KU researchers safeguard Afghanistan's ancient water systems

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LAWRENCE — For millennia, communities in Afghanistan have depended upon ingenious systems called karez to move water for drinking and agricultural irrigation.

“A karez is an underground tunnel that transports water from the mountainous regions where there’s more abundant water,” said Rolfe Mandel, University of Kansas professor of anthropology and senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey. “The karez then transport that water underground, which is efficient because it’s an arid environment with lots of evaporation. It distributes that water to villages and communities further down slope, where they bring that water to the surface into canals.”

But today, many of the thousands of karez in Afghanistan are threatened by neglect, climate change, plummeting water levels and the country’s ongoing war.

Now, the U.S. Army Research Office has provided grant funds to a multidisciplinary team from KU to research karez systems and promote their preservation, maintenance and cultural relevance. Collaborating on the project are John Hoopes, associate professor of anthropology; William Johnson, professor of geography; Gwendolyn Macpherson, associate professor of geology; Mandel; and Philip Stinson, assistant professor of classics.

“They’re one of the oldest technologies on the planet for collecting and distributing water,” said Hoopes. “In 700 B.C., there are written cuneiform documents describing the construction of these, and they’re still being constructed today.”

Despite the cleverness of the karez systems, they require constant upkeep. Vertical shafts called “chah” provide access for workers to descend into the tunnels and clear away silt and debris. Indeed, chah dot the landscape in Afghanistan and make the presence of the underground karez systems apparent.

“They have to constantly be maintained,” said Mandel. “They’re not lined with concrete for the most part. Sediment is always sloughing off the walls of the underground tunnels. But what you’re seeing is that there are fewer and fewer people who are familiar with how to maintain them. Mostly, the older generation seems to be familiar with their construction and maintenance.”

Aside from the generational shift away from ancient technology, karez are endangered by the decade-long conflict between the Taliban and U.S. armed forces.

“The Army has adopted a very proactive stance towards the protection of cultural and archeological heritage,” said Hoopes. “And in the Middle East there’s a tremendous amount of it. But it’s very vulnerable, especially because a lot of these archeological sites are built in locations of strategic value to combatants in the conflict. The Army wants to avoid an embarrassment similar to what happened to looting in Baghdad.”

In 2009 the Army unintentionally constructed a forward operating base upon a karez in Zabul Province, damaging the system and alienating the part of the local population who depended on its water. The U.S. had to redesign its plans and compensate locals for their losses.

Research from the KU group could help to avert this kind of misstep going forward and make the military more sensitive to cultural treasures imperiled by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

“Recently, we went and presented at a meeting of the Combatant Command Historical Cultural Action Group,” said Stinson. “It’s a grassroots organization consisting of various branches of government, the military, NGOs, banks and academics — all working together to advise the U.S. military about cultural issues relating to military operations.”

The information is flowing both ways, with the military providing the researchers with high-resolution images collected from unmanned drones. With this data, the KU research group is producing digital terrain models to more fully understand the extent of karez systems.

“It’s airborne-collected imagery,” said Johnson. “They’re flying in these areas and collecting different layers of information. They’re using LIDAR, a laser that scans the terrain. And we’re looking for chah — the holes in the ground — and trees that follow these canals. With different generations of these karez, both abandoned and active, it’s pretty complex stuff.”

In the end, the researchers hope their work will do much to conserve the ancient and still-useful technology.

“I see it as promoting a global awareness of what these systems are,” Hoopes said. “To promote their history and what they represent in terms of cultural heritage. Ultimately, we hope to develop international support for rehabilitating and encouraging the use of these systems, so that they continue be used rather than suffer from abandonment and collapse.”

Thu, 10/27/2011


Brendan Lynch

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Brendan M. Lynch

KU News Service