TonAliban official Talk has begun about building a new canal in Afghanistan’s arid north. A recent video posted on YouTube shows shiny diggers roaring across the dunes as workers of various ethnicities toil together. The Islamic regime said some 5,500 people worked around the clock on the project, using more than 3,300 machines. Once completed, the Qosh Tepa Canal will divert water from the Amu Darya for irrigation. Once known as the Amu Darya, the river originates in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and flows into Uzbekistan, making it one of the longest rivers in Central Asia. The Taliban expect the project to turn 550,000 hectares of desert into much-needed farmland.
Among the many dire news coming out of Afghanistan, including the threat of poverty for almost all of its 40 million people, the canal is a major test of the Taliban’s ability to rule. “Many doubted our ability to carry out the project,” declared Abdul Rahman Attash, head of the State Development Corporation. “We will demonstrate that Afghanistan can independently develop its economy and implement national projects.”
So far, the jihadists have done little. Since they retook Afghanistan in August 2021, the country has been mired in economic crisis, partly due to the imposition of sanctions and the evaporation of international aid on which the country relied. The World Bank estimates its economy will contract by more than 20% in 2021. Severe drought and an unusually cold winter have exacerbated the crisis, pushing 20 million people into extreme hunger.
Global warming is particularly pronounced in semi-arid Central Asia, while also making access to water a pressing issue. Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is ecstatic to build a dam near the border with Iran to provide irrigation and electricity. Likewise, the Taliban, as Ashley Jackson at the center of the armed group, non-governmental organizations, Use the Qosh Tepa Canal to demonstrate “Autonomy, Independence and Strength”.
The project is not new. Plans for a canal in northern Afghanistan have been discussed for decades; the feasibility study was conducted under its former U.S.-backed government. Even so, the Taliban’s progress looks impressive. Satellite imagery provided by Planet LabsPeople’s Bank of China, An American company revealed that more than 100 kilometers of canals have been dug in the past 10 months.
However, quick jobs are not necessarily good jobs. Najibullah Sadid, an Afghan engineer based in Germany, is concerned that the canal is not lined or covered. In that case, seepage in the area’s dry, sandy soil would have lost most of the water. Also, trenching is the easiest bit of canal construction. Mr Saeed doubts the Taliban will be able to manage the complex engineering work that should follow, including building culverts and bridges. “They were in a hurry,” he said.
Financing the canal wasn’t easy either. Afghanistan’s finance ministry said it would do so using domestic revenue, which has been boosted by a crackdown on tax avoidance and corruption. It has no choice. At a time when the Taliban regime is banning women and girls from public life, foreign donors are not lining up to donate to big projects for the Taliban. However, the canal’s first phase covers more than 100 km of its planned 285 km length and is expected to cost 8.2 billion afghanis ($91 million). This is equivalent to about 8% of Afghanistan’s domestic income in the first eight months of 2022.
Another concern is that if the canal is completed, it could lead to increased conflict in the region. It will draw water from the Amu Darya River near the Uzbek border, which Uzbekistan relies on to irrigate its cotton fields, its biggest source of employment. Given that Afghanistan imports most of its electricity from Uzbekistan, it is powerless against Uzbekistan. Residents of Kabul have been limited to two hours of electricity a day in recent weeks as the government in Tashkent responds to domestic power shortages by reducing exports to Afghanistan. Tensions heightened by water can make an already difficult relationship worse. ■