Uzbekistan pursues dialogue with Afghanistan on fraught canal project

Uzbekistan pursues dialogue with Afghanistan on fraught canal project
Work on the Qosh Tepa Canal is understood to have started last March. / Afghan official handout
By Eurasianet March 27, 2023

Officials from Uzbekistan travelled to Afghanistan this week for talks on ongoing efforts undertaken by the Taliban government to build a colossal canal that could end up diverting vast amounts of water needed by Uzbek farmers.

Tashkent has been circumspect about the outcome of its coordination with Kabul, but Taliban officials on March 22 cited the visiting Uzbek delegation as saying their government was prepared to cooperate on completing the Qosh Tepa Canal project “in accordance with international norms and fully considering the privileges and rights of Afghanistan.” 

Afghanistan is not a signatory to any regional or international treaties on the use of transboundary water resources, however, so it is unclear to which norms the Afghan officials were alluding. 

Work on the canal is understood to have started last March and progress is already at an advanced stage, according to Afghan sources. One Kabul-based outlet has reported that more than one-third of the planned 285-kilometre-long canal has been dug. Taliban officials have designated the project a high priority. 

“We have already assured the nation that this project would be completed at any cost,” Abdul Ghani Baradar, the first deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said during a visit to a construction site.

More than 6,500 people and 4,100 units of machinery have been assembled to complete the canal, which will run through Afghanistan’s northern Balkh and Jowzjan provinces bordering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Qosh Tepa canal map

The thorniest aspect of the Qosh Tepa Canal is that it will have to be filled with water drawn from the Amu Darya River. The health of that river, whose tributaries rise in the Pamir Mountains on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is already in a state of terminal decline. The Aral Sea, a body of water that was once fed by the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the other great river of Central Asia, is a fraction of the size it was in the 1960s. 

The Taliban’s vision for Qosh Tepa is that it will help irrigate up to 550,000 hectares of land, thereby enabling the cultivation of wheat and other crops. 

In 1992, the five countries of former Soviet Central Asia signed a document known as the Almaty Agreement, which goes some way to regulating water use in the region. That has not been enough to prevent occasional flashes of friction, though. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, are signatories to the 1992 UN Water Convention. Afghanistan has not signed that agreement. 

The Taliban leadership nevertheless insists that Afghanistan also has every right to tap into the Amu Darya for its needs.

“We do not take even a drop of water from other nations because we [do] not need it and do not wish to take it. Hence, no country will be worried about this, and we have good and friendly relations with Uzbekistan. And we believe they support Afghanistan's growth and standing on its feet and they work with us in this area,” TOLO News cited Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the self-styled Islamic Emirate, as saying in February. 

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry statement issued following this week’s talks in Kabul did not refer directly to the canal project. It only mentioned, in a passage toward the end of the statement, that “particular attention has been paid to cooperation in the water and energy sphere.”

“Evidently, Uzbekistan wants for the time being to avoid raising tensions in its relations with the Taliban. But if a threatening situation arises in connection with the construction of the canal, then Uzbekistan will obviously protect its national interests,” Farkhod Tolipov, a Tashkent-based political analyst, told Eurasianet.

Qosh Tepa has received some limited attention in the local media.

In February, privately owned news outlet solicited the views of three experts, all of whom agreed that construction of the canal would have negative implications for Uzbekistan’s ability to irrigate its own fields.

Nikita Makarenko, a citizen journalist well-regarded by the authorities, has described the project as “the No. 1 national security problem.”  

Tashkent is eager to maintain a healthy rapport with the Taliban regime. 

In contrast with Western countries, Uzbekistan continued, even after the Islamist militant group seized power in 2021, to pursue dialogue. Contacts are mainly focused on humanitarian aid and an ongoing project to build a railroad linking to Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan.  

It is unclear how Qosh Tepa will affect relations. But there are already small signs of sourness developing. 

Last December, Uzbekistan reduced electricity supplies to Afghanistan due to maintenance work on the transmission network and then suspended them completely in January amid shortages caused by a particularly bitter winter. Supplies were later restored, but the Taliban criticised the Uzbek authorities for violating their agreement.

In another incident from February, a bas-relief of the 15th-century poet Alisher Navoi, who is considered the founder of Uzbek literature, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif was destroyed. Akhror Burkhanov, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tashkent, tweeted after this episode that the Uzbek government has received assurances from Taliban representatives that “the act of vandalism in no way reflected government policy” and that the monument would be restored. 

“The tension is going to rise and fall,” Tolipov said. “It will rise when the Taliban issue unfriendly statements about Uzbekistan, and it will fall when the Taliban shows its support for transportation corridor projects.”

This story first appeared on Eurasianet here.