Unexplained spill fuels concern about Afghan canal project

Unexplained spill fuels concern about Afghan canal project
Once completed, the Qosh Tepa canal is expected to divert roughly 20% of the water from the Amu Darya River. / Afghanistan government media
By Eurasianet April 3, 2024

A mysterious spill is fanning fears across Central Asia about the construction of a canal in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban government in Kabul is vowing to press ahead with the project, which it insists will ease food insecurity for millions of Afghans. But many in neighbouring Central Asian states view the Qosh Tepa canal as an environmental hazard.

Construction on the canal started in the spring of 2022. The second phase of the project got under way in late February, according to Taliban officials. Once completed, Qosh Tepa will siphon water from the Amu Darya river to irrigate thee northern Afghan provinces. An Afghan news report, citing an economist named Qutbudin Yaqubi, predicted the project would bring about a “green revolution” spurring mass job creation.

Greater economic stability in Afghanistan is something that would be generally applauded by the international community. Yet Qosh Tepa has tended to inspire more concern than confidence among Afghanistan’s neighbours. Many quietly wonder about the quality of construction. Their fears have been fanned by satellite images showing that a vast amount of water escaped in November 2023 from a purportedly completed section of the canal. The cause of the spill remains a matter of dispute.

Was it an accident? An instance of engineering incompetence? An act of sabotage? Or something else? The available evidence is insufficient to support any definitive conclusion. All that is certain is that there was a breach in an approximately 30-metre section of the canal, resulting in a substantial loss of water. 

Water was leaking from the canal for over a month before a regional environmental watchdog group, Rivers Without Boundaries, blew the whistle. Based on analysis of satellite imagery, the group attributed the spill to structural flaws in the canal’s design. The first 100-kilometre (62-mile) stage of the canal had reportedly begun to fill with water from the Amu Darya just a few weeks before the spill began in early November.

“The walls of the [canal] apparently could not withstand the pressure of the water flow – and a huge volume of water, escaping from the canal, spread throughout the entire nearby territory,” the watchdog group contended in a statement.

Taliban officials, meanwhile, claimed it was a controlled event designed to manage the groundwater level in the area near the canal’s 75th kilometre post. Many independent experts looked askance at the Taliban explanation.

Uzbek officials proceeded to muddy the issue by releasing a zig-zagging and self-contradictory assessment. A state agency in Tashkent, Uzbekkosmos, issued a statement noting that “regular observation” via satellite since the start of the canal’s construction in 2022 “determined a rise of groundwater in the areas where excavation works are being carried out.”

At the same time, Uzbekkosmos confirmed the appearance of a 30-metre gap in the canal wall on November 4. The flooded area on November 5 measured 19.5 square kilometres. By December 13, 30.3 square kilometres of territory were saturated, according to the Uzbek state agency. “No measures were taken to stop [the flow] of water,” the statement read. 

Yet, after acknowledging the canal had sprung a leak, the Uzbek space agency suggested that the escaped water somehow didn’t come from the Amu Darya, even though the statement said earlier that “water flow had been created” in the canal in October. Ultimately, Uzbekkosmos’ confusing chronicle of events sided with the Taliban’s version of events.

“As a result of the analysis of high-resolution space images, visual signs of purposeful excavations (use of special equipment, appearance of excavated soil volume, etc.) were carried out on the banks of the canal to divert seepage waters,” the statement concluded, adding that the Rivers Without Boundaries account of the incident did “not correspond to the truth.”

Qosh Tepa is scheduled for completion in 2028. If it becomes fully operational, the canal will stretch 285 kilometres, will be about 100 metres wide and up to 8.5 metresdeep. Experts project that it will divert roughly 20% of the water from the Amu Darya, which serves as the frontier between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Central Asian governments have long been wary of the project’s potential to push an under-developed regional water-management system past the breaking point. The canal’s opening, for example, could have an adverse impact on Uzbekistan’s water-intensive cotton industry. The canal also would pose problems for Kazakhstan’s restoration efforts for the Aral Sea.

Heightening worries about Qosh Tepa, an assessment published by the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting raised “serious doubts” about construction quality. “The construction methods employed appear remarkably rudimentary, with a mere ‘digging’ approach devoid of proper reinforcement or lining for the canal’s bottom and banks,” the report stated. “Such an approach poses a grave risk, as significant water losses may occur due to seepage into the dry, sandy soil.” 

Last September, in a speech at a regional meeting focused on the Aral Sea, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stated “that the problem of water shortage in Central Asia has become acute and irreversible and will only worsen in the future.” He added that completion of Qosh Tepa “could radically change the water regime and balance in Central Asia.” His speech concluded with a call to bring Afghanistan into “the regional dialogue on the joint use of water.”

Uzbekistan’s muted response to the late 2023 spill may well be connected to Mirziyoyev’s desire to engage the Taliban on water-use issues. According to various media reports, an Uzbek delegation intended to visit Afghanistan in late 2023 for talks about Qosh Tepa. Since then, no reports have surfaced on the outcome of any bilateral discussions. Tashkent may feel that quiet diplomacy and a non-confrontational approach stands the best chance of getting the Taliban to cooperate on water management issues.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.