Fighting the Taliban One Irrigation Project at a Time
Friday, June 3, 2011
JALALABAD, Afghanistan-When Chris Corsten describes his job, he starts from space and zooms into the eastern hemisphere of the world, down into Central Asia, and then into Afghanistan, using Google Earth. In one of the country’s rural districts, nestled in mountains and riverbeds, are hundreds of colored dots representing construction sites. If Corsten moves his cursor over one of these dots, a geo-tagged photograph showing Afghan men building walls or mixing cement appears. If he displays all the construction sites he’s managed in Afghanistan, there are thousands of colored dots spread across the country.
As the national manager of the Central Asia Development Group, Corsten implements “cash for work” programs in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including some of the most violent places in the country, such as Kandahar and Kunar. But, he said, the phrase cash for work doesn’t do justice to the scale of what CADG does. “That usually means cleaning up poop or doing small little things. Our program is not about that,” explained Corsten. “What we’re doing is huge. Some of the projects are digging canal systems that are bringing 10,000 hectares [25,000 acres of farmland] back. We’ve got some projects that take six months and have thousands of people working on them every day.” On the day Corsten spoke to me, CADG was employing 20,000 Afghans. The group has also been uniquely successful at employing women in nontraditional jobs like carpentry and masonry. To date, the organization has employed more than 4,000 women and more than 200,000 Afghans in total.
CADG is not a nonprofit, nor is it a charity, which makes its successes in Afghanistan-where development organizations are legion but success stories rare-even more notable. Since 2002, the private company with headquarters in Singapore has operated in Afghanistan as an engineering contractor serving clients like the U.S. and British armies, the World Bank, the United Nations, and military contractor KBR. In 2008, CADG launched a development program, funded by USAID, called Food Insecurity Response to Urban Populations. Now in its third phase, the majority of the program focuses on repairing Afghanistan’s decrepit irrigation systems. “In many cases, the systems were never really built properly. They were just a village with a makeshift system, which they try to maintain,” said Corsten. “We’ve got a lot of land here, but little of it is arable.”