Afghanistan’s Water Demands: Its Impact on Central Asia

By James Durso

April has been  a signal time for Afghanistan.

First, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan about alleviating  Afghanistan’s economic crisis. Then, the Taliban government  announced the Chinese mining company Gochin would invest up to $10 billion USD to mine the country’s lithium reserves, and would assist developing other infrastructure, e.g., building a second tunnel at the Salang Pass. Last, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported the progress of the Qosh Tepa Irrigation Canal, a 285-kilometer canal that is projected to irrigate 550,000 hectares of land by diverting 25% of the flow of the Amu Darya River to Afghanistan.

A meeting of bigwigs always makes the front page, and lithium is the current thing, but the Qosh Tepa Canal is the most important story of the three as it will impact regional stability, and not necessarily positively.

Irrigating northern Afghanistan has been a priority for Kabul since Afghanistan’s first president, Mohammad Daud Khan,  planned the canal in the 1970s. The Amu Darya, which is Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, originates in the Hindu Kush and Wakhan in the Pamir Highlands of Afghanistan, and flows 2,540 kilometers to the Aral Sea, which is situated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The canal was promoted by the U.S. during the 2001-2021 occupation, and in 2018 the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a feasibility study for the canal, but the U.S. and its allies evacuated the country before the study was complete. (Though it would be good to know if U.S. officials understood the regional impact or were only focused on the effects within Afghanistan’s borders.)

After the U.S./NATO evacuation, the Taliban took up the project in March 2022 and have  completed about 100 kilometers of the canal. The Taliban government claims the completed canal will benefit farmers, many of them their Pashtun supporters who will migrate to the area, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.

The Taliban seek self-sufficiency in food, but it remains to be seen if the newly-irrigated land, which is in the most fertile part of the country and now produces barley, corn, cotton, wheat, and rice, will instead be put to use growing opium poppy. Balkh province, which will be served by the canal, is a leading opium poppy cultivating province according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and had a 109% increase in hectares under cultivation from 2021 to 2022.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan  have addressed their concerns about the canal to the Taliban, and haven’t publicly commented on the negotiations, but the Taliban claimed Tashkent’s envoy said Uzbekistan was “ready to work with the Islamic emirate (the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan) through technical teams in order to maximize the benefits of the Qosh Tepa canal project.”

Uzbekistan’s concern is the continued viability of the cotton industry, a major employer, and the impact on water-stressed Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan was the scene of disturbances in July 2022 when the government announced a constitutional amendment that would eliminate Karakalpakstan’s autonomy. The change was withdrawn after unrest that saw 18 killed and hundreds wounded.

The existing agreement on sharing Amu Darya water is the 1996 Almaty Agreement signed by the Central Asian republics, but not Afghanistan. The Agreement retains the water allocation quotas established by the Soviet government, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan consume more than 80% of the river’s water.

The republics have established organizations and institutions to manage the Amu Darya, but, again, Afghanistan is not part of the processes. The Taliban say they will responsibly use the water to the benefit of all, though they probably privately feel that the other states got the advantage of 100% of the water for several decades and now it is Afghanistan’s turn to take its overdue share.

What can the Central Asian republics do?

Not a lot, as Afghanistan is the head of the watercourse, though inviting Kabul formal participation in a water sharing agreement will give the Taliban what it most craves – legitimacy. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Central Asia has a high level of water stress and the World Bank reports, “many as 22 million people in Central Asia – nearly one-third of the region’s population – lack access to safe water.”

If the Taliban decline to negotiate or do so in bad faith, some options are to stop (or renegotiate) selling electricity to Afghanistan which imports 80% of its power from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Iran; route surface freight traffic via Iran and the International North-South Transport Corridor which will allow connections to Russia, the Caspian region, the markets of the southern Persian Gulf, and India; and step up counter-narcotics activity and cooperation among the republics and with Europe, Russia, the U.S., Iran, China, and Pakistan.

At the same time, the republics can signal they are being reasonable by offering rhetorical support for  the stalled Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline while they go slow on the China- Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) rail line that will connect China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port via Afghanistan, part of China’s $54 billion USD China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The CKU is part of the Trans-Afghan railway project which reflected Uzbekistan’s previous prioritization of access to Pakistan’s seaports, though it would also eventually connect to Iran’s rail network and seaports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar.

In March, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan met Iran’s ministers of Foreign Affairs, and Industry, Mines and Trade, and the parties announced efforts to double trade turnover to $1 billion, and to foster business links and people-to-people ties. The ministerial meetings were the follow-on to the September 2022 sit-down between Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi  where they concluded 17 agreements in areas such as energy, transport, and agriculture, and discussed how to double trade from the current $500 million annually.

Despite their previous interest in the Afghanistan-Pakistan route, the Uzbeks may have concluded that option is “too hard” for the foreseeable future, and dealing with Iran will secure access to the INSTC, to Bandar Abbas port for trade with Persian Gulf markets, and Chabahar Port for exports and imports from India, the rest of Asia, and points beyond. And Iran promises a more predictable environment as it has a professional civil service and active private sector and is free of Islamic State attacks.

Turkmenistan’s trade with Iran is also increasing and in 2022 the two countries established a joint trade center to increase economic activity, though closer ties may be damaged by the recent establishment of an Israeli embassy in Ashgabat.

If the Taliban senses a lack of cooperation from the Uzbekistan  or Turkmenistan in response to damage caused by reduced water flow, they may respond by organizing, or at least not stopping, cross-border attacks, such as the April 2022 rocket attack on the airfield at Termez, Uzbekistan that was claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K).

That tactic may backfire as the republics can then publicly ask the Taliban how they are letting rogue bands, or, worse, the Islamic State run free? Is Kabul complicit or does its writ stop at the boundary of Kabul municipality?

In early 2022, Analyst Bruce Pannier concluded, “The Taliban are losing control in northern Afghanistan to the Islamic State.”

If so, the irrigation project and movement of Pashtun farmers into northern Afghanistan may be the Taliban’s way to counter IS-K by seeding the area with their supporters, though it will also give IS-K a fat target – the canal – to attack.

And the movement of Pashtun farmers into a largely Uzbek and Tajik area will be stressful enough, but if their arrival is accompanied by IS-K attacks, the stage will be set for inter-communal strife. If the Taliban intercede on the side of fellow Pashtuns, they may give neighboring countries the opportunity to insert themselves and liken the Pashtun settlers to Israeli settlers on the West Bank.

And the Washington Post recently reported on leaked Pentagon intelligence findings from early 2023 that concluded “the country [Afghanistan] has become a significant coordination site for the Islamic State as the terrorist group plans attacks across Europe and Asia, and conducts “aspirational plotting” against the United States.”

Public disclosure of the American’s evidence that the Taliban are unwilling or unable to control their turf may spur them to act against IS-K in order to gain cooperation from the neighbors, though they will probably demand material support to do so.

If the Taliban are unwilling or unable to clean house, a “soft embargo,” the stick, with an invitation to join in a water sharing agreement, the carrot, may in time encourage them to limit their predations to their fellow Afghans and allow the countries of the region to work together on ways to integrate Afghanistan into an organized, cooperative regional framework.

The Taliban likely feel the wind is at their back after securing China’s $10 billion USD agreement for lithium, but insecurity, specifically a Taliban attack that killed eight guards, is why China’s $3 billion USD offer for the Aynak Copper Mine stalled for years before finally resuming production in December 2021.

Kabul may feel there is no urgency to conclude a water deal with the Central Asian republics while it create facts on the ground, but Afghanistan also has water disputes with Iran and Pakistan so coordinated action by they and the Central Asian republics on water or narcotics trafficking will establish both the spirit and mechanisms of regional cooperation and show the Taliban the disadvantaged of being the odd man out.

In the 2010’s, the American administration was bullish on the New Silk Road as a way to integrate Afghanistan into Central Asia, but today there is an alternative road – Iran – which isn’t ideal in some ways but will get the job done.

The Taliban have one chance to get it right and if the Chinese, who have a higher risk tolerance than many Western investors, retire, Afghanistan may once again be a blank spot on the map.

Featured Photo: An Afghan man helps build an irrigation canal in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.