The role that water can play in the direction that the Taliban takes, be it towards Iran, Pakistan or China, cannot and must not be discounted
Every single one of Afghanistan’s neighbours is dependent on the country to a certain degree for water resources.
The Kabul basin is home to over 25 million people and is significant to Kabul, Islamabad and other cities, with no formal agreement or management mechanism. The northern basin, an intricate mosaic of smaller rivers is, perhaps, the only major basin in the country that is extensively used.The four major river basins are Amu Darya, Helman, Harirud-Murghab and the Kabul. Amu Darya, one of the longest in Central Asia that forms part of the country’s border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and flows into the Aral Sea. The Helmand, which is the longest river within the country, forms a part of the border with Iran and is extremely important to both countries as it is used extensively for irrigation. The Helmand is the only river on which a treaty exists, albeit bilateral between Iran and Afghanistan, on water sharing. Both the nations have also, in the past, made constructive efforts at dialogue on the Hamoun Lake under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, although nothing concrete materialised. The three years of ongoing drought has brought to the fore the lack of sustained cooperation and tension on water usage. The Harirud-Murghab holds close to 12 percent of the country’s water resources and is located in Herat, an intensely irrigated region, before flowing through Iran to Turkmenistan. The Kabul River, perhaps the most important river in Afghanistan with 26 percent of total water, originates in the Hindu-Kush mountains and flows east where it is joined by the Kunar River (Chitral in Pakistan) before it flows into Pakistan to join the Indus. The Kunar River flows into Afghanistan, making both the countries downstream and upstream riparians in the shared basin. The Kabul basin is home to over 25 million people and is significant to Kabul, Islamabad and other cities, with no formal agreement or management mechanism. The northern basin, an intricate mosaic of smaller rivers is, perhaps, the only major basin in the country that is extensively used. This brief overview indicates not only the interdependency between Afghanistan and the region on shared water resources and long-term water security, but also highlights that collaboration on these resources and benefits to the current or any future government in Kabul will be a key factor in geopolitical relationships. While Afghanistan is blessed with abundant water, availability is not the same as access. Less than 30 percent of the country has access to safe water and is facing a water and food crisis due to decades of mismanagement and lack of investment in water infrastructure and supply lines. This has been exacerbated by a protracted drought, floods, soil erosion and increasing desertification, changes in precipitation patterns and other effects of climate change. While several countries, including India, international organisations and NGOs have been working to rebuild what was destroyed by war and are bringing in new systems of management, dams, recycling units and smaller community-led water networks and programmes, it is not enough. Given the current interim government, the trajectory on this remains unclear.
While much of the available water is used for irrigation, both through formal and informal means of extracting water, there has been little investment in water use for other sectors, including industry or hydro-power. Afghanistan is currently dependant on its neighbours for electricity, with minimal capacity to generate within the country.How this reluctance might change could very well depend on the nature of relationships the Taliban-led government forms with the regional and international partners. However, whether the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan understands the extent of the water crisis that can cascade into a larger food and health crisis, and what means they might employ to manage this crisis remains to be seen.
Afghanistan has the right to use and exploit its water resources, reduce dependency on imported hydropower, improve irrigation systems and increase water and sanitation access to populations across the country.The Central Asian states, that follow a similar stance as Russia, have a moderate economic and trade relationship with Afghanistan. Till date, there has been no major issue over shared waters; however, as any future government or authority in Afghanistan turns its attention to development in the north and north-east region, it could affect the availability from the Amu Darya to downstream Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Arguably, Afghanistan has the right to use and exploit its water resources, reduce dependency on imported hydropower, improve irrigation systems and increase water and sanitation access to populations across the country. As the home of several large rivers that feed the neighbourhood, it also has the leverage needed to engage in successful water diplomacy, though currently it lacks the means and expertise to do so. As developments in Afghanistan put pressure on the security environment of the region, growing water insecurity and disruptions from climate change will likely play an important role in these negotiations. The role that water can play in the direction that the Taliban takes, be it towards Iran, Pakistan or China, cannot and must not be discounted. There is no doubt that the downstream neighbours will take this into account, especially if favourable deals are on offer where water can be exchanged for what the Taliban might need. India, for its part, cannot remain distant, especially given the influence that both Russia and China have over some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While water is unlikely to be at the core of regional developments, it can be a risk multiplier, the cascading effects of which will undoubtedly spillover into South Asia.
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Ambika Vishwanath is the Founder Director of Kubernein InitiativeRead More +