Late last month, an Uzbek delegation visited Kabul in an effort to strengthen ties with the nascent Taliban regime. Among the various infrastructure projects discussed between the two parties was the ongoing construction of Afghanistan’s new Qosh Tepa canal in Balkh province. With a plan to divert up to 10 billion cubic meters from the Amu Darya each year, the canal proposes the utilization of a significant amount of water from a basin that already has a history of intensive use by the downstream states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. As over 100 kilometers of the 285 km-long canal has already been dug, the potential impact of such a project is becoming increasingly palpable each day construction continues.
Devoting over 4,000 workers and numerous capital assets to the project, the Taliban clearly have an interest in seeing this canal completed, regardless of the consequences to the downstream states. Nonetheless, given how much the other states in the region rely on the Amu Darya, protection of existing water distribution agreements is essential. Disagreement, though, is not really an option. Without an understanding between Afghanistan and the other states in the basin, the resulting diplomatic crisis could further isolate the Taliban and exacerbate regional security problems. This is perhaps why the Uzbek delegation was so keen to emphasize that the canal be developed with respect to the existing legal norms. The extent to which a project of such a scope and magnitude can be implemented into the current legal framework is, however, a somewhat dubious proposition.
Water-sharing on the Amu Darya
Although previous agreements regarding the Amu Darya had been negotiated between the Soviet Union and the government in Kabul, going back to 1946, these treaties never directly addressed the issue of water-sharing on the Amu Darya. Later agreements, like the post-Soviet Almaty Agreement, never included Afghanistan as a signatory in any negotiations regarding the use of water in the basin. This left the Soviet Union, and later the independent Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, significant leeway with which to develop the water resources of the basin, resulting in the construction of the massive Karakum canal, from which Turkmenistan draws the majority of its water resources. It also led to the intensification of irrigation projects near the mouth of the river, where it once contributed about two-thirds of the runoff flowing into the Aral Sea.
Both of these developments have meant that almost all of the water flowing into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is used before it reaches the Aral Sea, resulting in the aridification crisis now plaguing the region. Even without Afghanistan being party to the water-sharing agreements of the region, the water resources have been largely used up.
Although several attempts have been made by Tajikistan to rectify this problem, the subject of the memorandums of understanding between it and the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan never extended to water-sharing, nor did it ever include as signatories any downstream states in the basin, whose water resources are far more threatened by a diversion of water into Afghanistan than are those of Tajikistan.
Without a real understanding in Kabul, or for that matter any Central Asian nation, of the rights Afghanistan had to the Amu Darya’s waters, the best the regimes in the region can do is look to precedent. The current agreement governing the basin, the Almaty Agreement, takes as its basis for water allocation divisions that were originally envisioned in the Soviet-era Protocol 566, which only assumed that Afghanistan would divert 2.1 billion cubic meters, far less than the potential 10 billion that the Qosh Tepa canal might divert.
The Uzbek delegation’s claims of cooperation with respect to international norms are not a conciliatory statement. They are a clear message that under the regulatory framework currently governing the Amu Darya, the Qosh Tepa canal is unfeasible.
The Scarcity Crisis
The diversion of water from the Amu Darya seriously threatens the stability of Uzbekistan. Putting aside the threat to the water-reliant cotton industry itself, which the country has expended significant resources to connect to global markets, the aridification of the Aral Sea has already exacted a heavy toll on the country. It has made Uzbek citizens more unhealthy, for one, especially in the Karakalpakstan region. The resulting exposure of the population to significant pollutants has reduced population growth in the autonomous region and resulted in increases in infant mortality, tuberculosis, and bronchitis. A reduction in the flow of the Amu Darya would not only exacerbate these woes, but threaten the main employer of Karakalpakstan. A diversion of water in Afghanistan would degrade the health and economic opportunities of an already marginal and troubled region in Uzbekistan.
It is not clear that Tashkent is willing to bear the consequences of such a disaster, given that they had to rescind changes to the constitution regarding Karakalpakstan’s status, which incited last year’s protests. In light of the recent trials of the 2022 protesters, along with the upcoming changes to the Uzbek constitution, now would seem a politically sensitive time to concede water resources to the Afghans, despite hopes of normalization between the two regimes.
Turkmenistan’s concerns mirror those of its northern neighbor. As a country that draws the overwhelming majority of its water resources from the Amu Darya, Ashgabat cannot bear to concede ground to the Afghans regarding water-sharing in the basin. Just last year, tap water in the capital had to be turned off in response to scarcity caused by the excessive heat that summer. This scarcity does not appear to be temporary, either. Reports released by the government this year indicate that the Karakum canal, Turkmenistan’s main source of water, is facing significant water shortages. To Turkmenistan, then, the potential threat posed by the Qosh Tepa canal is “not a problem, but a disaster.”
There are potential solutions to this problem to which Turkmenistan has recourse, such as a proposed desalination plant on the Caspian Sea, but these are not without costs. In addition to the environmental impact such a plant could have, any such project would require outside expertise and new infrastructure, taking at least five years to complete. Given how quickly the Qosh Tepa canal is being built, and how critical Turkmenistan’s current water shortage is, this is not time Ashgabat has.
Incentives to Cooperation
Despite the nominal opposition that downstream countries might have to the canal, there are definite benefits to cooperating with the Taliban on this issue. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been trying to get governments in Kabul to cooperate on the proposed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline for decades now. With the participants having already sunk significant resources into the project, the recent announcement by the Taliban that construction would continue could finally see a payoff to some of these investments. All of this comes while India, one of the primary beneficiaries of such a pipeline, is expressing interest in diversifying its sources of hydrocarbons. Therefore, a dispute regarding water could seriously jeopardize this project when the potential is high for the region to be introduced to new markets for natural gas. Thus, the prospect of cooperation on Qosh Tepa is not necessarily zero-sum.
The governments of the region have also been anxious to maintain relatively close ties to the Taliban on counterterrorism issues. Other than the potential of water disagreements to sour these counterterrorism discussions, there is a good case to be made that the Qosh Tepa canal might directly impact these efforts. Northern Afghanistan, where the canal is being constructed, is a region that the Taliban have long struggled to control, both historically and contemporaneously. In particular, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has carried out several attacks in the last few months in Balkh province, including the assassination of the governor.
The Qosh Tepa canal does not exist in a vacuum; these facts inform its creation. The new farmland that the canal would bring under cultivation could provide new lands on which Taliban-allied Pashtun tribesmen could settle, helping solidify the Taliban’s control in the region. Any attempt to block the construction of the canal by Central Asia nations could allow the region of Afghanistan closest to their borders to fester in further instability.
The Qosh Tepa canal issue essentially forces the Central Asian nations in the Amu Darya basin to make tradeoffs between regional instability and internal instability, as they weigh the benefits that a contented and stable Taliban in northern Afghanistan might have on the region against the costs their own population might bear should the water resources of the Amu Darya be further strained. Although the current rhetoric of Uzbekistan, and the lack thereof in Turkmenistan, might lead to a conclusion that the former values internal stability while the latter regional harmony, the rapidity with which the project has advanced may just as well mean that Tashkent and Ashgabat have not had the time to properly calibrate their diplomatic responses.
As the construction on the canal progresses, and the consequences of an undeveloped water-sharing framework on the Amu Darya become more apparent, the steps that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan make in the next few months will begin to outline the relative importance each regime places on these dueling regional and domestic consequences.