The Impact of Afghanistan’s Water Developments in the Amu Darya Basin

3 Apr 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Authors from the Center for International Development and Environmental Research and the Institute for Advanced International Studies have published a policy brief on the impact of Afghanistan’s water developments in the Amu Darya basin of Central Asia. This region, with its dry climate, has undergone significant institutional change since 1991 as former Soviet states each pursued their own programmes for water resources development. Each development has had an impact on regional water allocation, as upstream development for hydropower tended to conflict with downstream water needs for irrigation.

Against this background, the authors investigate the development of the Qosh-Tepa canal in Afghanistan, which has raised the stakes on water in the region. This canal project envisages the development of irrigation on more than 550 000 hectares of land in Afghanistan by diverting 650 m³/second from the Amu Darya River. The project is not a new development, but has long been discussed in Afghanisatan, including the commissioning of a feasibility study which was completed in 2019.  

In the scenario presented by the feasibility study, the bulk (80%) of this water would be abstracted during the grown season, putting pressure on the limited resources of the Amu Darya River. This is taking place against the context of changes in the regional climate, whereby the region’s temperature increases are expected to lie between 2-4°C by 2050, i.e. twice the global average. The region is expected to become more arid, especially in the western parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and  Kazakhstan.

In this context the planned peak extraction of 13 km³ of water through the canal calls into question the 2.1 km³ allocated to Afghanistan under the 1992 Almaty Agreement , increasing the need for cooperation between Afghanistan and downstream countries. Agricultural water use already accounts for more than 90% of water use in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and in dry years, countries only receive 50% of their water allocations. Northern Uzbekistan has already witnessed soil salinization, environmental degradation and outmigration from the region. Turkmenistan also diverts more than 30% of the flow of the Amu Darya for irrigation purposes.

Further reductions in water flow in the river can be expected to have negative consequences for water quality, affecting access to safely managed drinking water.

The authors conclude that Afghanistan’s current plans to develop water resources is a zero-sum game in the regional context (whereby the gain of one party implies loss to another party). The desire of Afghanistan to pursue the development of water resources is understandable in a historical context, but the actors in the Amu Darya Basin are already experiencing difficulties in addressing the water management challenges, and further reductions in water availability will have an impact throughout the region. Nevertheless, these shared challenges can also create space for collaboration and provide common ground for identifying shared opportunities.