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SIR 2006-5182 Abstract

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Prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development

Geology, Water, and Wind in the Lower Helmand Basin, Southern Afghanistan

By John W. Whitney


This report presents an overview of the geology, hydrology, and climate of the lower Helmand Basin, a large, closed, arid basin in southern Afghanistan. The basin is drained by the Helmand River, the only perennial desert stream between the Indus and Tigris-Euphrates Rivers. The Helmand River is the lifeblood of southern Afghanistan and has supported desert civilizations in the Sistan depression for over 6,000 years.

The Helmand Basin is a structurally closed basin that began to form during the middle Tertiary as a consequence of the collision of several Gondwanaland fragments. Aeromagnetic studies indicate the basin is 3–5 kilometers deep over basement rocks. Continued subsidence along basin-bounding faults in Iran and Pakistan throughout the Neogene has formed the Sistan depression in the southwest corner of the basin. Lacustrine, eolian, and fluvial deposits are commonly exposed in the basin and were intruded by latest Miocene–middle Quaternary volcanoes, which indicates that depositional environments in the lower Helmand Basin have not substantially changed for nearly 10 million years.

Lakes expanded in the Sistan depression during the Quaternary; however, the size and extent of these pluvial lakes are unknown. Climate conditions in the lower Helmand Basin likely mirrored climate changes in the Rajasthan Desert to the east and in Middle Eastern deserts to the west: greater aridity during global episodes of colder temperatures and increased available moisture during episodes of warmer temperatures.

Eolian processes are unusually dominant in shaping the landscape in the basin. A strong wind blows for 120 days each summer, scouring dry lakebeds and creating dune fields from annual flood deposits. Nearly one-third of the basin is mantled with active or stabilized dunes. Blowing winds combined with summer temperatures over 50º Celsius and voluminous insect populations hatched from the deltaic wetlands create an environment referred to as the “most odious place on earth” by 19th century visitors. During dry years, large plumes of dust originating from Sistan are recorded by weather satellites.

The Helmand River drains about 40 percent of Afghanistan and receives most of its moisture from melting snow and spring storms. Similar to many desert streams, the Helmand and its main tributary, the Arghandab River, are characterized by large fluctuations in monthly and annual discharges. Water from the Helmand accumulates in several hamuns (shallow lakes) in the Sistan depression. The wetlands surrounding these hamuns are the largest in western Asia and are directly affected by droughts and floods on the Helmand. Average annual discharge on the Helmand is about 6.12 million megaliters (million cubic meters), and the annual discharge varies by a factor of five. In 2005, the region was just beginning to recover from the longest drought (1998–2005) of record back to 1830. Annual peak discharges range from less than 80 cubic meters per second in 1971 to nearly 19,000 cubic meters per second in 1885. Large floods fill each hamun to overflowing to create one large lake that overflows into the normally dry Gaud-i Zirreh basin. The interaction of flooding, active subsidence, and wind erosion causes frequent channel changes on the Helmand delta.

A major development effort on the Helmand River was initiated after World War II with substantial aid from the United States. Two dams and several major canals were completed in the 1950s; however, poor drainage conditions on the newly prepared agricultural fields caused extensive waterlogging and salinization. New drains were installed and improved agricultural methods were implemented in the 1970s, and some lands became more productive. Since 1980, Afghanistan has endured almost constant war and civil and political strife. In 2005, the country was on a path to rebuild much of its technical infrastructure. Revitalization of agricultural lands in the lower Helmand Basin and improved management of surface-and ground-water resources are crucial to the country’s reconstruction efforts. logo