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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

November 3, 2009 at 1:44 AM

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A gift of water, and life.

Posted by Hal Bernton

Mazar-e-Sharif -- Van Hubbard is a tall, lanky 73-year-old who knows how to tap into underground water. Earlier in his life, Van worked for companies that drilled for water in arid expanses of eastern Washington and California.

Six years ago, Van and his wife, Janese, moved to this city in the deserts of northern Afghanistan. Since his arrival, Van -- with the help of private donations - has overseen the drilling of about 150 wells that tap into the aquifers here.

Van Hubbard, left, joins with some Afghans in preparation for the start of a new well-drilling project.

These wells provide clean drinking sources for more than 55,000 people. That means Van has saved a lot of lives in a nation where dirty water still kills far more children than errant mortar shells, helicopter-fired missiles,Taliban roadside bombs and other weapons.

Young Afghan children die from all sorts of diseases linked to dehydration and diarrhea. The United Nations reports about 25 percent of Afghan children die before the age of 5, and a lot of those deaths result from ingesting dirty water.

Mazar-e-Sharif, a hub for commerce and agriculture in the northern Balkh Province, has emerged as one of the most prosperous cities in Afghanistan. Yet here, like all over this country, residents suffer from a critical lack of drinking water.

To drill wells here, Van and his wife, Janese incorporated a non profit here in Afghanistan and in Washington state, where fundraising is based in Tacoma. This is a low budget operation. Van and Janese donate their time, living off retirement income. They have rented a compound that serves as their home and office, and the courtyard stacked with pipes doubles as a storage yard.

I joined Van on Thursday as he visited a neighborhood where four shallow wells dried up several years ago. Some 2,000 families depend on one water pump at a local mosque. Sometimes the line for water stretches half the length of a football field, and it may take several hours or more to get to the pump to fill a few jugs.

This is tough duty, especially in the summer, when the the temperatures routinely top 100 degrees and the thirst is intense.

So plenty of people skip the pump in favor of foul, but easily available, water.

"People don't want to wait for the pump, and they drink the water from the ditch. People get sick in every family," said Juma Khan, an elder in the neighorhood. "They are always taking their kids to the doctor."

I watched a man walk down to a ditch full of irrigation overflow, and fill up a yellow bucket with vile-looking water. He did this over and over again, trudging up a bank to empty the bucket into a big orange drum that he most likely took back to his family to help bathe, cook and drink.

Van has seen people fetching polluted water all over Balkh Province. He has tried to target his efforts in the places where fresh water appears to be in the shortest supply. This neighborhood in western Mazar-e-Sharif made the list.

In the next few days, an Afghan crew will start drilling a deep well to hit an aquifer that lies at a depth of about 150 feet. This should provide a steady flow of clean water for a much longer period than the shallow wells that were drilled to only 50 feet.

In a dusty courtyard, Van and the crew has assembled scaffolding and a diesel-powered drill rig, the kind of machine you might have seen a half century ago or more in the United States. The rig slowly pounds a six-inch diameter pile driver through the earth. Sometimes, when the driller hits rock, progress may be only a few inches and his Afghan crew complains that the job will never be completed.

Diesel-powered drill rig

"My answer has been to go back and drill some more tomorrow," Van says. "They get paid by the month, so it shouldn't matter how far they drill each day. But it does get discouraging."

The pile driver is alternated with a baler that sucks up the materials and clears out the well hole. Sometimes in a week or two, sometimes in a month, the drill reaches the deep aquifer.

There isn't much hydrological information about the aquifers here, so it's hard to know just how long the deep wells will provide water.

But they do appear to provide quick benefits. Van once had a nurse volunteer to work with him. She was always getting calls from one neighborhood about sick children. Once the well was drilled, those calls dropped off dramatically. In a nation where there are plenty of examples of misdirected aid, the wells offer tangible improvements to Afghan lives.

Sometimes, Van has been invited to big celebrations to mark the opening of new wells. But he says the families offer up more food than they can afford and these events makes him feel awkward. So he prefers to sneak a quick peek at the people as they get their first chance to use the new wells, and then move on to drilling the next one.

"If I had my life to do over, I would have done this a whole lot sooner," Van says. "Seeing the people, they are grinning like they just won the Lotto. And that does something for you."

Van is also involved with building schools in Balkh Province in partnership with Julia Bolz, a Seattle attorney. Bolz grew weary of her legal career and headed overseas, eventually landing in Afghanistan. That's another story, for another day.

Van serves as executive director of The Afghanistan American Friendship Foundation, a private non-profit organization. If you're interested in making a donation for water wells, the American contact is:

Ron Nelson:
2052 S 64th Street
Tacoma, Wa., 98409

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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.