ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — Fighting season is fast approaching, but for the time being, Kandahar is preoccupied with water, food and crops.
All along the Arghandab River valley north of Kandahar city lie fields of wheat. Thousands of pomegranate trees are in blossom; their compact orange flowers scent the air. This is Kandahar at its best, and its most traditional.
Insurgent activity has slowed while young men of fighting age work in local orchards and fields.
Further to the west, in the volatile Panjwaii district, people are consumed with the poppy harvest: Scraping pods that ooze dark opium paste.
The poppy economy remains vexing.
Insurgents will buy the opium paste from local farmers, then sell it in underground markets and use the profits to arm themselves and lure the same men who collect it to their fight.
It's a vicious cycle and one that can be broken, people say, if more legal alternatives to the poppy could develop and flourish. Crucial to that solution is the efficient supply and distribution of the world's most precious resource — water.
That's where Canada comes in.
Canada's civilian component to the large NATO-led mission in Kandahar is often overlooked, thanks in part to the much larger, controversial military deployment here. But it's no less important to solving problems on the ground. And it's ramping up.
After two years of planning, Canada's single largest foreign-aid project in a generation is underway in the Arghandab. The $50-million Arghandab Irrigation Rehabilitation Project is revitalizing an ailing, 57-year-old dam and irrigation system that once allowed this desert province to lay claim as Afghanistan's breadbasket.
Kandahar once produced enough wheat to feed the entire country. The Soviet invasion, civil war and drought changed everything.
Rebuilding the agro-economy is an essential but hugely ambitious task. Fixing the water system is key. The 50-metre high Dahla dam is in relatively stable condition, but its reservoir capacity has shrunk by about 30 per cent from the original 480-million cubic metres, thanks to gradual siltification.
The Canadian plan is not to increase the dam's present capacity, since that would require far more money, but rather to enhance existing infrastructure. It's still a significant investment and it demonstrates Canada is punching above its weight; the United States, for example, is to spend $250 million for agriculture projects in all of Afghanistan.
Most of the work along the Arghandab irrigation system is downstream, where a complex, inefficient arrangement of canals, diversions and weirs badly needs an overhaul. Repairing and replacing the broken pieces of irrigation equipment is expected to take three years, well past the 2011 end date for the military component of Canada's mission in Kandahar.
Streamlining the valley's archaic water management system could take longer. Water sharing and distribution among farmers and villages is the source of constant squabbling. Local power brokers and tribal leaders determine who gets what, and when.
"Afghanistan is one of the least efficient countries in terms of water use, despite thousands of years of its history using water in agriculture," says Chantal Ruel, project leader for CIDA's dam and irrigation project.
Afghan bureaucrats and traditional community stakeholders called Mirabs manage water use and water distribution. They determine when irrigation floodgates open and for how long.
"But no one is trained how to measure water flows, or how to really manage it," Ruel says. "They don't have the tools or skills to do it."
"It can be an arbitrary system based on personalities and tribes," adds Jason Schmaltz, a project officer.
Ruel and Schmaltz both work in Kandahar City, from CIDA offices inside the well-fortified Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team headquarters.
CIDA has hired engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and water consultant Hydrosult Inc., both based in Montreal, to conduct the rehabilitation project. Their contracts are signed; work plans are being refined and civilian employees from Canada will start arriving soon.
"Several thousand" local Afghans are expected to be employed along the Arghandab river and canal route, which runs from the dam, down the Arghandab valley, and into Kandahar city itself, a distance of about 40 kilometres.
To demonstrate the seriousness of its intent, CIDA has already funded the construction of a new bridge near the dam site and repairs to the access road.
Afghan crews were busy working on the paved road this week, when a Canadian military convoy travelled through the Arghandab valley and to the top of the dam itself.
It is a remarkable journey — the route follows the wide, earthen canal, now full with water, and past a diversion weir, and then, briefly, the Arghandab River.
Everywhere is normal, productive activity. The fields are lush. The road veers left, and climbs. The landscape changes dramatically, from pastoral and green to dun brown. It's bone dry. Then the earthen dam comes into view. The base of the dam is surrounded by pine forest that somehow survived the woodcutter's axe.
The convoy climbs another road leading to the top of the dam. And there it is: a 3,000-hectare man-made lake, surrounded by craggy mountains. It's a stunning sight. Soldiers clamber out of their vehicles and snap photos.
People are slowly coming back, but the journey remains precarious.
Improvised explosive devices are frequently planted along the access road. A blast occurred this week and took out a few square metres of asphalt. There were no reports of casualties.
The potential for surprise insurgent attacks remains top of mind, but the war stops here — if only for a moment. From this place life begins. From here it is replenished.