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LOCALLY LED DEVELOPMENT: Working in close partnership with communities enables NAC to take a back seat role in integrated rural development. NAC’s Community Driven Approach.

– As everyone knows, water is the source of life. We can use water for irrigation, drinking, or washing, says Simin Walid, Head of the NAC regional office for Northern Afghanistan. She goes on to say that while there is access to water in Yaftal-e-Payan, there was no proper system to use the water to irrigate the fields.

Yaftal-e-Payan is one of five districts in Badakhshan province supported by NAC’s Empowering Rural Afghanistan (ERA) program. This is where we find the village of Guldara – the Valley of Flowers. Nestled between the mountain base and a river, Guldara is a typical Afghan village. The river provides water for food and livelihoods for the 1,456 people who live there, but it is also a source of danger when melting snow from the mountains creates violent and destructive flash floods. Until last summer, it was commonplace that repeated water shortages threatened the village’s access to food and caused conflicts within and between communities.

The main source of the water shortages in Guldara was an old irrigational canal that was unable to withstand the increasing number of flash floods occurring due to climate change. With support from Norad, NAC has been engaging in the long-term process of integrated development in Guldara, and the reconstruction of the old canal made its way to the top of the priority list after consultations with community members.

Before the implementation of this project, the canal was vulnerable to natural disasters. For example, if it rained more than ten times in a year, the canal would get damaged. To clean and maintain the canal, the villagers had to work by hand using shovels and pickaxes. Sometimes irrigation water was cut off for weeks at the time, said Ehsanullah, a member of the Guldara Village Council.

With a more predictable water flow, the amount of irrigated land has increased to roughly 80 hectares.

– Before the construction of this canal, we were faced with severe problems and couldn’t afford our daily expenses, says Zaib Nesa, a Guldara villager. She went on to say that beans, apples, onions, potatoes, peaches and apricots are grown in the village.

Through this project, the arable land in the village has doubled and yields have increased. This means more and better food, improved quality of life for the families in Guldara, and increased income after the surplus is sold in local markets.

From ownership to greater sustainability

The irrigation canal in Guldara

At every stage of the initiative, from making the decision to work on the canal, to planning, construction, and site monitoring and maintenance, the people of Guldara have driven the process. A total of 186 community members were hired to work on the canal and were paid in cash and/or food. The inclusive process also helped to develop a greater sense of ownership of the canal. Community members didn’t only work on the canal, they also contributed with finding and transporting stones and other local materials for the project.

– We had a commission consisting of 13 members who voluntarily supervised all aspects of this project, from its inception to completion, said Ehsanullah, a member of the Guldara Village Council.

Involving a wide range of community members in planning and designing, the project ensured that the intervention addressed real needs and was implemented in an appropriate way. Throughout the implementation phase, community elders supervised and monitored the project.

During the planning phase, community members and NAC engineers jointly surveyed the entirety of the 3,200 meter canal and concluded that 1,100 meters needed to be completely rebuilt, along with other improvements. Once the design was approved by NAC’s engineering team, work on the canal started on 1 June 2020 and was completed within just six months. The construction process involved the following activities:

  • A canal intake with a water controlling gate to take water from the local river.
  • Eight ‘super passages’ to divert flood waters and protect the canal from related damage.
  • 1,100 meters of stonemasonry.

The use of locally available construction materials, as well as training and capacity building, ensures that the villagers will be able to protect and maintain the canal.

– There is no need to work on the canal every year. We have elected two Mirabs – elders with some technical skills – to walk along the canal to monitor and protect the canal, organize maintenance when necessary, and distribute the water among the villagers, Ehsanullah explained.

The advantages of this approach are significant. The inclusive approach ensures that the whole community has a stake in the project and feels a shared responsibility for its repair, maintenance and upkeep. In other words, when the local population defines the problem and points to the solution, the results are truly sustainable.

– As owners of the canal, we always try to protect it from any damage, and if and when necessary, we will repair it, says Haji Azimbay, a community elder.

Promoting dialogue

In addition to ensuring canal maintenance and upkeep, the Water Management Committee exists to identify potential conflicts and determine an equitable distribution of water between the families.

In this way, community driven approaches also facilitate dialogue around difficult issues and foster an environment of lasting mutual understanding. This is a crucial part of NAC’s approach to promoting community cohesion and sustainability.

– Before the construction of this canal, there were frequent water-related conflicts, said Mawlawi Jamaluddin Hakimi, the mullah of Guldara. – After receiving training in dialogue and conflict transformation, people found the root cause of the conflicts and agreed on how to resolve them, he continued.

This was confirmed by village resident Mohibullah, who said that since everyone now has enough water to irrigate their land, there are no more disputes.

– Before the rehabilitation of this canal, conflict over irrigation water was a daily occurrence among the farmers. There are two water masters to manage the water division and protect the canal from any harm.

An exemplary approach

Afghanistan is rated by the OECD as the 3rd most fragile state in the world. The UN estimates that 97 percent of the population lives in poverty and 20 million are facing food insecurity and hunger. In the absence of a functional state, sustainable development has proven difficult, and local communities are left with the responsibility to manage their own development. This fact informs all NAC programming.

NAC works with integrated rural development, combining activities in education, food security, natural research management and disaster risk reduction, with gender, dialogue and conflict transformation, human rights and climate change as crosscutting themes. NAC’s Community Driven Approach ensures that whole communities take part in finding out what they actually need and solving their challenges in a practical manner. The end results are projects that are relevant to the people in all their phases, from planning to evaluation.

The report Community-Driven Development or community-based development? Review of Norwegian-funded CDC projects in Afghanistan published by the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) in (2022) discusses the concepts of community-driven or community-led approaches. Ideally, such processes would involve the community in all stages of a project, including setting goals, identifying target groups, prioritizing sub-projects and budgets, monitoring implementation and evaluating the results. Usually, this is ensured through the involvement of Community Development Councils (CDCs).

Comparing the approaches of a selection of NGOs working in Afghanistan, CMI concludes that the NAC has taken this approach beyond CDC involvement by also partnering community development committees, village and school, shuras, water management and rangeland committees, farmer associations, and youth, women and child-led organizations. In this way, elite capture is avoided, and greater sustainability ensured. Other partners include community development committees, water and rangeland committees, and farmer associations. These partners are formalized in MoUs and community contracts.

This broad inclusion led CMI to conclude that the NAC way of working is a useful source of learning for other organizations working in Afghanistan. The credit goes to the Afghans themselves, who time and again prove that donor funding only takes you so far, and that their future lies firmly in their own hands.