Taliban Vow To Finish Disputed Canal At ‘Any Cost’

Via Nikkei Asia, a report on the Taliban’s vow to finish a disputed canal at ‘any cost’ despite its Central Asian neighbors crying foul over its plans to tap shared river:

A massive canal project in Afghanistan has alarmed the country’s neighbors over fears it will drain a river key to their agricultural economies, but the ruling Taliban is warning that it will press on at any cost.

The fundamentalist Afghan regime inherited the long-stalled project after it retook control of the country two years ago. Since then, it has touted the Qosh Tepa irrigation canal as a signature infrastructure build, aiming to turn some 550,000 hectares of desert into usable farmland.

Work on the canal, first conceived in the 1970s, had only started shortly before Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021. But the first phase of the planned 285-kilometer waterway was finished in October as thousands of workers rush to meet a tentative completion date just two years away.

That cannot come fast enough for many in Sheberghan, a city in northern Afghanistan where parched fields crack open due to a lack of water, underscoring the country’s vulnerability to climate change. The region has little irrigation so farmers rely on snow melting in the mountains to supply water for crops, but years of drought have taken their toll.

“Once the canal is completed, we’ll all be well off and, of course, happy,” said Sheberghan resident Hakim.

The Taliban are framing the project as crucial for a country wracked by decades of conflict and a lack of jobs.

“The construction of Qosh Tepa canal is taking place at a time when Afghanistan is facing numerous economic challenges as the country wakes up from four decades of war, with unemployment rates at their peak,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, in comments to Nikkei Asia. “In such times, this project represents a great source of hope for all our countrymen.”

But that enthusiasm is not shared across the border in neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are raising the alarm over Afghanistan’s plans to divert 20% of the water from the Amu Darya River for the canal. The shared waterway is an important source of irrigation for the Central Asian nations’ lucrative cotton and agricultural sectors.

“The construction [of Qosh Tepa canal] can radically change the water regime and balance in Central Asia,” warned Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in September at an international conference in Tajikistan.

A month later, an Uzbek delegation headed by Deputy Prime Minister Jamshid Khodjaev arrived in Kabul for talks on bilateral relations. A source familiar with details of the meeting said the canal project was at the top of the agenda.

The Taliban, however, have cautioned against any interference over a canal estimated to cost $684 million, despite growing fears of environmental damage from shoddy construction.

“We have thoroughly discussed this project and can assure our neighbors that it will not pose any threat to them. They should not worry about it,” said Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid earlier this year. “And we will not allow anyone to create obstacles to this project.”

During a site visit in March, Afghanistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar said the canal would be finished “at any cost.”

“Water projects in many countries including Afghanistan have strong public support,” said Najibullah Sadid, a water resources and environment expert at Germany’s Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute. “Defending Afghanistan’s water rights is also something the Taliban has shown itself to be committed to doing, while at the same time it pays them with strong public support.”

The dispute is not the country’s first over a waterway. Afghanistan has also been locked in a yearslong dispute with neighboring Iran over the Helmand River, with the conflict sometimes leading to violence and threats from Tehran to invade. Two Iranian border guards and a Taliban fighter were killed in a clash in May.

But analysts say it is unlikely the canal dispute will erupt into violence. Afghanistan’s neighbors are likely to tread carefully given their involvement in big-ticket projects such as an energy pipeline planned to run through Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, as well as a railway project connecting Uzbekistan to Pakistan through Taliban-controlled territory.

“There are other interdependencies that are far more important than water to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that force these countries to be very careful not to overreact to [the canal],” Sadid said.

The Taliban’s fearsome reputation for violence could be another factor in quashing complaints, said Afghan analyst Sami Yousafzai.

“The neighboring countries may have concerns about the canal but I don’t think any country wants to be an enemy with the Taliban,” he said. “They’re considered dangerous.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 10th, 2023 at 10:36 am and is filed under Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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