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Afghanistan’s Qosh Tepa Canal: A Mega-Project or a Mega-Problem?

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Afghanistan is building a massive canal in the north of the country to divert water from the Amu Darya river, one of the longest and most important rivers in Central Asia.

The Qosh Tepa Canal, named after a district in Jawzjan province, is expected to be 285 km long and 100 meters wide, and to irrigate 550,000 hectares of land. The Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, have made the canal a priority project and claim that they have the capacity and the right to implement it. However, the canal has raised serious concerns among Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, who fear that it will reduce their water supply and worsen the environmental crisis in the region.

The Amu Darya River originates in the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and flows through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before emptying into the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. The river is a vital source of water for agriculture, industry, and human consumption for millions of people in Central Asia. However, decades of overexploitation, mismanagement, and climate change have severely depleted the river’s flow and contributed to the shrinking and salinization of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea disaster has had devastating effects on the ecology, economy, and health of the region, causing desertification, loss of biodiversity, reduced crop yields, increased poverty, and higher rates of respiratory and infectious diseases.

Afghanistan has historically used only a small fraction of the Amu Darya’s water, as most of its population lives in other parts of the country. However, Afghanistan’s water demand has increased significantly in recent years due to population growth, urbanization, economic development, and recurrent droughts. Afghanistan has also asserted its right to use more water from the river, arguing that it has been excluded from regional agreements on water allocation that were made by the former Soviet Union among its Central Asian republics. Afghanistan has not signed any regional or international treaties on using the transboundary waters in the region.

The Qosh Tepa Canal is not a new idea. It was first proposed by Soviet engineers in the 1960s as part of a larger plan to irrigate northern Afghanistan. The project was revived by the former Afghan government in 2010 with support from international donors. However, it faced many challenges, including security threats, technical difficulties, financial constraints, and diplomatic disputes. The project was stalled until the Taliban took over the country and resumed construction in March 2022.

The Taliban have presented the canal as a national development project that will benefit millions of Afghans by creating jobs, increasing food production, and improving living standards. They have also claimed that they have consulted with neighboring countries and assured them that the canal will not harm their interests. However, independent experts and engineers have expressed doubts about the feasibility and sustainability of the canal. They have pointed out that the canal is poorly designed and executed, lacking proper lining, covering, drainage, and maintenance systems. They have also warned that the canal will cause significant water losses due to evaporation and seepage in the arid climate and sandy soil of northern Afghanistan.

Moreover, the canal will have negative impacts on both upstream and downstream countries. For upstream countries like Tajikistan, the canal will reduce their hydropower generation potential by lowering the water level of the Amu Darya. For downstream countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the canal will threaten their agricultural output by depriving them of irrigation water. The canal will also exacerbate the environmental degradation of the Aral Sea basin by diverting more water from its main tributary.

The Qosh Tepa Canal has therefore become a source of tension and conflict in Central Asia. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have expressed their opposition to the canal and demanded that Afghanistan respect their water rights and interests. They have also raised their concerns at regional and international forums, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the United Nations (UN). Uzbekistan has pursued dialogue with Afghanistan on the canal project but has also deployed troops along its border with Afghanistan to prevent any possible water diversion. Turkmenistan has also increased its military presence on its border with Afghanistan and has reportedly fired rockets at Taliban positions near the canal.

The Qosh Tepa Canal is thus a complex and controversial issue that requires careful consideration and cooperation among all stakeholders. The canal may offer some benefits for Afghanistan but it also poses serious risks for its neighbors and for the region as a whole. A comprehensive solution should take into account not only technical and economic factors but also political and environmental ones. A cooperative approach based on dialogue, negotiation, and compromise is essential to ensure the equitable and sustainable use of the Amu Darya river and to prevent further deterioration of the Aral Sea. The canal should not become a mega-problem but rather a catalyst for regional cooperation and integration.

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