PANNIER: Taliban’s ‘thirsty’ Qosh Tepa Canal looming large for Central Asia neighbours

PANNIER: Taliban’s ‘thirsty’ Qosh Tepa Canal looming large for Central Asia neighbours
The construction of the canal started during the spring of last year. To date, Afghanistan and its Central Asia neighbours have no agreement on Amu Darya river water sharing rights. / @FDPM_AFG
By Bruce Pannier August 9, 2023

The presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan gathered for an unprecedented summit in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on August 4 to discuss the use of the region’s most precious resource – water.

The three countries are connected by the Amu Darya, the river that also marks out most of Central Asia’s border with southern neighbour Afghanistan. For decades Central Asia has drawn water from the Amu Darya for agricultural purposes, but for the first time, Afghanistan plans to do the same.

The Taliban announced the Qosh Tepa canal project in early spring 2022 and construction started weeks later in May.

At the time, the ambitious project to build a 100-metre wide, 285-kilometre-long canal across northern Afghanistan did not seem to concern the governments in (from east to west) Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The canal, however, firmly captured the attention of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours when Taliban acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited the construction site five months ago in March and announced that the infrastructure was already more than one-third finished.

The sources of the Amu Darya are found in the Tajik mountains, but the starting point of the Taliban’s canal means that it will not affect Tajikistan.

Of the five Central Asia states, Tajikistan has the worst relationship with the Taliban. Dushanbe has kept contact with the Taliban to a minimum since the Afghan militant group returned to power in August 2021, while at the same time the other Central Asian states have established business and trade ties with the Taliban.

The Tajik government is concerned about its citizens who are in militant groups in Afghanistan, some of whom, such as Tajik militant group Jamaat Ansarullo, are allies with the Taliban, and others of whom are fighting against the Taliban as members of Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS–K).

So it is likely no coincidence that the Qosh Tepa canal will draw water from the Amu Darya in Kaldar district of Balkh province at a point just west of Uzbekistan’s border with Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan is connected to Afghanistan by a railway that both countries wish to see expanded all the way to Pakistan, giving Uzbekistan, and more broadly Central Asia, access to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports.

According to some estimates, downstream communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could lose 15% of the  Amu Darya water that currently flows into the two countries.

Climate change is already affecting Central Asia. The region has seen record temperatures the past three summers, accompanied by decreasing precipitation and melting glaciers in the eastern mountains.

In June, there were reports that in areas along the Amu Darya in eastern Turkmenistan’s Lebap Province, water levels were some 70% lower than usual.

The presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have never held a tripartite summit before.

There was civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and the Taliban came to power in the second half of that decade. The post-9/11 US-led military operation in the country started in late 2001. A resurgence of the Taliban, and other militant groups, took place in northern Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and steadily  increased. Foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

None of this was sufficient reason for the presidents of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan to meet for a summit. So it was clear from the start that there was a sense of urgency surrounding this summit.

The summit was first publicly announced during July 26 videoconference talks between the foreign ministers of the three countries.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov said the presidents of the three countries would meet some time in August.

To all intents and purposes, the summit appeared to be business as usual as the presidents discussed trade, cooperation in the field of energy and transport links.

In the joint declaration released at the end of the summit, water was not mentioned until point 14 (of 17), which spoke of “achieving climate sustainability in the Amu Darya River basin” and “integrated and rational use of water and energy resources, taking into account the interests of the presidents’ states.”

Point 15 of the declaration “stressed the priority importance of the rational use of the water resources of the Amu Darya… and a potential increase in pressure on the water resources of the… river.”

Afghanistan and the Central Asian states have not signed any agreement on water use. Under international law, Afghanistan has as much right to the water of the Amu Darya as the three Central Asian states do.

The Afghan media outlet Khaama Press said in March that “due to the two decades of conflict [Afghanistan] has yet to be able to use its water resources” and “[a]s a result, most neighbouring countries took advantage of the situation and utilised the water without consulting Afghanistan.”

The Central Asian presidents’ declaration did not mention any plans to seek an agreement with Afghanistan on use of the Amu Darya, but Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are  most surely following the ongoing dispute between Afghanistan and Iran over use of water from the Helmand River.

Notably, Iran and Afghanistan do have a treaty on water use. It dates from 1973 but Iran’s government says the Taliban are not meeting the treaty’s conditions on sharing water from the river.

Drought is causing big problems in Iran’s already arid Sistan and Baluchistan Province that borders Afghanistan. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited the province in mid-May and issued a “warning to the rulers of Afghanistan, that they should immediately honour the water rights of the people of Sistan and Baluchistan.”

Raisi also told the Taliban to “take my words very seriously so that you won’t complain later”.

The Taliban responded with a statement saying that water levels in the Helmand River were low and called on Iranian officials to “present their requests with appropriate language”.

The Taliban banned music when they were in power in the late 1990s, but on May 26 a music video was released on pro-Taliban websites that showed Taliban fighters and military vehicles and called on acting Defence Minister Mullah Yaqoob (the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar) to “stand against Iran.”

On May 27, shooting broke out along Sistan and Baluchistan’s border with Afghanistan that left at least two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter dead. There has been no further shooting, but the issue is not resolved between the two parties.

The deadly skirmish along the Iranian-Afghan border is an example of the Taliban’s uncompromising stance on water issues and something that the Central Asian neighbours will have to keep in mind when they speak with the Taliban about water from the Amu Darya.

The summit, it seems, might have at least produced an idea on how Turkmenistan can circumvent this thorny issue.

Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov spoke about “measures and… technological solutions that would allow us to meet the water needs” and said one possible solution was “creating a water pipeline infrastructure.”

Since he said this at a meeting with the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, presumably Berdimuhamedov meant a regional water pipeline project.

The distance between Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is not great, amounting to less than 200 kilometres across Uzbekistan.

One thing seems certain. Whatever measures the three Central Asian states take to alleviate their water problems, the Taliban will be watching, just as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will be watching the progress of the Qosh Tepa canal.