KABUL, 16 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Afghanistan is working to alleviate water problems experienced by Afghan returnees by constructing thousands of water points and household latrines. While over 3.6 million refugees have returned over the past two years, lack of clean water remains a huge problem for most returnees.
"Afghan refugees returning to their homes after years of war require not just peace and employment but also water which is very scarce in Afghanistan," Nader Farhad, a spokesman for UNHCR, told IRIN in Kabul. Having access to water sanitation, public clinics and shelter was the pressing need of not only returnees, but also millions of other Afghans, he added.
According to Farhad, the UN refugee agency has constructed or repaired over 6,200 water points, 3,750 household latrines and 3,650 since 2002 in areas where large numbers of Afghans have returned to. UNHCR also plans to construct another 2,036 water points and 2,000 household latrines by the end of 2004. Among the planned figures, the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, in close co-operation with UNHCR, will make available 1,250 water points and 2,000 household latrines with donor money.
Each water point would be constructed for 25 families, providing access to clean water for around a quarter of a million people.
Several years of drought and the return of more than three million refugees from Pakistan and Iran, including more than 440,000 internally displaced Afghans, returning to their homes especially in rural areas, have made the problem more acute.
"In the past we were growing wheat to solve our economic problems, but now we cannot even grow vegetables because of drought." Ghulam Shah, a farmer who had returned with his family after years abroad, told IRIN. If his family could be provided with drinking water from a pump near their house, then this one improvement would solve so many problems., he added.
Nader said UNHCR had helped returnees to clear many underground "kareze" channels. These water supply gulleys in most cases were blocked, not just by soil accumulation over years of neglect, but by walls that had collapsed - the former Taliban rulers would often destroy them in order to depopulate contested parts of the country, particularly in the north.
The UN refugee agency has allocated more than US $15 million for water projects (drinking and irrigation water) in Afghanistan since it launched a programme in 2002 to assist refugees who wanted to return.
At least another 2,000 wells have been planned by other operational partners, although this would not be sufficient to cover the water needs of all returnees this year, UNHCR pointed out.
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