ROME, ITALY — In a bid to help farmers increase crop production, the United Nation’s (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Feb. 14 that it is boosting its technical support for rehabilitation of Afghanistan's dilapidated traditional irrigation systems. The initiative also aims to improve the knowledge and skills that farmers need to run and maintain irrigation systems.

FAO has signed a $27.7 million agreement with the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water to provide technical assistance, including expertise and training for implementation of the Irrigation Restoration and Development Project (IRDP).

Decades of war in Afghanistan and migration away from rural areas have contributed to the degradation and neglect of the country's irrigation system. The lack of efficient irrigation facilities has left many farmers without sufficient water for agriculture, including the production of wheat, the country's main staple food crop, FAO said. But in recent years, the country's Ministry of Energy and Water has placed a priority on water resources development within its National Development Strategy.

"The irrigation systems had suffered over the past three decades, not only because of a lack of investment, but also because people were moving away from the rural areas, leaving no one to maintain the systems or transfer indigenous skills to the younger generation. When there was a flood, for instance, there was no one to repair or clean up damaged canals or dams. So farmers in rural areas were not able to get enough water to cultivate their fields. As a result, they produced fewer crops," said Pasquale Steduto, head of FAO's Water Development and Management Unit.

The project is primarily funded by a grant from the World Bank with an additional contribution from the Government of Afghanistan. It builds on experience gained from FAO's implementation of the Bank's Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project, which was completed in December 2011.

That emergency project strengthened the capacity of the Ministry's Project Coordination Unit to plan and manage the rehabilitation of irrigation systems. The new six-year restoration and development project plans to follow up by designing and developing small storage dams, in addition to rehabilitating irrigation systems. It will also complete development of hydro-meteorological networks and services to monitor weather conditions, water flow and water quality issues, and will include training in operation and maintenance of the networks.

FAO will help the Ministry of Energy and Water by training personnel and assisting in the use of modern design and management methods. The initiative will also train farmers in improved water management practices and operation and maintenance of irrigation systems.

In line with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the overall project objective is to increase agricultural productivity and production in the project areas.

The rehabilitation of irrigation schemes around the country are expected to cover a total irrigated area of about 300,000 hectares, increase irrigated areas by about 15%, lead to an increase in the crop yield of around 20% and benefit around 230,000 households.

"Wheat is the most important crop for Afghanistan because for 80% to 100% of the population, it is the number-one staple crop. And roughly 80% of the land which farmers cultivated is tilled for wheat. So any reduction in the production of wheat means a shortage of food. It directly affects the food security situation in Afghanistan," said Steduto.