Canal construction Afghanistan may disrupt water supply in Turkmenistan

The new project by the Taliban government of Afghanistan involves a construction of a large canal in the north of Afghanistan, that will redirect water from Amu Darya river and create 550,000 hectares of farmland from what is currently arid land. The construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal involves around 7,000 workers and more than 3,000 units of machinery in order to build a 286 km long canal in the next 5 years. The project’s first stage is already 70% complete.

The government of Turkmenistan has not yet commented on Afghanistan’s project.

Water stress in Turkmenistan

Amu Darya is one of the longest rivers in Central Asia. It originates in the Pamir Mountains at the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan and flows into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The river is crucial for water supply of Turkmenistan as it constitutes 88% of the total surface water resources in the country and is the main water source for agricultural activities. 

So far, around 7 km³ of water were used by Afghanistan, but with the new project the water withdrawal is expected to grow to 17 km³. This will have a major impact on water availability in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is already classified as a country with extreme water stress. The water stress has been severely affected by climate change and is expected to be further exacerbated in the future

According to Azatlyk, apart from disturbances to agriculture, construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal will severely impact the ability of provinces to supply freshwater to the households in Lebap and other provinces, where the situation has already been difficult. Water supply shortages may become one of the most severe threats faced by Central Asia and may lead to water conflicts.

Political implications

This project may place Central Asian nations in a difficult political situation with the government of Afghanistan. A delegation of Uzbekistan has recently visited Kabul to discuss the project with the Taliban. However, no details on the results of the talks regarding the project were shared, and Uzbekistan seems to be avoiding tensions between the countries, at least for now.

Before the rise of Taliban, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan used to have regular meetings on water management issues as part of the bilateral Coordinating Commission on Water Management Issues, with the last meeting taking place in November, 2020. However, no further meetings have happened since.

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