ZOiS Spotlight 1/2024

Climate Change and Water Security in Central Asia

by Nafisa Mirzojamshedzoda 10/01/2024

To tackle the growing problem of drought in Afghanistan, the Taliban is constructing an ambitious irrigation canal. But the project also has repercussions for neighbouring Central Asian countries and shows how the effects of global heating require cooperation that transcends political differences.

Border river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Water is a strategically important natural resource in Central Asia and Afghanistan, particularly in light of the increasing impacts of climate change. In the last three summers, these countries have witnessed record temperatures, decreased precipitation and the melting of mountain glaciers. Afghanistan, where more than 70 per cent of the population depends on agriculture for their subsistence, continues to be in the most vulnerable position in the region. The frequency of repeated droughts and natural disasters affects water availability during the vegetation seasons, increasing susceptibility to food shortages. Therefore, the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal has become one of the primary priorities of the Taliban's self-proclaimed state, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, to address the urgent humanitarian crisis

The relevance of Qosh Tepa Canal

The susceptibility to changing climate conditions naturally increases the importance of the Qosh Tepa Canal project. Once completed, it is expected to irrigate around 550,000 hectares of arid land, providing a key resource for thousands of Afghan farmers in Balkh, Jowzjan and Faryab provinces who are struggling with prolonged drought. These farmers’ livelihoods have traditionally depended on the precipitation accumulated in wells, which has recently been decreasing towards the end of the rainy season. Moreover, most of the naturally formed channels that were once filled with melted mountain water are now empty, posing a further challenge as the growing season is due to start soon.

However, the need for established institutional and legal frameworks for cooperation between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours in Central Asia adds further complexity to the intricate task of managing shared water resources. The treaties that were signed in 1946 and 1958 with the Soviet Union initially agreed on the allocation of 9 cubic km and later on 6 cubic km from the Amu Darya Basin to Afghanistan. After the dissolution of the USSR, these arrangements became ineffective as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan entered into an agreement in Almaty that would establish their water governance. The treaty mandated the establishment of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination and its two regulatory entities, the Basin Water Organisations ‘Amudarya’ and ‘Syrdarya’. It is important to note that Afghanistan was not included in the Almaty Agreement from 1992, which is responsible for monitoring the consumption of water from the river, even though Afghanistan contributes around 10 per cent of the inflow to the Aral Sea basin.

In the past, overall control over irrigation management was handled centrally in Moscow. In the Soviet era, there was a significant emphasis on irrigated farming to meet the water-intensive demands of cotton cultivation, which came at a high price for the environment, leading to the degradation of the Aral Sea. The irrigation system relied on the construction of a vast water infrastructure on transboundary river basins in Central Asia, specifically Amu Darya, Syr Darya and their tributaries. These rivers play an essential role in the national economies: in electricity production in upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and agriculture in downstream countries (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).

Concerns among neighbouring countries 

The latter two have major concerns about the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal as it will directly affect their agricultural and industrial output due to reduced water flow. Tajikistan is less affected by the construction, although it has concerns about measures that might foster stability for the Taliban administration. Compared to other neighbouring countries in the region, Tajikistan maintains somewhat strained relations with the Taliban. One reason is its support for the National Resistance Front, an anti-Taliban resistance group that is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the construction of Qosh Tepa is often seen as an instrument for the Taliban to gain recognition and legitimacy in both domestic and international political arenas. The present Afghan government employs social media channels to promote the autonomous progress of modern irrigation projects in various districts of Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s pursuit of self-sufficiency entails inherent costs for neighbouring countries. In its haste to complete the construction within the next two years, the new leadership in Afghanistan neglects offers of additional assessments and consultations on the project’s feasibility and sustainability. As a result, the concerns among Central Asian countries are growing. For instance, in October 2023, the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, called on other regional leaders to unify and take a joint stance on this issue. However, the immediate impact and level of exposure of neighbouring states to the envisioned project shape their responses and differing positions towards the Taliban on this issue.

Nevertheless, the impacts of climate change on security and stability go beyond political and national boundaries, and addressing this issue requires a collective endeavour. Climate change necessitates collaboration among unconventional partners and has the potential to create avenues for addressing long-standing grievances over water, fostering trust, and enhancing relations between Central Asian countries and Afghanistan through economic and environmental cooperation.

Nafisa Mirzojamshedzoda is a PhD candidate at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development (HNEE), and the University of Fribourg and a researcher within the KonKoop network, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.