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afghanistan’s canal project threatens central asian water security

Afghanistan’s Canal Project Threatens Central Asian Water Security

Author: Meray Ozat

Sep 5, 2023

Image source: Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan

Central Asia’s water security is facing a serious threat as the Taliban government continues to move forward with the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal. As Afghan officials announce that “70 percent of construction work on the first phase of the project has been completed,” concerns regardingCentral Asia’s most precious resource are mounting. Theproject's completion could trigger severe repercussions, particularly affecting the downstream region of Central Asia, posing a significant risk of water scarcity in a region already battling droughts and climate change. With the project's progress, the reality is driving urgent cooperation between Central Asia and Afghanistan to mitigate the negative consequences. 

The Qosh Tepa Canal project, spanning 115 miles fromAfghanistan's Balkh Province to Faryab Province, commenced in March 2022 and is set to be finished within the next two years. The project, led by the Afghanistan National Construction Company, is a large-scale endeavor costing about $684 millionand engaging over 4000 workers and multiple capitals. The Qosh Tepa canal will draw water from the Amu Darya River in the Kaldar District of Balkh Province, potentially reducing the downstream flows to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by 15%.

This river originates from its headstream, the Panj River, inTajikistan’s Pamir mountain range, flowing along Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan and then through Uzbekistan andTurkmenistan, playing a crucial role as a primary water source for Central Asia. The water of the Amu Darya accounts for 80%of all water resources in the region. The existing large canals,such as the Karakum canal, which spans over 800 miles, significantly contribute to the economy and agriculture of the region. The cultivation of agricultural produce irrigated by the Amu Darya's waters contributes to 17% of Uzbekistan’s GDP and 10% of Turkmenistan’s GDP. 

In the past, the Amu Darya reached the Aral Sea, but due to the heavy reliance on the river for Central Asia’s agriculture, the river no longer reaches the Aral Sea. To make matters worse, Afghanistan's canal project requires the extraction of 10 billion cubic meters of water annually from Amu Darya, diverting roughly 20% of its flow. This volume far exceeds the initial expectation estimated at 2.1 billion cubic meters each year. While experts indicate that the Amu Darya’s water levels in eastern Turkmenistan’s Lebap Province were 70% lower in June 2023 than in years past, Afghanistan’s heightened level of diversion will only exacerbate water scarcity issues and compound stress levels within the region.

Among the countries affected, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are poised to experience the most significant impacts from the canal project. The canal's implementation could result in a loss of up to 15% of Amu Darya's water for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and half of the total capacity within the next five to six years. 

Furthermore, a recent evaluation of the construction quality of the Qosh Tepa Canal, conducted through satellite imagery, has yielded unsatisfactory results. The analysis indicates that the primary approach employed during the construction phase was rudimentary excavation, lacking proper groundwork for the canal's surface zones. These rudimentary construction methods could potentially harbor a threat of substantial water seepageand needless loss in the future. An environmental specialist,Najibullah Sadid, has already identified erosional patterns within the canal's dams.

Nonetheless, Taliban authorities are likely to insist on completing the project due to the series of potential benefits for the country. At present, nearly 50% of the project has been completed. Upon completion, the project can largely transform and reinvigorate the agricultural conditions as well as humanitarian conditions of Afghanistan. The Qosh Tepa Canal is anticipated to irrigate more than 2100 square miles of arid terrain. Beyond addressing water scarcity and bolstering agriculture, the canal's completion could also generate 250,000 jobs, significantly contributing to the country’s economy. Thus, the construction of this canal is of paramount importance for Afghanistan.

Some Afghan experts and officials maintain that Afghanistan shouldn't be held accountable for the already existing water scarcity problems in the region due to the overuse of river water by other Central Asian states. Among the countries that share the water of the Amu Darya, Afghanistan is the only country that has never utilized its water. Afghanistan was also excluded from water agreements, such as the Almaty agreement signed in 1992, on the regulation and allocation of the Amu Darya River. Up until now, no water agreement exists between Central Asia and Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan, with 12% of the river flowing through its land, holds an equal right to utilize the Amu Darya's water under international law. 

However, as a regime searching for international recognition, trade opportunities, and infrastructure investment, maintaining positive diplomatic ties with its northern neighbors also stands as an important priority for the Taliban. Uzbekistan is a primary supplier of electricity to Afghanistan, while Turkmenistan is a supplier of gas to the country. Antagonizing the neighboring countries could precipitate a deterioration of relationships within the Central Asian region, leading to a decline in trade interactions and potential isolation.

In response to the worrying canal project, Central Asian countries have yet to enact concrete measures. The most notable development was the first-ever trilateral meeting ofTurkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan on August 4. Against the backdrop of diminishing water resources, water management was one of the primary themes. The discussion emphasized the necessity to build a sustainable management system in the Amu Darya basin and to strengthen “mutually beneficial cooperation” among the countries sharing the water of the river. To this end, a range of pragmatic measures were proposed, including the integration of novel technologies, the establishment of a robust water-management mechanism, and the creation of a comprehensive regional network.

The water crisis is primarily the result of ineffective collaboration among the countries and a lack of formal agreements. Therefore, an effective solution for the impending crisis should focus on fostering communication, facilitating formal agreement, and emphasizing mutual understanding and common interests. The countries sharing river water should actively engage in the dialogue concerning regional water resources. Integrating Afghanistan into international and regional agreements on the Amu Darya’s water usage is vital toprevent future conflicts. In addition, a comprehensive assessment of the aggregate water consumption across ongoing projects is necessary to ensure proper and optimal usage of the water of the Amu Darya. 

The realization of the Qosh Tepa project appears inevitable. Hence, Central Asian nations should endeavor to establish common ground with Afghanistan, offering active support to ensure that the project's construction avoids subpar canals that could jeopardize the river's sustainability. Potential solutionsinclude diversifying agricultural crops, modernizing irrigation systems, and embracing sustainable practices like water-saving techniques, recycling, and introducing advanced technologies.


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