Officials in Uzbekistan have said a government delegation will travel to Afghanistan in the coming months to conduct negotiations over an ambitious canal project that is sparking deep concern over water security in the region.
Tashkent-based outlet Gazeta.uz on October 19 cited Ulugbek Kosimov, the governor of the southern Surkhandaryo region, which borders Afghanistan, as saying the talks could take place before the end of the year.
This announcement comes on the heel of news that the Taliban-run government in Kabul is poised to start work on the second phase of the Qosh Tepa canal, which has been billed by Afghan officials as a way for Afghanistan to ensure its own farming needs.
Speaking last week at a ceremony marking the scheduled start to that second phase, the deputy foreign minister in the Taliban government, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, sought to reassure neighboring nations on the route of the Amu Darya River, from which water in Qosh Tepa will be drawn.
“If our neighbors have worries in this regard, we are ready to contact them through diplomatic channels,” he was quoted as saying by ToloNews.
That conciliatory tone was mixed with defiance, however. Acting Defense Minister Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid said the Taliban’s armed forces would forcefully resist any aggressive efforts to stymie the project.
“All of us, especially the national and Islamic armies of the Defense Ministry are behind the implantation of such projects, and they will support it with all their power,” he was quoted as saying by ToloNews.
Kabul’s hope for Qosh Tepa is that once complete, the 285-kilometer canal will be used to provide irrigation to 550,000 hectares of now-arid farmland.
In perhaps the strongest high-level demonstration of concern over the canal to date, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in mid-September urged fellow Central Asian presidents to adopt a united front in addressing the issue.
“The commissioning of [this canal] could radically change the water regime and balance in Central Asia,” he said a meeting of leaders in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. “We believe it is imperative to form a joint working group to study all aspects of the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal and its effect on the water regime of the Amu Darya.”
The haste with which the Taliban government is forging ahead with work suggests they are inclined to disregard invitations to conduct further feasibility studies. Viability assessments on the project have been conducted before, albeit under the government unseated by the creators of Afghanistan’s self-styled Islamic Emirate.
The apparent lack of oversight is alarming experts.
In a detailed examination of ongoing work on Qosh Tepa written for the CABAR.asia analytical portal, researcher Kunduz Adylbekova noted that construction methods at the project appear rudimentary, which is significantly raising the likelihood of water losses.
Moreoever, the impact on the economies of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are likely to be substantial.
“The ramifications of water withdrawal in Afghanistan weigh heavily on Uzbekistan, primarily translating into a dearth of vital water resources to irrigate the critical cotton plantations sprawled across the Bukhara, Khorezm regions and Karakalpakstan,” wrote Adylbekova. “With cotton reigning as the nation’s primary agricultural crop, accounting for approximately 17 percent of its [gross domestic product], Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector plays a pivotal role in the livelihoods of nearly 40 percent of its populace – directly and indirectly. Such reliance on irrigation is virtually all-encompassing for the cultivation of major crops.”