Water and Sustainable Land Use in the Wakhan Valley

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  • 2012•08•16

    Carol Smith

    Wakhan Valley

    Photo: L. Patron/UNU

    This article introduces the second of four video documentaries about PALM project activities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan produced by the UNU Media Centre.

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    As a rugged branch of the fabled Silk Road, the Wakhan Valley in the Pamir Mountains has long been at the intersection of routes that once served nomads, peddlers and pilgrims. This slice of Central Asia hosts rich biodiversity and remote societies that are dependent upon the mountainous environment.

    The Panj River, which forms a considerable part of the Afghanistan–Tajikistan border in the Western Pamirs, receives the flows of other rivers that are fed from snow-capped mountains. And on this river, in the Lower Wakhan Valley, lies the Tajik town of Ishkashim, known for its colourful transboundary market (shown in the video brief accompanying this article).


    Most of Ishkashim’s residents are dependent on subsistence farming. Although thinly populated with only 7.6 persons per square kilometre, the scarce land resources of the Western Pamirs are under high pressure. The landscape is semi-arid, due to the high altitude and scarce rain. Because good agricultural land is limited, some villagers have taken to cultivating hillsides where the soil is susceptible to erosion.

    Water is nonetheless plentiful. The mighty Panj and a basic canal system, constructed over time, mean this town has long been a green oasis of cropland and orchards in the midst of the dry mountains that surround it.

    Today, however, it is a challenge for the people who live here to bring this water to the fields where it is needed, because the irrigation infrastructure they depend upon urgently needs repair.

    As the video explains, access to water has become a serious problem. Farmer Anvar Alidodov tells how the dyke of the main canal — built many decades ago, when Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union — was washed away:

    “Over the years, because of the great flow of water, the cement became weak and collapsed. It was clear to people here that we had to fix it. Otherwise, we would lose our lands…. If there is no water, there would be real poverty amongst the people of the village.”

    Yet Alidodov and the other farmers lacked the resources and coordination to repair the canal. So, as the years passed, land productivity dropped — due to both the erosion challenges and irrigation difficulties — and threatened the inhabitants’ already lean livelihoods.

    As explained in the video, a team from the High-Pamir and Pamir-Alai Sustainable Land Management (PALM) project finally was able to assist. PALM is an integrated, transboundary initiative of the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan governments that provides technical and financial support via sub-district units (made up of international agencies and Tajik partners, local officials, NGOs and farmers). PALM addresses local ecosystem degradation and rural poverty with innovative field-level sustainable land management practices and related micro-projects.

    Working with farmers in this way is intended to bring about bottom-up change in pilot communities — change that can then be replicated in other villages, explains Nevelina Pachova of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security, one of the PALM project partners.

    Indeed, as the video shows, thanks to the research and support provided, Ishkashim’s farmers are trying out new crops, irrigation techniques and land use approaches (like reviving traditional terracing) to help them improve the productivity of their land.

    “There is a proverb that says that ‘water is the source of life’”, says Alidodov. “This is absolutely true, because the life of people is connected to water. The villagers get their food from these lands.”

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    The Iskashim micro-projects were supported by the Sustainable Land Management in the High Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains (PALM) project executed by the United Nations University regionally, and by the Committee on Environment Protection and the Mountain Societies Development Support Program of the Aga Khan Development Network at the national and local level in Tajikistan. The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme.