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Afghanistan: Where disability is no handicap when it comes to water

21-03-2014 Feature

Fighting displaced some 450 families, including more than 1,000 people with disabilities, to a village where there was not enough water for everyone. With the support of the ICRC and local authorities, they have now ensured their own water supply.


The men manoeuvre their crutches deftly over the stony ground. CC BY-SA 2.0 / Jessica Barry

 Many of the 450 displaced families who live in Surkhrud district, on the outskirts of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, came there in 2004 seeking refuge from fighting. Among them were around 1,000 people with disabilities, most of them amputees. After reaching an agreement with the local authorities they settled in a village which had little to offer by way of amenities. "The area was like a desert when we first came here," remembers Najibullah Shirzad, head of the village Shura, or council, and himself a landmine victim.

Children cluster around the hand pumps, filling their jerrycans. 

Surkhrud district, Jalalabad, Afghanistan
Children cluster around the hand pumps, filling their jerrycans.
/ CC BY-SA 2.0 / J. Barry

The only available water source was a polluted river for all the community's needs. Therefore, each family contributed a little money to drill a borehole. But as the years passed and the community grew in size, there was not enough water for everyone. And the borehole itself fell into disrepair.

The villagers, many of whom were patients at a nearby physical rehabilitation centre run by the ICRC, decided to approach the organization for help to overcome the lack of water.

"After they contacted us, we asked the Shura to make a proposal and send it to the Afghan Disabled Union – now called the Development and Ability Organization (DAO)," explains Sayed Shah, the ICRC's engineer in charge of water and habitat projects in the Jalalabad region. The DAO, in turn, shared the proposal with the local authority's social welfare department, thus formalizing the Shura’s request to repair the existing borehole, drill four more, and install hand pumps throughout the village, all of it supported technically and financially by the ICRC.

The project was agreed, and work began in March 2013 with the members of the community providing the labour. A storekeeper and guards were recruited to look after the equipment and spare parts. The placing of the hand pumps in easily accessible public locations was the Shura’s responsibility. The ICRC trained two villagers to maintain and repair the pumps and boreholes. The work was finished by the end of the year.

One recent afternoon, Najibullah Shirzad and the other Shura members led four ICRC visitors on a tour of Surkhrud to view the now completed programme. On either side of the bumpy lanes that ran between the houses, men and boys were involved in a new project, digging drains. Elsewhere, children clustered around grey metal hand pumps filling yellow jerrycans. In a side street, people were mixing concrete and repairing their houses. Trudging along behind the Shura, watching the men manoeuvring their crutches deftly over the stony ground was to glimpse the determination and resilience that has driven this community over the years to make the dusty land around them habitable with fresh water, groves of olive trees, green fields, a mosque, and even a school.

Drains are being laid on either side of the bumpy lanes. 

Surkhrud district, Jalalabad, Afghanistan
Drains are being laid on either side of the bumpy lanes.
/ CC BY-SA 2.0 / J. Barry

"Now we are in the heart of the village," remarked Najibullah upon reaching a crossroads were four stony paths met. "Let's go and look at something else for which we need the ICRC’s help," and he and the other men started off at a smart pace up a hill.

"You see, down there," Najibullah pointed when we reached the edge of the village and looked out over a dust-coloured plain that stretched for miles. "Last year, floods washed away some of the houses in this area, and we need your help to build a retaining wall."

There was obviously a need, but no promises were made. A proposal would be required, and agreement from the authorities obtained first.

Behind the mud and brick walls of family compounds, women had more pressing concerns than a flood barrier. "You can see we lack everything," commented a mother of eight, a little wearily, gesturing around an almost empty courtyard as she sat on a rug, nursing a baby. "We don't have any facilities here, and we get our water from the hand pump out in the street." She did admit, though, that the water she uses today is much cleaner than the river from where she and her daughters used to draw water in the past.

The village tour over, the visitors got ready to depart, impressed by the industriousness of the community so many of whom face enormous physical challenges. But before leaving, Najibullah, the head of the Shura, had one last word to say. "Don't forget to ask about our retaining wall," he stressed. "We can do the work ourselves. We just need your support."