KANDAI, Afghanistan – Atiqullah Khan, a farmer, remembers his village Kandai as a barren plain in Nurgal, a lowland district in the mountainous rural eastern province of Kunar a decade ago.
Irrigation, he says, was an unthinkable proposition despite the village being close to the gushing waters of the Kunar River – one of the largest rivers in Afghanistan.
“Our land was completely arid because we had no means to divert the river water for irrigation,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Some people used generators and pumps for irrigation, but that was very expensive.”
But a few years ago, Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese aid worker who was killed in Afghanistan last year, showed up in Kandai and helped its residents build a giant water wheel to feed an irrigation canal to their lands.
“Now we always have water for irrigation,” Khan said. “We even did not had a tree here, but today we can grow everything and our lives have changed.”
The metal water wheel feeds a canal 6 meters higher than the river surface. This canal irrigates nearly 40 hectares of irrigated land in Kandai and then feeds several other villages in Nurgal. The project provides steady livelihoods for hundreds of families in the impoverished region. They now grow wheat, maze, vegetables, and fruits year-round.
Kandai is one of the communities in eastern Afghanistan where Nakamura helped locals in building canals that irrigate nearly 30,000 hectares of previously arid land. In Kunar and the neighboring province of Nangarhar, his tireless work spanning more than two decades has benefited more than 1 million residents.
Six months after Nakamura was shot dead in Jalalabad, an eastern city serving as the capital of Nangarhar, local residents continue to be grateful for his dedication and hard work.
“We have gained a lot because of Nakamura,” Mohammad Hanif Khiarkhwa, the district governor of Nurgal, told Radio Free Afghanistan “We had a lot of arid plains in Nurgal, but today many are lush green because of this canal.”
Najibullah Adil, provincial head of the Afghan ministry of agriculture and irrigation, says Nakamura’s reliance on simple technology showed them a way to replicate his techniques elsewhere.
“He built irrigation projects from local materials and employed simple technology such as water wheels,” Adil noted. “We can substantially increase arable land in Kunar by deploying water wheels in many water channels.”
Nakamura, 73, was fondly called Uncle Murad by Afghans. He was awarded honorary Afghan citizenship a few months before his death.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he established medical clinics in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, to treat locals and Afghan refugees. He later switched to irrigation to help Afghans as many returning communities were plagued by a drought in the early 2000s.
In one of his last interviews, he told the Japanese broadcaster NHK that medicines won’t treat starvation and drought. “We realized that we need to go beyond the narrow field of medicine and work to ensure that people had enough food and water,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Kandai, Afghanistan.