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42: Descent into the earth

Nick Allen
From terrifying descents below ground to risky operation of heavy equipment, digging wells is not a trade for the faint-hearted, as one veteran explains.
26.03.2013  |  Berlin
Well digger Zalmai risks his life boring water holes, often more than 100 metres deep in the ground. (Photo: Mohib Patang. Main photo: AT)
Well digger Zalmai risks his life boring water holes, often more than 100 metres deep in the ground. (Photo: Mohib Patang. Main photo: AT)

Tethered at the ankles with a rope and lowered headfirst 100 metres down a narrow shaft bored into the earth. It might be a monstrous form of psychological torture, but this is just part of the risky profession of well drilling, says 33-year-old Zalmai, who learned his trade in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past 16 years.

This was the first aspect of the subject that made my neck hairs bristle as I interviewed Zalmai at Afghanistan Today’s February workshop held in Kabul. Intended to develop interview techniques, the topic stood out from several that we could do at short notice at the workshop.

In Afghanistan, water is a source of life but also many conflicts, as water tables gradually recede and blood is shed in frequent water distribution disputes. For the well diggers, sites are often located in insecure areas, and they have to travel roads that may be planted with explosive devices intended for military or police targets.

But for Zalmai, the greatest danger comes from the actual process itself, which involves boring equipment that weighs 2-3 tons and pounds the ground regardless of any digits or limbs that get in the way.

“You can’t day dream when working with this machinery, because it will kill you,” he tells our group matter-of-factly. People lose hands and fingers, and three of his colleagues died over the years, all crushed by equipment. He counts himself lucky, having only had his clothes once literally torn from his body after getting entangled. “But all my fingernails have had to regrow," he adds.

Down you go

As for the head first descent down the shaft, Zalmai has never done this as he is too large to work in the confined space, which is 45cm wide at most. It is unavoidable when there are problems with the metal bore head, which is like a large circular pastry cutter.

Pipe dream; Zalmai feeds in sections of 20cm pipe as a well shaft deepens. (Photo: Patang).

A flame-burning lantern is first lowered to make sure the shaft has enough oxygen and hasn’t been swamped with natural gas. If  it stays lit, the ‘diver’ – which in his company is always a man of small stature, and never a child, Zalmai assures – goes down to check the problem. He would previously have to clench a flashlight in his teeth, but now they use electric camping headlamps. 

I have to pause to digest this image. Up to 100 metres, upside down, your shoulders scraping the sides of the shaft, dependent on your buddies to keep firm hold of the rope and raise you again when you are done. In my earlier reporting days in Afghanistan I have squirmed in the dirt as bullets ricocheted around me, RPGs whooshed overhead and the ground trembled from their blast. But absolutely nothing would terrify me more than this prospect of disappearing head first into the ground.

Still struggling after 16 years

The deepest well they bored was 160 metres in Laghman Province, says Zalmai, who is from Kunduz but mostly works in Kabul and Nangarhar provinces. He learned his trade as a 17-year-old in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir during the Taliban era, when jobs were scarce in Afghanistan. He was providing for his entire family and had to put ideas of his own business to the back of his mind. “Thinking of buying equipment was a dream, I had to fill stomachs,” he recalls.

Even now it is a struggle making ends meet. He heads a crew of six men, including two of his brothers, but still works for the owner of the equipment, earning eight dollars a day, which barely supports his wife, three daughters and son. And the work is seasonal – for five months of the year the soil is too frozen to excavate.

During the warmer months the crew is on the road constantly. They drive from site to site in a truck and trailer loaded with the cutting gear, a heavy steel frame that sits over the hole, and lengths of metal and plastic 20-, 30- or 45-centimetre pipes that are run down the shaft, the diameter depending on its depth.

Green stone gamble

As for the clients, the wells are a big gamble. A 100-metre shaft will, for example, cost around 500 dollars to bore over about 10 days. Families often club together to cover the expense, but there is no guarantee of success. There is always the danger of the cutter hitting what is called a ‘green stone’, one that is too large to crack, so the shaft must be abandoned.

“You can’t day dream when working with this machinery, because it will kill you.” Zalmai, well digger.

One family that hired his team had to give up on the fourth attempt, each shaft failing at around 50 metres. “We only charged them for two shafts,” says Zalmai, who then reveals a twist in fees charged.

In Kabul and surrounds, the average depth required to hit water is only 30-40 metres. But it is well known that the water table will drop significantly in the coming years due to the amount being drawn, so he advises clients to think ahead and pay for 60-70 metres. If they want 60 metres, he recommends 90, because to call a drilling team out again in a few years to deepen the well will be much more expensive.

Zalmai says he is tired of repeating this process year in year out for half of his life already. But this is the only trade he knows. And once again he reminds: “This job is 100 per cent risk, there is always danger.” Hence his stance towards his six-year-old son’s future. This is no job for him, he says. “I told the headmaster of his school to make sure he stays studying there, so he doesn’t follow in my footsteps.”