Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fertile Lands Along Afghan Canal Stolen

Local authorities say they can do little to recover state-owned plots appropriated by strongmen.
By Kamal Zaher
  • Reconstruction work on the Nangarhar canal, 2009. (Photo: Dustin Hart, US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.)
    Reconstruction work on the Nangarhar canal, 2009. (Photo: Dustin Hart, US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.)

Illegal land seizures have added to the ongoing problems affecting the Nangarhar Canal, a decades-long infrastructure project in the eastern province.

Launched in the 1960s, the canal was intended to be a huge income generator for eastern Afghanistan. Lands along its banks were set aside to be irrigated for farms and orchards that would provide jobs and revenues for the region.

Until the civil war that began in 1992, the 70-kilometre waterway provided work for around 10,000 local residents employed in dairy farming and olive and fruit growing.

Two decades of conflict as well as structural decay have damaged the canal and the surrounding infrastructure, while the Daranta hydroelectric scheme has failed to generate enough power to keep water pumping along the waterway. (See for example Cashflow Crisis as Afghan Dam Crumbles and Afghan Olive Farms Waiting for Water)

The orchards that used to bring in export revenues have been badly hit by illegal logging. Now state-owned plantations that belong to the canal agency are being grabbed by local strongmen, and officials in Nangarhar seem powerless to stop them.

Across Afghanistan, conflict and lack of governance has led to confusion about property rights, as well as outright land theft by warlords acting with impunity.

“In general, the provincial administration, and in particular the security forces, won’t cooperate with us to recover misappropriated land,” Ziyarat-Gul Rahel, general director of the Nangarhar Canal Project, told IWPR.

Rahel said his agency was unable to stop these individuals, some of whom produced forged ownership documents to “prove” their claim to land.

Sadeq Dawlatzai, director of the provincial land agency, says 1,000 square kilometres of territory has been misappropriated from the state in Nangarhar alone.

“We have repeatedly contacted the relevant organisations in Nangarhar and Kabul and informed them of the problem, but no one has given us a positive response,” he said.

Dawlatzai said residential and commercial buildings had sprung up on the stolen land, their presence making it even harder to resolve property right disputes.

“We want land seizures to be prevented. Nangarhar is an agricultural province and if these lands disappear, it will cause great damage to the province’s economy,” he said.

Rahel said the Nangarhar Canal Project owned 112.5 sq km of land, of which 12 sq km had been seized illegally. Although three sq km had been taken back by the project, a further nine sq km had yet to be recovered.

He said his office had referred dozens of cases to prosecutors and the security services, but the official response had been weak.

“I have been threatened several times by the individuals whom I referred to the security services judicial bodies, but I have promised myself that I’ll stand up to the thieves as long as I can,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the security agencies and courts do not cooperate with me properly.”

Abdul Ahad Haidari, of the Nangarhar prosecutor’s office, denied this accusation, insisting that all the complaints filed by the canal agency had been dealt with.

He said his office had ordered the arrest of several suspects, although he was unaware whether any of them had been prosecuted successfully.

It was the police who were to blame for the lack of action, he said, adding, “We have conducted our investigations and informed the security agencies, but they haven’t cooperated in the appropriate manner.”

For their part, the police denied such accusations.

Hazrat Hussein Mashriqiwal, Nangarhar police spokesman, said, “We are successful in our work. We have prevented land-grabbers and we have cooperated fully.”

However, he acknowledged that police lacked the manpower to fully protect the canal and its lands, which sometimes led to difficulties.

Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, spokesman for provincial governor Ataullah Ludin, said his office had instructed district government chiefs to put a stop to land grabs.

“The issue of land appropriation around the canal is very important for us. The governor has instructed all the relevant agencies, particularly the security services, and work is ongoing,” he said.

Among those Rahel accused of illegally obtaining land was Mirwais Zaher, the son of Afghanistan’s last king, Zaher Shah.

Rahel said documents claiming ownership of an orchard in the area had been forged, and that the land really belonged to the Nangarhar Canal Project.

In a telephone interview, Zaher strongly denied these claims.

“These lands are my personal property. You have no right to ask me about them, nor do I speak to reporters about this,” he told IWPR, adding that he had inherited the lands from his father. “No one has the right to claim my lands are misappropriated.”

No other individual accused of land seizures agreed to speak to IWPR.

Zabihullah Zmarai, a member of the provincial council, agreed that state-owned lands in Nangarhar had been occupied by strongmen since the fall of the Taleban government in 2001. He said attempts to get officials to take action had been fruitless.

“Going from low-level employees up to the president, we have tried to get our voice heard, but no one wanted to listen,” he said, adding that the provincial council had no executive powers and could only pass on information to officials.

The Nangarhar Canal Project says that land in the Ganda Chashma has been occupied and sold off in parcels as housing plots.

Hesamudin, an elderly man who owns one of these new houses, accepted that the land once belonged to the canal agency, but argued that his family had bought it from a third party and were now the legitimate owners.

“We bought the land with our own money, which we earned with difficulty,” he said. “You should ask the person who sold it to us. We aren’t thieves.”

Rahel disagreed, claiming that anyone who bought stolen lands was also culpable.

“They know very well that it’s state-owned land, so why do they buy it?” he said. “We face many problems getting the land back, including the influence of powerful individual, weak support from the security services, lack of coordination, a ‘land mafia’ and the absence of the rule of law.”

Some people claim that government officials are complicit in the property grabs.

Obaidullah, a resident of Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s administrative centre, argued that no one would have the temerity to steal state-owned land unless high-ranking officials were involved.

“The fact that government officials don’t stop land misappropriation, and that they say that they can’t do anything about it is proof that they are partners in it and don’t want to stop the thieves,” he said.

Delagha, a shop-owner in Sorkhrod district, said that eventually the remaining land along the canal would be taken over.

“If government and canal officials don’t recover the stolen plots, the remaining land will also be appropriated and this will put an end to the canal project,” he warned.

Kamal Zaher is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.