Threat posed by Taliban’s huge canal project to Central Asia farmland causing mounting anxiety

Threat posed by Taliban’s huge canal project to Central Asia farmland causing mounting anxiety
Screenshot of video released by Afghanistan's Taliban administration on progress in constructing the canal. / Administration video, screenshot
By bne IntelIiNews May 20, 2023

Anxiety is quietly mounting among Taliban-ruled Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours at the large-scale damage that could be wrought to farmland by the Qosh Tepa canal project that will divert waters of the Amu Darya border river.

Once fully constructed and put into operation by the Taliban to irrigate Afghanistan’s dry northern plains, the enormous canal risks destabilising relations between Kabul and downstream Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

“The Qosh Tepa canal has already begun to cause regional tensions,” Eugene Simonov, international coordinator of the Rivers Without Boundaries environmental coalition, told The Third Pole. The publication said it found that this view was shared by multiple experts in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that it spoke with.

Simonov, however, was also reported as pointing out that, though Afghanistan—beset by severe economic and humanitarian crises since the US and its allies pulled out of the country in August 2021—is not included in regional water agreements, it has a right to a share of Amu Darya resources.

The Qosh Tepa project has been under discussion in Afghanistan since at least the 1970s, but the commencement of it by the Taliban (who released a video, above, about the construction) appears to have almost come out of the blue for officials in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and also Tajikistan, the Central Asian neighbour least affected by the canal given its route.

The Qosh Tepa canal, say experts, might divert up to a third of the Amu Darya. It is thus becoming the subject of rising international interest and concern.

“It is our own fault that we are not prepared for such a situation,” Yusup Kamalov, an Uzbek ecologist who is chair of NGO the Union for the Defense of the Aral and Amu Darya, told The Third Pole—a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an unnamed official in Uzbekistan told the platform in April that the country’s authorities were trying to resolve the Qosh Tepa situation peacefully.

“Negotiations with the Afghan side are held on a regular basis, but in a closed mode so as not to disturb society. Their government is behaving quite adequately to our proposals. But, unfortunately, we have no guarantees as to what will happen after the Qosh Tepa canal is completed,” he was quoted as saying.

To avoid future conflicts, said the official, Afghanistan should join international agreements and conclude bilateral and multilateral transboundary agreements on water use in the Amu Darya basin.

The first phase of building the canal, wider than the length of three Olympic swimming pools, has already cost 8.2bn Afghan Afghanis (about $94mn) of public money, with the Taliban aiming to “turn 550,000 hectares of barren land into much-needed farmlands” for growing wheat and vegetable oil.

In making diplomatic approaches to Afghanistan—a country totally dependent on foreign aid, with local food output greatly inadequate for feeding the population—Central Asian officials will need to call for more attention to the aridification crisis that has long troubled the Amu Darya basin.

Experts are also concerned that the extraction of more water from the river will mean the restoration of aquatic ecosystems in the Aral Sea region will become impossible, with the critically endangered false shovelnose sturgeon, also called the Amu Darya sturgeon, likely to die out completely and other fish species imperilled.

The operation of the canal could lead to widespread salinisation of agricultural land both in Afghanistan and across the region due to the disruption of the drainage of groundwater into the Amu Darya, according to experts spoken to by The Third Pole. Similar difficulties have been observed around the Karakum Canal in Turkmenistan.

As bilateral and multilateral attempts to negotiate with the Taliban on the Qosh Tepa canal pick up, it seems that all the Amu Darya basin countries should be ready to revise their water resource development plans and step up water conservation efforts such as by introducing water-saving technologies like drip irrigation.