After enduring decades of conflict, more than 200,000 rural Afghans across 17 provinces are making progress toward a healthier and more water-secure future.
Home to roughly three-quarters of the country’s population, rural Afghanistan is intimately familiar with the hardships that decades of armed conflict have inflicted. However, lost among headlines dominated by chronic wartime violence is the fact that many villages also have been quietly suffering due to a lack of basic infrastructure and service provision for water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), which has severely compromised rural public health and slowed the country’s ongoing economic recovery.
As recently as 2015, for example, less than half of rural Afghan households enjoyed access to a dependable safe drinking water supply. As a result, waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea contribute to the deaths of more than 9,000 Afghan children under age 5 every year — a staggering death toll showcasing the continued vulnerability of Afghanistan’s youngest generation. Moreover, only 27 percent of rural households had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2015, further facilitating the spread of disease. Today, Afghanistan remains near the bottom of global rankings for access to improved WASH.
The Power of Partnership
To address the unmet needs for improved WASH services and infrastructure, USAID teamed up with the UNICEF in early 2016 to launch the Rural Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene project, a $30 million joint initiative slated to run through June 2020.
Working hand in hand with local communities and the Government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), USAID and UNICEF have been making impressive strides. Today, less than two years into its implementation, the project has already taken root in hundreds of communities spread across 17 provinces, providing more than 100 improved toilets in institutional settings and enabling more than 240,000 Afghans to gain access to basic drinking water services.
Quality-of-life improvements have been noticeable in communities like Shahanjir village in the Charkint district of Afghanistan’s Balkh province, where recent water supply infrastructure upgrades have reduced villagers’ reliance on a small spring with weak flow. “I don’t need to wait in line for hours to get water anymore,” says Nafisa, a 10-year-old girl from Shahanjir village.
Nafisa’s mother, Ms. Zakira, Secretary of the Shahanjir village Women’s Council, says water supply improvements have enhanced her family’s health as well. “Children were getting sick all the time and were prone to waterborne diseases because the fountain was open to all kinds of bacteria,” she remembers. “Nafisa and her siblings used to suffer from diarrhea so often, but this is already changing [since we have access to clean water].
To increase local buy-in and ensure long-term viability, USAID and UNICEF rely on criteria developed by the MRRD to make WASH upgrades in rural communities with insufficient water supply coverage whose members are likely to be active participants in constructing and maintaining water supply improvements. This approach has produced promising results. “Three-quarters of the people we reached gained access to a piped drinking water supply” in 2017 alone, says Adele Khodr, UNICEF representative for Afghanistan.
Harnessing Sunshine and Gravity to Create a Sustainable Rural Water Supply
Recognizing that the health outlook and economic empowerment of rural villages depend first and foremost on a safe, reliable water supply, the Rural Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene project prioritizes improvements to the country’s aging and dilapidated rural water infrastructure, while also reducing reliance on breakdown-prone hand pumps that are ubiquitous in rural households. In particular, the project provides technical assistance to install solar-powered water pumps that take advantage of the country’s ample sunshine, as well as gravity-driven water distribution systems that are particularly well suited for Afghanistan’s rugged topography.
“These technologies produce greater flows of water than hand pumps and, because of the lack of moving parts, break down less often and have lower operations and maintenance costs,” says Hasina Ibrahimkhil, project management specialist for Water at USAID/Afghanistan’s Office of Infrastructure. “The large potential of gravity-fed systems is made possible by the mountainous terrain in many parts of Afghanistan, and similarly, the scale up of solar systems to power piped water distribution schemes is made possible by Afghanistan’s 340 days of sunshine” per year, she says.
“The use of solar power is already widespread at the household level, and now it is increasingly used for drinking water supply and irrigation,” adds Rolf Luyendijk, UNICEF Afghanistan’s chief of Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene. “The high level of self-reliance of Afghan communities means that these systems are much more likely to be sustained by communities than the relatively low-level service hand pumps.”
Since the project’s launch, solar-powered piped systems have been installed in 59 communities and 65 communities have received gravity-fed water supply systems. These systems’ off-grid power supply helps ensure a more reliable water supply and improved quality of life in the many remote communities that are disconnected from the national electric grid. The Rural Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene project is also investing in local capacity building efforts to help extend the lifetime of these infrastructure improvements, strengthening the technical and contracting capacity of the MRRD’s provincial offices while “focusing on building private sector interest in sustainable operations and maintenance models, which further enhance sustainability and feasibility” of the interventions, says Ibrahimkhil. In particular, she says, USAID uses mobilization and community assessments to identify skilled technicians affiliated with small-scale private enterprises, and is subsequently “closely working with them to streamline their infrastructure, systems, and processes.”
Transforming Lives through Improved Rural WASH
Ongoing upgrades to rural water supply also pave the way for improvements in community hygiene. “Piped systems provide much more water closer to homes — which has a huge impact on family hygiene improvement,” notes Luyendijk. To that end, the project is working with government health workers, local NGOs, and community organizations to promote improved hygiene behaviors, such as regular handwashing, in more than 50 rural health centers and establishing dedicated sanitation facilities for girls in 200 schools or community education centers.
Women have taken the lead in ensuring the accountability of their families and communities for implementing and maintaining sanitation and hygiene improvements.
“Women are usually the custodians of health and hygiene in the family; it is women who remind their children to wash their hands,” Luyendijk observes. “The community-led hygiene improvements in Afghanistan work through ‘Family Health Action Groups’ — informal groups of usually young women come together around issues of reproductive, maternal, and child health, and are supported by a community health worker. [Community-led total sanitation] mobilization teams work with these groups to discuss hygiene improvement, the importance of handwashing with soap, and the importance of using latrines. These women, in turn, go house-to-house in their own neighborhoods and discuss the same issues with their peers.”
Ongoing rural WASH improvements are also producing a key spillover effect — empowering girls by reducing the amount of time spent collecting water. “The benefits for children and women of having more water available closer at home are enormous,” says Khodr. “We have known for decades that the health and hygiene of a family greatly improves when more water is readily available in or close to the homes. And with better hygiene, families, and especially small children, no longer get sick so often, are better nourished, and do better at school. With clean drinking water closer to home, children and often girls are absolved of their duties to spend hours carrying water from faraway sources. No longer burdened by household chores, they can go to school instead. Bringing basic services like water, sanitation, and hygiene to deprived communities and schools is a very cost-effective way of making a big change in children’s lives.”
The Rural Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene project is now in full stride, having already completed interventions benefitting more than 240,000 Afghans, and reaching an additional 229,000 Afghans through ongoing interventions. Aiming to capitalize on momentum generated to date, USAID, UNICEF, and the MRRD expect to exceed their target for providing enhanced access to safe drinking water to 525,000 people prior to the project’s end date in mid-2020. “As a result of our investments in enhancing the MRRD’s implementation capacity at the provincial level,” says Luyendijk, “the project is actually moving ahead of schedule.”
In doing so, they are laying the foundation for continued public health improvements for rural Afghans accustomed to perpetual hardship — sparking optimism in isolated rural communities and setting the stage for a more water-secure future.
By Russell Sticklor
- Bolstering Water Security and Supply in Afghanistan
- UNICEF Afghanistan
- Globalwaters.org: Afghanistan Country Profile
This article appears in Global Waters, Vol. 9, Issue 1; for past issues of the magazine, visit Global Waters’ homepage on the USAID website.