan reporter Sharifullah Sharafat’s reporting from Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.