NPR logo Afghan Farmers' Risky Choice: Water At Night Or Not?

Afghan Farmers' Risky Choice: Water At Night Or Not?

As he prepares to leave Afghanistan after extensive reporting with Marines in Helmand Province and elsewhere in the country, All Things Considered producer Graham Smith sends along another report.

This time, he writes about the problem facing many farmers in Helmand — whether to take the chance of being shot while watering their crops at night, or watching as their livelihoods literally dry up:

One theme I want to mention — the trouble with farming in a war zone. It's hard to say exactly what was the "primary concern" for the locals. It's something about security. Physical and economic too, and they're closely tied together. Pretty much whenever we had occasion to talk with villagers, they kept talking about watering at night.

There's a problem with the canal system coming off of the Helmand River. These canals are the engine of farming in the river valley that is known as "the green zone" because it's the one fertile area in the region, parts of which are "the snake's head" and "the fish hook" because of their shapes on a map. The green zone is the major agricultural production area down there — growing everything from wheat and melons to grapes, fruit trees, and of course opium poppy.

This is the poppy that funds a big part of the Taliban treasury. Ironically, the irrigation canal system that makes growing it possible was built by the American government. It was a USAID project in the 50s, in an early bid to project power here.

But, there's not enough water right now in the system. In part, I'm told, it's because the heavy rains this spring caused the Helmand river to carve a channel that bypasses the sluice gates that feed the canals. The farmers in Sorhodez say the flow is also politically limited: they have to pay bribes every month to the provincial government so they'll release water to the area.

Even with money paid, there's not enough water in the canals for them to work the way they're meant. When they're flush, a farmer can just open up a gate and let the water flow. With the water low, they have a system where they take turns using the water, and when their chance comes, they must use gasoline pumps to get it up and down into the smaller canals that surround each field. It's expensive, so they try to conserve as much as possible by watering only at night.

It was while tending to a field like this a little boy was killed by British troops. You can understand that it might be tough to tell who's a farmer and who's Talib on a dark night through goggles. So the farmers asked time and again to the Marines — "can you not patrol at night, because that's when we need to water? And we don't want to get shot."

But of course, night time is when the U.S. and its allies have the tactical advantage — when they can leverage the night vision and thermal imaging that the Taliban lacks. They're not going to give that up.

All of which leaves the locals a choice: water at night and take the risk, or let their crops wither. When I asked a farmer how the Americans might tell the difference between a farmer and a fighter, he thought for a moment, and finally said that if the person has a flashlight and knee-high mud boots, it's a good bet they're watering a field rather than putting in an IED.

Pretty good answer, but again, at a distance of a couple hundred feet it's gonna be tough.