The giant earth ramparts and watch-towers that once guarded the great, domed granaries inside Pahlawan Piri still cast strange, long shadows in the searing sun, as they would have done when the village was a jewel in some long-forgotten Central Asian king’s crown. There’s just dust where the wealth was once hoarded. Children, and the elderly, scrounge what can be had from the scorched wheat and barley fields around the village; the young men have all left.
The water that burst out of the Salma Dam’s turbines on Saturday afternoon, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani pressed a remote-controlled button in Herat, is meant to transform the fortunes of villages like Pahlawan Piri — hit by a 15-year drought that’s ravaged the region’s countryside.
Instead, the water surged down the Harirud and emptied across the border into Iran, though farmers living right along the river were able to funnel it into their fields. Irrigation canals and power transmission lines are to be built by Afghanistan’s government, but even the plans haven’t been finalised yet.
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“Even when green shoots come up on this earth,” says Pahlawan Piri’s arbab, or village head, Muhammad Daud, “you can see them starting to burn up.” He holds up a sheaf of wheat. “It’s all straw and no seed. We’ll be lucky if we can keep the animals alive with this.”
Like many villages in the shadow of the Salma Dam’s giant reservoir, Pahlawan Piri has seen an exodus of young men to Iran, over 140 villagers now work for either a share of the crop from local farmers, or sell vegetables on the streets of the city of Mashad in Razzavi-Khorasan province. Their remittance incomes just about keep the village afloat, paying for food and drinking water for those who have stayed behind.
The World Bank-funded National Solidarity Programme has installed a solar-powered pump, which sells drinking water at the equivalent of Rs 6 per cubic metre — a fifth what diesel-powered pumps, till last year, cost the village.
Ever since drought set in from 2001, things have become worse. Water levels in local wells have fallen to 75 metres or below — far too expensive to pump up for irrigation.
Large-scale migration has begun to tell on the region’s social fabric. Hamid Beyram, home on a short break from Mashad, says his family has been pressuring him to get married. “I explained to them that I just cannot afford to get married.”
Pus, Iran isn’t always welcoming to illegal migrants. Last year, Pahlawan Piri farmer Hafizullah’s brother, Amanullah, was deported after three years in the country. “He was caught in a police raid,” Hafizullah explains, “and sent home after being given a severe beating in jail. His children did not know where he was for days.” Last month, another brother, Saeed Agha, sent money for Amanullah to make the journey to Iran again.
Home to 807 families, Pahlawan Piri’s farmers have long depended on rain to irrigate their single crop. In the 1970s, a canal was built from the higher reaches of the Harirud, where the Salma Dam now stands, bringing some gravity irrigation to riverside villages like Ali Agha and Jinda Khan.
The canal system, though, disintegrated through decades of war, which began in 1979. Even though the village was relatively shielded from the fighting, it lost over 30 men during the wars.
Efforts made by villagers to improve their conditions have run into a bureaucracy that would be familiar to many in India. Five years ago, Pahlawan Piri’s villagers joined with others in the area to put together the equivalent of Rs 3,000,000 to buy 58 electrical poles and a transformer, which the government said would be used to supply power once the Salma Dam was built.
“Now, no one is telling us when they’ll construct the sub-station that will supply power to our village.” says arbab Daud. “Every time I speak to officials in Herat, I am just told, soon. Meanwhile the transformer and the poles are rusting.”
In some villages, frustrated young people have joined bandit gangs, some of which played a key role protecting freight shipments to the dam from the Taliban, in return for payments from contractors. Few travel on the dirt roads leading out of Herat into the countryside at night; even in the day, kidnapping and robbery isn’t uncommon. For now, there’s some reason to celebrate: villages along the Harirud have planted a bonus crop of paddy, the first in living memory. The flooded fields, though, don’t stretch nearly far enough to bring about the kind of transformation the dam project could deliver to Herat.
“Even the old men are going to have to leave for Iran soon, or starve,” says Daud. “I had gone to the dam just a few weeks ago, and it broke my heart to see all that water there, while our lands burn.”