Restoring life in Zindajan
A case study of cash for work in Herat, Western Afghanistan
Zindajan, meaning ‘life’ or ‘alive,’ is a central district in Herat province of Western Afghanistan that was once at the heart of the Silk Road passage. Locals explain that the name traces its roots back to when the Mongols conquered and destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire in Central Asia from 1219 to 1221, prompting Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, to unleash hundreds of thousands of soldiers into present-day Afghanistan, crippling places such as Herat.
A group of people are said to have escaped and survived the massacre by seeking safe refuge in the center of Herat ̶ earning the name, Zindajan. Today, the predominantly rural district is home to over 30,000 people, and while the population continues to show great resilience in the face of decades of war, economic crisis, and humanitarian suffering, they now face insurmountable challenges to recovery and prosperity.
Based on recent assessments conducted by DRC, households in rural areas of Herat, like much of Zindajan, heavily rely on informal and irregular daily wage labor opportunities as well as food-sharing with farming families, with the impact of the 2021 drought ̶ the worst of its kind in more than three decades ̶ driving entire communities into crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. The scarcity of water also leads to poor harvest and a lack of animal fodder.
Unable to sufficiently feed their livestock, many farmers are turning to selling their animals at low prices, negatively impacting their income levels. In the absence of agriculture and livestock-based livelihoods and with limited urban employable skills, many are left with almost no livelihood options.
According to village elders, over a third of Zindajan’s labor population attempts to make the journey to Iran or Pakistan during the offseason to seek job opportunities, with many deported or unable to cross the border at all. Typically, men and adolescent boys split from the rest of their families and try to make it to neighbouring countries via irregular, undocumented routes.
Cross-border travel appears to be perilous for many, with community members interviewed by DRC teams reporting that men and boys are being captured by Iranian forces and deported, after being beaten, deprived of food, and robbed. Despite the well-known risks, the desperate economic situation has pushed many to attempt the journey anyways.
With the financial support of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), DRC is providing temporary income to 170 unemployed men in Zindajan through a cash for work modality. In early 2022, the participants engaged in the rehabilitation and clearing of the district’s main irrigation channel, earning AFN 10,400 or GBP 96 for one months’ work.
Starting in May 2022, these individuals will engage in a second month of cash for work funded by FCDO, thus providing additional economic stability as households search for longer-term employment or begin to restore their rural livelihoods, on the otherhand it replenishes the water table, reducing the risk of soil erosion, and restores the surrounding drinking water sources, including wells and hand-pumps.
Participants also explain that this opportunity has bought them time and brought them relief, as many had plans to make the often-dangerous and illegal journey to Iran or Pakistan in hopes of earning cash to bring back to their families.
Beyond the immediate economic benefits, the rehabilitated irrigation channel is now providing access to irrigation water for over 1,000 acres of farmland across 28 villages, improving the production of various crops such as wheat, vegetables, fruit, and barley.
As communities try to recover from the devasting impact of the recent drought, the restoration of this water source will help around 5,000 families to cultivate and increase their agricultural produce by at least 30 to 35 percent by the end of the season.
In addition, many families in Zindajan are increasingly re-engaging in sericulture, the process of rearing silkworms from eggs to cocoons for the production of raw silk ̶ an ancient tradition that once flourished and defined the area. Healthy mulberry trees are integral to this process, as the silkworms feed on the leaves, which producers purchase at a starting price of AFN 10,000 (GBP 93).
The cash for work project is helping revive mulberry trees that are planted along the bank of the irrigation channel, making the leaves locally available for residents to use.
With the next FCDO-funded project already underway, life along the irrigation channels is being restored, and Zindajan continues to live up to its name.