Thursday, October 25

Impact of foreign military occupation on Afghanistan's water table

Don't let the name of the publication fool you; EARTH magazine, which reports on issues in the geologic sciences, only uses professional science journalists and scientists to author their articles. No environmental activists and New Agers allowed. But given the large impact of human activity on geologic formations, one can expect to find reports at EARTH that intersect with a wide range of issues including environmental ones.

Such is the case with an in-depth report published at EARTH in July 2009 headlined Finding water in the heart of darkness: Afghanistan's ongoing water challenges, written by David B. Williams. Williams outlined the major types of challenges, among these one I haven't found discussed anywhere else on the internet: the impact of the U.S. military occupation on Afghanistan's groundwater resources. The gist is that from 2001 to 2005 the military didn't pay much attention to water issues in Afghanistan. One consequence: 
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pops a well down and pumps out water, which is clean and good." The problem arises when the military pumps water indiscriminately — "without too much thought" about possible adverse effects on a nearby karez, which might be supplying water to local villages ... In a few short weeks, such a well can suck a karez dry. ..."
A karez, which the report describes in detail, is a brilliantly engineered underground water transport system that had been in use in Afghanistan for thousands of years.

Luckily for the Afghans, a U.S. officer deployed to Afghanistan in April 2005 to head up the 71st Medical Detachment for preventive medicine was a geologist by training. Major Christopher Gellasch, a U.S. Army Environmental Science Officer, took one look at the water pumping situation and I think said to the Corps in so many words, 'Are ya'll crazy?'

Gellasch was only deployed to Afghanistan for a year but during that time he managed to impress on his superiors that it was absolutely critical to pay close attention to how the military used water in Afghanistan. Williams detailed some of the positive consequences and by the time he interviewed Gellasch for the EARTH report --
In the eight years that U.S. and coalition forces have been in Afghanistan, many issues have begun to change, Gellasch says. In particular, more advance planning is taking place. Specialists are now able to go in and conduct site assessments to determine what environmental needs should be addressed. These include water and sanitation issues, as well as checking for potential disease vectors such as mosquitoes and sand fleas.
But again, the report was published in July 2009; that was  before President Obama announced the 'surge' in U.S. troops to Afghanistan in October 2009. And Williams doesn't address the water uses of non-U.S. troops in the gigantic ISAF coalition, nor of the coalition's countless camp followers -- the contractors, subcontractors, ngo workers, foreign civilian officials, etc. who had converged on Afghanistan and its water supplies even before the surge.

EARTH did not raise the curtain again on the question of the U.S. military's use of water until July 17, 2017, in a report headlined In a position to lead: How military technology and innovation can ease the world's water challenges. The report makes clear that the military has come a long way in managing its water supplies since 2001, and across --
"... more than 500 installations worldwide, from small Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan and Iraq that resemble remote villages without water treatment or sanitation infrastructure, to large domestic bases that operate like established municipalities with aging infrastructure. No matter the size or location of a particular installation, though, the military needs a lot of water.
Finding solutions to water shortages and other problems is, thus, already an important mission for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). And given its scale and resources, as well as its need for resilient systems, the department is poised to drive innovation in the water sector. DOD’s efforts could have far-reaching benefits beyond the military.
The EARTH report details some of the efforts; although it cautions that "much more can and should be done," it's a generally positive account of the U.S. military's work to make its water use sustainable, as this passage illustrates:
An emphasis on water systems in the deployed environment is also showing up in DOD labs. Air Force and Army research labs have recently unveiled “Forward Operating Base of the Future” concepts to pilot technical solutions to common challenges posed by remote deployment environments — water being chief among them. For example, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center is developing technologies for condensing water out of ambient air and recycling wastewater. If successful, both technologies might transform how FOBs procure water, allowing remote outposts to move away from a dependency on external deliveries and toward self-sufficiency. By adopting new technologies, FOBs can remain effective while lessening requirements for resupply convoys that place soldiers in harm’s way.
But beyond a photo caption, "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a highly efficient wastewater treatment plant at FOB Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan," the 2017 EARTH report does not revisit the water situation in Afghanistan.

And so, given that I've been unable to locate recent detailed reporting on the topic, I must make do with The Diplomat's October 10, 2018 report, Is Water Scarcity a Bigger Threat Than the Taliban in Afghanistan?: "Water scarcity — not war — is a rising cause for displacement in Afghanistan," which in no way addresses the impact of foreign militarization on the country's water table. The report does mention:
The U.S. Geological Survey has stated that the groundwater level has, on average, declined by 1.4 mm between 2004-2012, and 22 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are facing drought today.
The "on average" isn't helpful to me. Just what is the decline in regions where US/ISAF bases have been located? And what are these declines from 2001 to 2017?  

Yet I fear the questions are breaking a Taboo, that being to discuss the effect of longstanding foreign military basing on the water sources of countries. (Just one of many Taboo topics that have emerged since the turn of the century, thus my sarcastic capitalization of the word.)

I also look warily on this passage in the Diplomat report:
The United Nations in 2006 stated that the water crisis [in Afghanistan] is not due to a physical absence of freshwater, rather the mismanagement and lack of investment in water supplies.
Yes, on paper Afghanistan has plenty of river water, as the Diplomat reporter details, but could we have an assessment of the freshwater supply that is more recent than 2006? Could we also learn the present state of the water table, region by region, in Afghanistan?

And while the Diplomat report is stuffed with interesting facts, they can't add up to a clear picture of Afghanistan's water problems because they don't address the Taboo topic. 

Here I am reminded of the era in China when female patients couldn't be examined by a physician and so had to point to an area on a doll and tell him, 'This is where it hurts.'  So I must perforce skip the examination stage and simply observe that the Pottery Barn Rule does apply in this instance. 

What started out as a small-footprint war mushroomed into an operation that created more problems for Afghans than Pakistani generals could have dreamed of making. This means that no matter what water issues existed in the country before our arrival, Americans have a responsibility to fix Afghanistan's groundwater supply as much as possible. 

And yes, I am aware of the work done by USAID, Germany's government, and the World Bank to address Afghanistan's water problems. Their efforts in this regard are not enough. The foreign militaries still in the country and in particular the American one must take the lead. 

See also:
Millions of starving Afghans flee drought-stricken farms. But STAY IN PLACE has worked where it's been used, October 18, Pundita

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