Saturday, August 6, 2011

Afghanistan’s forgotten water crisis

The Forgotten Front: Water Security and the Crisis in Sanitation, Afghanistan Human Development Report 2011.

In the face of troop withdrawals and peace talks, an invisible crisis lurks in Afghanistan: that of water and sanitation. The numbers prove startling. Six children die every hour for want of a glass of clean water or sanitation; 16.8 million Afghans lack access to basic drinking water; some 95% of all Afghans cannot access a safe toilet. As with the war, at root of these challenges is the problem of governance.

We are largely accustomed to thinking of Afghanistan as the site of terrorist evil, the source of countless NATO soldier deaths, and the graveyard of empires. Our foreign policy discourse pivots on the questions of Taliban peace talks, Al Qaeda’s safe havens and how to reverse opium production. These all amount to a view of Afghanistan as a failed state, with limited rule of law much less basic service provision.

But Afghanistan is also a place of endemic human poverty. The recent multidimensional poverty index shows that 84% of Afghan households are deprived in standards of living, health and education at the same time. Despite ranking among the world’s top 20 countries in the number of women parliamentarians, Afghanistan also features at the bottom of the gender-related development index for 154 countries in 2009. The nomadic kuchis are the most deprived of all Afghans across the board.

These trends often go hand in hand with insecurity and violence: Helmand is seat both of the lowest literacy rates and deadliest fighting. Yet, poverty and violence are not wholly consonant one with the other. Eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan tribal areas - billed as the most volatile border in the world - also sees some of the better health rates in the country.

These relationships need careful investigation: not only for what lessons they impart for counterinsurgency and global terrorism, but - and perhaps more importantly - for what mean to the lives and livelihoods of Afghans. Redressing their poverty challenges, then, can also prove a major subsequent boost to the war on terror. Confusing the means and ends through continual military doctrines, though, does little to help either situation.

Moreover, Afghanistan’s human development has been on the rise despite violence. Declines in child and maternal mortality rates help elevate health achievements. The country’s human development index has increased over the last 20 years. Primary and secondary school intakes nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008. Inabilities, however, to access clean drinking water, a toilet or irrigation act as brakes to this progress.

Climate change can also slow and reverse advances. Declining water availability, increasing floods and droughts, and a range of economic and health impacts will continue to threaten human development in Afghanistan. Climate shocks leading to heightened water crisis interact with many Afghans’ already high vulnerabilities to leave them at significant risk of a collapse in their choices and opportunities to live full, dignified lives.

Is this because Afghanistan is a water scarce country, with few rivers and parched lands? This is hardly the case. Enough water exists in the country to meet the human right of 20 liters per person per day hundreds of times over. Geography, however, is one part of the challenge: while most Afghans tend to reside near major water sources, the tremendous water availability is not distributed to all regions equally.

Yet the deeper answer lies in governance. Most of Afghanistan's water escapes underutilized over its borders to neighboring countries. A great deal is also wasted, perhaps as much as 40% of water resources simply evaporating into the air as crops, grass and weeds drown in over-watering. Irrigation schemes systemically lack efficiency, with underground canals that transport water onto farms still severely damaged from decades of war and neglect. And branches of government vie for control of the blue gold: a fragmented structure places responsibility for water in the hands of several ministries, from mines to agriculture to water itself, leaving a complex reality for water governance.

The mismanagement crisis is acute. Kabul City, growing at phenomenal urbanization rates, may see a complete drying out of its drinking water in just a few years. Food security across whole pockets of Afghanistan rises and falls based on shifting glacier melt and seasonal water availability. And dialogue towards transboundary water sharing agreements is virtually mute for fear of geopolitical reprisals.

International aid is pivotal for governance as well. Over $24 billion in bilateral and multilateral aid funneled into Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009. Less than 5% went to the water sector, or about $3.31 per Afghan. This represents minor fractions of the $26.50 given to Iraq or $25.00 to Pakistan.

Improving water governance, aid and adapting to climate risks are key ways forward. Expanding on the local National Solidarity Program to rehabilitate and build irrigation canals, village wells and educating children on hygiene can deliver considerable results. Creating ‘water jobs’, moreover, can play the double role of serving Afghan human development and counterinsurgency, keeping the youth at over half the country’s population busy - with some estimates putting agricultural incomes of $4 per day enough to persuade many from joining the insurgency.

A country's human development should not be left to severe mismanagement or weather forecasts. Stepping up the war on terror effort towards a dedicated war on water insecurity and deprivation can help produce a firm exit strategy. It would also help sustain the human development of a people who have experienced decades of war.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Children of the Drug War

Among the most moving issues is that of the unseen impacts on children of: poverty, drought, terrorism and counterterrorism, economic sanctions - and the global war on drugs.

The calculus that keeps much of the 'first world' engaged in 'third world' events tends to ignore the human costs, focusing instead on fiscal budgets. In effort to go beyond the status quo thinking, Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate the true cost of the Iraq war as $3 trillion, including such things as the healthcare bills of injured war veterans. But these studies are few and far between.

This is where Children of the Drug War steps in. The book is now fully published, but we're still waiting for it to go up on websites.

My coauthor and I contributed a look into 'opium brides' in Afghanistan. These are children, largely girls, who get bartered to service farmers' debt to drug lords. Looking at the huge potential income gains from growing poppy over the nearest competitor wheat (more than 6-fold as lucrative), many farmers borrow the finances needed to get started. But as drought or field eradication policies take hold, their poppies are destroyed. This usually leaves poppy farmers in debt still owed to drug lords for the start-up capital. As means to repayment, a practice that occurs is offering the debtor a child-bride.

A popular essay in Newsweek some years back highlighted the issue and developed the term 'opium bride'. The scale and entrenchment of the problem is largely unknown as the war on terror takes place on the same grounds as the war on drugs: Helmand and Kandahar are the dubious sites of the both interventions into Afghanistan. This means that research and reporting from these areas is significantly limited.

What my coauthor Atal discovered in conducting interviews in and around Kandahar is that it's likely more pronounced than we think. Many of the people he was able to meet had specific details to share; all had heard of the practice.

The challenge is a difficult one, rooted in the nature of the economy -- we could call it a 'drug' economy as much of the literature does, but this ignores the fact that is just plain 'economy' to the people engaged in it; the scale of opium income has been as high as 3 times the "legal GDP" in Afghanistan. But it is also rooted in shifts of cultural practices, perceptions and power in Afghanistan in the last generation - and in the last 10 years of the renewed war.

The Afghan-Soviet war displaced traditional elites such as mullahs and tribal heads, leaving the local political space to be filled-in by mujahedeen veterans and those who could wield violence to sort out territory. Alongside the impacts on children and youth, these largely ignored shifts in power need to be further understood in Afghanistan as a result of the foreign interventions. This is one of the insights we try to offer in the book in the latest 10 year war period.

Children of the Drug War takes a broad look at many countries, an innovative book that digs deep under common debates on drugs and wars.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's a small plane that takes off for Bhutan.

The travel catalogues forecast a place of endless enchantment and mystery. The home of thunder dragons and national happiness. The privilege of what I do envelopes me absolutely.

I think next of my work, and life - one as if the other, the sequence masking more than it may illuminate. The work: Climate change. I'm to help write among the first assessments of its impacts and the scale of the needed response for the challenge in a small, landlocked country in the Himalayas.

How do you weigh the pebbles of modernity against those of tradition on the balance of human progress? City life versus rural? Better standards of living versus culture and life itself? That seems the riddle to unravel.

It's a place lucky even for the tourist; I arrive as an invited analyst. Traveling mid-2011, I carry Fukuyama's 'The origins of political order.' It makes me wonder: what secrets are to be uncovered from the Bhutanese mind and landscape.

Time, and peace. They seem the only things on offer - the only things that matter. Deep in the heart of the promise is that these are the very stuff of life, humanity missing the message every, elsewhere. Is it only so much spin, though, for excuse and tourism dollar?

The excuse: to keep at bay the wanton tragedies of the new, the future and modern. The dollars, for the complacency and hypocrisy of it all. An economy owing much to its tourist vision of tradition, temples, green forests and such.

Twenty-four days in the sands of gross happiness, forgotten sites of modernity/tradition, and loneliness to look forward to. In context the average tourist visit peters out at day five, rare the marker of day 10. What more, with over $200 a head per night to be here as a site-seer. I've walked before the expanse of the capital in naught more than a quarter hour - as if exhausting the currency of the city in minutes.

Days of jet-lag and not knowing the time overcome me. Should I remain wide awake or succumb to a desired eternity of sleep and dream?

The origins of political order indeed. Aspirations of man and beast alike; the authority of invented rules against the passions of love, prejudice and the realities of the possible. Where else but to play out the infinite surge of life and death, but at the hallmark of a country left at the thresholds of past and present.

Where else to find the wanting answers for the stage of oneself; one's life; to locate the regality of meaning for a future left open to choice. Escape utter nothingness and too much robustness at once.

And then, simply, breakfast arrives - to temper the treasures of the possible with the gifts of always. My loose thoughts reign themselves in with a decent meal.

To be here by the chances of so much fate. Bend my will to the grace of god. I'm not a religious man, but these are the prayer filled tones that color me over.

And, the plane lands.