As senior advisor for water at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Fipps' mission was to conduct strategic analysis and water planning for the war-torn country and advise the ambassador on related policies and programs. He also provided technical assistance to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the military and non-governmental organizations involved in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, he traveled throughout 14 provinces in the country, examining water infrastructures, evaluating issues and, finally, recommending solutions.
Fipps worked closely with the Afghan Deputy Minister for Water and the First Vice President in developing a strategy and organizational framework to address the highly contentious issues related to water-use, allocations and development.
Water is recognized as a key, and usually as the key to Afghanistan's future, he said. According to Afghanistan's Ministry of Energy and Water, 85 percent of the population is involved in irrigation-dependent agriculture and 98 percent of all water diverted from the rivers is used by agriculture, with 60 percent or more of that water lost to seepage and poor on-farm efficiency. In addition, the irrigation canal systems also provide drinking water to the vast majority of the population.
After 20 years of war, Soviet occupation and then Taliban rule, what little water infrastructure for irrigation and domestic drinking water the country had was destroyed or had deteriorated, Fipps said. Only 30 percent of the irrigation infrastructure was functioning when Fipps was in the country, and modern domestic water supply and waste treatment systems do not exist.
"Water has the same urgency as security, energy and roads, and it is even more critical to the long-term stability and economic development of the country," he said. "Unless effective programs are implemented, water shortages, internal water conflicts and international water disputes will increase and become more serious, with destabilizing consequences."
Since the majority of the population is involved in agriculture, Fipps said improving irrigated agricultural production and livelihoods is critical for maintaining social order in the country.With so many refugees who fled the country during the Soviet occupation and Taliban rule returning to the country, he said there is a need to develop new irrigated farmland for these displaced people, some of whom are involved in the insurgency against the government.
"The thinking is by getting them back into Afghan society through farming, they will no longer need to seek payment from the insurgency," he said.
He recommended increasing water infrastructure projects that would expand irrigated land and provide rural drinking water.
"Rehabilitation of irrigation systems and increasing the water supply to farmers is important," he said. "There's an urgent need for rural residents to see some benefits from the new government."
The rural economy and standard of living would improve vastly if the traditional two-crops-per-year system could be reestablished, and would reduce the need for farmers to grow poppies, Fipps said.
Another major problem Fipps said he saw was the lack of standards for the water infrastructure projects being implemented by organizations and the military. He documented through photographs examples of poor workmanship or inadequate design or use of insufficient materials. Before leaving, he presented a plan for developing standards for design, materials and performance of water structures.
Because he identified transboundary water issues between Afghanistan and its neighbors as a major issue for long-term stability of the country and the region, Fipps helped implement a memorandum of understanding between Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan to cooperate on joint development of water resources, such as a large hydro facility on the Amu Daya River.
Other threats Fipps identified were rapid and uncontrolled exploration of groundwater, conflicts between upstream and downstream waterusers, the lack of water laws and regulations and recurring droughts.
Besides working on the water planning, Fipps said his best memories are of spending time with the military.When he first arrived, he visited provincial reconstruction teams or PRTs, which are military units that provide security for the reconstruction projects.
"I was able to help them out on what they are trying to accomplish in the PRTs," he said. "We all should be proud of our young men and women serving in Afghanistan. They're very dedicated and committed to the mission in spite of the tough and dangerous conditions they have to deal with."
Because of his diplomatic status, he was escorted by the military when traveling beyond Kabul.
"It's a rather unique experience to be taken out to look at an irrigation project escorted by three to four Humvees and guarded by 10 or more armed soldiers," he said.
While his official work as water advisor is over, Fipps remains involved in Afghan water concerns. He continues to advise the Afghan government on water issues, and USAID has asked him to return for a short-term assignment to help establish a national water agency for the country, an idea that he promoted while in Afghanistan.
In the Spring 2007, he will return to Afghanistan for a few weeks to help USAID in planning its water sector development program and to assist the Afghan government in developing its international transboundary water policy.
He will follow up on his project of designing the water supply and irrigation systems for irrigation teaching farms at three Afghan universities and introduce polypipe, a thin-walled, flexible pipe material used in irrigation to save water. He said Afghans suffer from a lack of expertise and experience with modern irrigation technologies and management practices needed to increase crop yield and farm income, while conserving water.
"Introducing polypipe could have a major impact on irrigation in Afghanistan," he said.
This training is important, he said, because the country lost a whole generation of college-trained Afghans during the Soviet war and Taliban rule.