Equitably Managing Water Resources in the Panj-Amu River Basin

More than 60,000 hectares have benefited from the improved irrigation infrastructure. Photo credit: Landell Mills.

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Published: 04 June 2021

In Afghanistan, river basin managers work with farmers in ensuring equitable and sustainable irrigation practices to improve yields and livelihoods.


The Panj-Amu River Basin is the second largest in Afghanistan, supporting about 4.2 million or 15% of the population. Per capita water availability is 4,250 cubic meters a year, well above the water stress threshold. Yet, water is not always available at the right place at the right time.

The European Union-funded Panj-Amu River Basin Programme adopted integrated water resources management (IWRM) principles to ensure that water resources are more economically and equitably managed and sustainably protected. Importantly, the project sought to improve agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods.

To make IWRM a reality, improved institutions (and a legal framework to guide them), tools (management instruments), and resources were needed within the government for river basin management. Investments in these areas as well as in infrastructure have been the focus of the program.

The program was implemented between 2009 and 2017 by consulting firm Landell Mills as main technical services provider in cooperation with the Ministry of Energy and Water, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and other government agencies. The EU continued its support to the basin through another project that is administered and co-funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).[1]

In April 2018, the first program was recognized for outstanding international development by the British Expertise International Awards.


Irrigation is critical to improving crop yields. A number of projects examined the expansion of irrigated areas, but high capital outlay often made it economically unfeasible.

Improving access to irrigation water on existing irrigation systems is more feasible but also has constraints. These include

  • inequitable distribution of water both at the river level (between irrigation schemes) and at the command area level (within schemes),
  • dilapidated and inefficient irrigation infrastructure because of poor operation and maintenance,
  • a lack of capacity to scale up investment because of inadequate water use fee collection and government capacity and resources, and
  • damage to infrastructure from flooding as a result of upstream erosion, leading to high abstraction rates and increased flash flooding.

The Panj-Amu River Basin is one of five river basins in Afghanistan. It is part of Amu Darya, the largest river in Central Asia that is shared by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent, the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan.

Agriculture is by far the largest water user in the Panj-Amu basin. A mild climate combined with relatively high precipitation and abundant river flows as well as fertile floodplain soils made it ideal to develop the lower part of the basin into one of the breadbaskets of Afghanistan in the 1930s. The area is the largest producer of wheat (over 1.28 million tons in 2015) and rice (263,000 tons in 2015).

The Panj-Amu basin also has significant potential for crop diversification if water availability can be assured. The total irrigated land in the basin is 450,000 hectares (ha), which is about 4.7% of its total surface area. However, more than 20 years of war and social conflict have resulted in poor management of both watershed areas and irrigation systems, causing serious problems for water management, especially irrigated agriculture, as well as a significant drop in productivity. Despite being a large food producer, the basin also has some of the highest incidences of food insecurity.


Addressing constraints to improving access to irrigation water has been the focus of the Panj-Amu River Basin Programme and its precursor programs for more than a decade.

The overall objective of the EU-supported program was to contribute to the improvement of rural livelihoods and thus to the overall economic recovery of Afghanistan while protecting the natural resource base.

The solution required an integrated approach to the management of scarce water resources between different users, while at the same time improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the water delivery infrastructure. The program focusing on three areas:

In order to support the reform of water management institutions from an administrative to a river basin approach, the program established the first river basin agency and sub-basin agencies in Afghanistan as well as the enabling environment, such as the water law and procedures. These agencies are at the local level and are better able to respond to community needs. Members of these agencies were also trained to undertake river basin planning so that water is used equitably between upstream and downstream users. 

Construction or rehabilitation of more than 750 versatile, irrigation structures (a capital investment of about 50 million euros or 60 million dollars) helped farmers adapt to rapidly changing and highly dynamic flows in the river.

Farm water-saving techniques were also developed through participatory technology development techniques. The most promising and successful approach was the System for Rice Intensification (SRI), which was widely adopted by farmers across the project area. Landell Mills partnered with NGOs to promote the technology.

This technique involves applying a minimum quantity of water, instead of continuous irrigation flooding, and the individual transplanting of young seedlings in a square pattern to give plants more room for root and tiller growth.

On 25 demonstration plots, yield increased by 22% with a substantial decrease of amount of water used.

The project worked with village natural resource committees and catchment management associations to implement various participatory projects. These aimed at protecting against flash floods, decreasing soil erosion, and improving drought resilience of communities in the often remote and vulnerable upper catchments.

Projects included the regeneration and protection of more than 120,000 ha of pastures, rangeland, and degraded woodlands through the establishment of over 1,000 household-based nurseries, which are all managed by women, and 650 anti-erosion devices.

To ensure the activities of the river basin agency and sub-basin agencies are undertaken with active participation of communities, nearly a hundred water user associations were formed. Members were trained to independently manage irrigation infrastructure and promote the equitable distribution of water between farmers. Water user associations were involved from the outset in selecting infrastructure to be built or rehabilitated, approving designs (which were prepared according to the latest climate change projections), and assisting in construction supervision.


As a result of the interventions carried out under the program, more than 60,000 ha (56 irrigation schemes) have directly benefited from improved irrigation infrastructure, leading to an increase of 27,000 ha in the irrigated cropped area.

The program successfully provided an integrated approach to water management, respectful of the region’s natural resource base. Key stakeholders play a significant role in rehabilitating and upgrading infrastructure in the basin and improving water management.

A total of 800,000 water users (19% of the population of the basin) are represented in water user associations that manage 170,000 ha of command area under various irrigation systems. These comprise around 40% of the program’s irrigated area. This setup has helped reduce conflict over water distribution. Water is now managed more equitably between upstream and downstream users, both along rivers and within schemes.

Projects with village natural resource committees protected the area and population from hydrological hazards and helped make them more resilient to drought.

Over 150,000 upper catchment users, with equal number of female and male members, are represented in 300 catchment management associations, which regenerate and protect more than 120,000 ha of pastures, rangeland, and degraded woodlands. Tree planting has resulted in 123,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide sequestered annually, which is the equivalent of removing about 27,000 cars from the road.


While there were many successes, the program also experienced challenges that required a change of approach to overcome. This has provided the following lessons:

While IWRM principles hold true, experience from the early days of program is that a focus on the theoretical aspects can hinder adoption of the approach.

There is a lot of literature on IWRM, including complex diagrams explaining best practice and steps to be taken. These were used during initial workshops with stakeholders from government and water user representatives to explain the approach and get their buy-in. However, this confused many workshop participants.

The lesson, as practiced later in the program, is that awareness-raising on IWRM needs to be practical, adapting IWRM principles to the realities and challenges faced by the target audience.

  • There may be a need to initially set up river basin organizations and start with a river basin agency and water user associations, plus agencies in key sub-basins. The creation of a river basin council/sub-basin councils and other sub-basin agencies can then follow when there is a sounder footing.
  • Instruments or tools do not have to be complex (and should not be when staff capacity remains weak) to have an impact. While more sophisticated models may be required to undertake analysis of large hydropower plants, a spreadsheet application can be used to determine optimum river water distribution between schemes, while basin and sub-basin schematics help river basin and sub-basin agencies to conceptualize the use of water within river systems.

  • Infrastructure (e.g., gates) is needed for efficient water distribution to happen.
  • The involvement of water users through water user associations in prioritization of works, design of works, and inspection of construction increases ownership.
  • There is a need to include women in the prioritization process to identify needs (e.g., for domestic water access points).

  • For water management organizations (such as for water users and irrigation associations) to be set up, these should be flexible, practical, and based largely on the size of the scheme and complexity of the canal network.
  • Combining investments in both irrigation infrastructure (“hard” element) and community-based institutions (“soft” element) has been mutually beneficial. Improved water management and operation and maintenance systems make the infrastructure element more sustainable, while the promise of infrastructure investment has acted as an incentive for water users to adopt new systems and approaches.
  • Introducing full cost-recovery through irrigation service fees is perhaps the biggest challenge and should be introduced from an early stage, aiming initially at partial cost recovery.
  • Investment in on-farm water resources management infrastructure, which can be undertaken through community-based contracts, coupled with training in improved techniques to optimize water delivery and use, can have significant impacts on yields and provide justification for infrastructure investment in main and secondary canals. Where infrastructure investment has already been made, and can thus be seen as a sunk cost, this additional investment can provide high economic returns.

  • Interventions should be planned so the link between upstream protection and downstream benefits is obvious (irrigation and upper catchment interventions should be selected in the same vicinity).
  • While interventions should protect upper catchments, in the absence of a payment for ecosystem service (PES) mechanism, these should also generate a benefit (income) to upper catchment users (e.g., agro-forestry, economic tree crops). Otherwise, there is no incentive to conserve resources.

[1] ADB placed on hold its assistance in Afghanistan effective 15 August 2021.


Landell Mills. The Panj-Amu River Basin Programme (P-ARBP).

Landell Mills. 2017. The Better Tomorrow. YouTube.

Landell Mills
Management Consulting

Landell Mills is an international development consulting firm, which provides a range of development-oriented services that aim to assist countries and their peoples in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Its mission is to assist clients to participate actively in the global economy while protecting fragile environments and vulnerable communities in the process.

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