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Canada’s largest development project in Afghanistan may actually be fuelling the opium boom. Ottawa calls it Canada’s “signature project” in the country: a $50-million scheme to rebuild the country’s second-largest dam, the Dahla Dam, and a long-neglected network of irrigation canals in Afghanistan’s main breadbasket region.
This region of fertile farmland also happens to be Kandahar’s main opium-growing belt, according to the UN’s 2010 Afghan Opium Survey.
One of the districts that have benefited from the Canadian irrigation scheme is Zhari, just west of Kandahar City. Since 2008, when the Canadian project began, Zhari has emerged as one of Afghanistan’s key opium-growing areas. Opium cultivation there shot up by 70 percent from 2,923 hectares in 2008 to 4,978 in 2010, according to the UN survey.
The Dahla Dam itself is located in a district called Shah Wali Kot, just northeast of Kandahar City. Opium cultivation there has risen 45 percent since the Canadian project started, from 560 hectares in 2008 to 813 hectares last year.
In Kandahar province as a whole, opium production remained flat from 2005 to 2008, averaging about 14,000 hectares. Then it suddenly shot up to 20,000 hectares in 2009 and almost 26,000 last year.
Findings from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime show that opium growers are benefiting from the rebuilt irrigation canals and ditches. Its 2007 Afghan Opium Survey reported that 37 percent of villages getting irrigation aid or other external assistance were cultivating opium.