Where There Is Water, There Is Life: Water Complexities in a Coin Environment

By Leppert, Martin A. | Infantry, April/May 2011 | Go to article overview

Where There Is Water, There Is Life: Water Complexities in a Coin Environment


Leppert, Martin A., Infantry


The Challenge

Flying low and fast over the seemingly endless, barren landscape of southern Afghanistan never ceased to amaze me and sharpen my senses to search for the unexpected in the desert below. In a land so dry, so void of accessible or available water, I would often be amazed to spot the small, humble villages straddling a small green belt of land. "Another small miracle in this endless wasteland," I would tell myself. What is it that allows these hardy souls to scratch a living from the hot, arid land? In many cases it is the availability and accessibility of groundwater - water found in the myriad openings between the grains of sand and silt, between particles of clay, or even along the fractures in granite below the Earth's surface.

The traditional, rural people of Afghanistan's mountainous areas have mastered the art of taking water from the ground, giving life to their small farms, animal herds, and family members. The groundwater that these Afghans tap into is key to their survival. It is accessed through a series of underground tunnels known as a karez system (Figure 1 ). Where a karez's telltale hand-dug vertical shafts dot the landscape, a horizontal canal has been constructed underground to move water from a surface water table source (typically at the base of a mountain) to a village or agricultural field. These Afghans' ancestors would be able to recognize the karez method as the one tried and true process for collecting water used by them hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, in today's Afghanistan, the traditional karez system is failing because general drought and groundwater overdraft from thousands of modern pump wells are drawing down the water table.

Getting out into the villages brings a whole new reality to the plight of the average Afghan farmer and his family. His is truly a hard life best witnessed up close and personal. The actual daily struggle to get the appropriate amount of water to field, animal herd, and family is a never-ending task. Water is truly the number one key and essential basic need throughout the entire country of Afghanistan. This is true for rural areas as well as urban population centers such as Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat. Water resource management skills and the ability to assure water quality offer the counterinsurgency (COIN) warrior additional tools in his planning kit bag. If used correctly to develop water security, these could be key to success in the greater COIN "clear, hold, build, transition" strategy within a unit's area of interest/area of operation (AOI/AO).

Since my retirement from the military, I have continued to apply my experience in Afghanistan as a part of the Civil-Military Operations-Human Environment Interaction (CMO-HEI) team within the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Alexandria, Va. The mission of the CMO-HEI team is to develop methodologies to examine and evaluate the interaction of humans (socio-economic/cultural/demographic) and environment (water, soil, land cover) to address and yield actionable information for decision makers and address civil-military operations (CMO) security and stability challenges specific to COIN operations.

Given the current situation in Afghanistan and the critical need for water infrastructure-related work, the CMO-HEI team has gravitated to looking at the relationship of water supply availability, accessibility, and quality to assist military planners in their COIN planning efforts. There is no doubt the team's work will have a direct and positive impact on the many facets within the military decision-making process (MDMP) and assist the staff and commander in making wise decisions regarding development efforts in his area of responsibility (AOR). The new reality for commanders and their staffs at all levels is that they can no longer solely focus on the friendly and enemy soldier situation. They must also devote a high proportion of planning time to the civil-military aspects of the operation, i. …

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Where There Is Water, There Is Life: Water Complexities in a Coin Environment
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