Beautiful Walls

Afghanistan. Not only is it bedevilled by almost incessant armed violence, it's also subject to boiling summers. harsh winters and flash floods which can wipe out years of hard-won development in seconds. When homes are under threat, when making a living is impossible, people migrate. IOM is building walls all over Afghanistan - not to keep people out, but to hold back the floods and allow people to stay where they want to be - at home.

Words, design and visuals by Joe Lowry
Support: Nasir Haidarzai
31 October 2016

A hypermarket for disasters

Afghanistan is sometimes known as "a hypermarket of disasters" Whatever you name, disasterwise, they have it, 24/7, year in,year out. Earthquakes, floods, droughts, landslides, sandstorms, avalanches,bitter cold, searing heat... all that on top of relentless conflict and grinding poverty.

While the International Community worries about the big picture, in Afghanistan's towns and villages there are farmers who want to plant, parents who want safe houses, children who simply want to go to school.

IOM has recorded tens of thousands of families being displaced by disasters every year. Worryingly, the trend is on the rise.These disasters not only claim lives, injure people and damage homes, they also destroy livelihoods and place lives on hold while new houses can be built, land secured and jobs found.

It's hard to find funds to help the disaster-affected, as their needs are sometimes not seen as quite as pressing as the million or so people displaced by conflict, or the million projected to return across the border from years of living as refugees in Iran and Pakistan.

Bricks in the Wall

Disaster preparedness is the less glamorous cousin of Disaster Relief. In the latter, the so-called "relief cowboys" (and cowgirls) parachute into a shattered community, and proceed to take over local coping mechanisms, ordering tons of rice, flour, tinned food, clothes – which often arrive just as the local market is getting back on its feet. The relief cowboys are inevitably accompanied by TV crews and celebrity volunteers, who also skew the market, hog all the electricity and clean water, and whiz by the affected populations in air-conditioned land-cruisers, stopping for pieces-to-camera at shattered spots.

Disaster Preparedness is much more prosaic. It involves studying disaster patterns and finding durable solutions to perennial problems. Ideally, it includes local knowledge as part of the problem-solving.However, as climate patterns change, and storms, floods, erosion and sea-level rise impact on new areas, there simply are no traditional coping mechanisms,and they have to be invented.

Less glamorous it may be, but Disaster Preparedness works, and it works much better than waiting until the house is on fire before you buy a fire extinguisher.

At first glance, it's not immediately obvious why IOM, the UN's Migration Agency, should be carrying out this work anyway. But when you spend time - as IOM does - listening to the community, and hear how difficult farming, forestry, agriculture and related industries have become, you begin to see how the fabric of society can unwind in the face of disaster. The youngest and brightest leave to find work, and, sometimes within a generation or two, a whole village, which may have been around for hundreds of years, begins to die out.

IOM's answer in Afghanistan has been to work with the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Agency (ANDMA) to construct vast walls of rock, tightly packed in what looks like giant chicken wire. These so-called gabion walls take their name from the Italian gabbione (big cage). You’ve seen them used for erosion control, or as the foundation for embankments on motorways. They work well in flood control as they act as a barrier, a ready made riverbank, and an immovable obstacle.

Mimizak is a modest, nondescript village off the main road between Herat and the Iranian border. Bone-dry hills, ochre in colour, roll down on either side. The soil is thin and sandy, with not a tree in sight. Winter rains and spring snow-melts can have catastrophic effects here. 

Local schoolmaster Abdullah Dehqanya takes up the story:

Nine-year-old Nazir Ahmad agrees!

IOM staff chat to community leaders by a new Gabion wall on a desert plain above the village of Mimizak, Herat province. During the rainy season the area is prone to deluges and flash floods.

Some 700 kilometers due east of Mimizak lies Harawki, a village of 1,500 houses. It's a lush, almost tropical region, with green forests, fields and farms. But it too is regularly inundated with floods, and it too has benefited from gabion walls built by IOM, and funded by USAID/OFDA (Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance)

On a late summer day, IOM Chief of Mission and Special Representative to Afghanistan, Laurence Hart, cuts the ribbon to signify the official "opening" of two long walls which for a watercourse to direct water away from Harakwi's houses.

Village elder Ibrahim Khan welcomes the IOM delegation to Harakwi

This is an official opening with a difference. We are in a very traditional part of Afghanistan so the welcoming committee is all male. We are also in an insecure area, not far form the airbase at Baghram. There's little time for any pomp around the ceremony. A few short speeches, some ribbon cutting, and then the security detail accompanying our delegation warns that we should be moving on.

IOM Chief of Mission on the benefits of gabion walls, above and beyond flood releif

“We’re in the central region of Afghanistan, which is exposed to a lot of water," says Laurence Hart. "Water here is a blessing because it brings a lot of contribution to agriculture. But, it can also be a great threat, because it exposes the territory and community to flood.

"This is an example of what IOM and its partners have been carrying out over the years to strengthen and consolidate the possibility of the community to not be prone to floods, to allow children to have access to schools, and to allow the ordinary citizens to have access to services.

"in this project, we avoid further displacement of people in the country, which is already very high. This project requires a lot of coordination and good quality work, because when it comes to delivering these kinds of walls, it’s not just about putting stones together.It’s about finding the best quality material that lasts over the years, so that the community can actually benefit for a long period of time.”