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Water Diplomacy Takes Center Stage in Turkmen-Afghan Talks

  • Turkmenistan urges for a science-based approach to water management in response to the Qosh-Tepa canal project.
  • The project threatens to divert up to 20% of water from the Amu Darya, raising concerns among neighboring countries.
  • Turkmenistan and Afghanistan discuss various topics, including water resource management, during a high-level visit, aiming for regional cooperation and technical solutions to mitigate potential adverse impacts.’

Amid all the bonhomie on display during last week’s visit to Turkmenistan by a high-level delegation from Taliban-run Afghanistan, one thorny issue was broached.

As the Foreign Ministry in Ashgabat revealed in a March 7 statement, bilateral conversations touched on the need for deeper cooperation in the management of water resources.

“The Turkmen side noted that the rational use of water resources in the region should be carried out on the basis of generally recognized norms of international law regulating the regime of water use on transboundary rivers, watercourses and border lakes,” the ministry said.

Without naming the project outright, the statement was clearly alluding to ongoing work in Afghanistan on construction of the Qosh-Tepa canal, which some experts estimate may soon end up diverting up to 20 percent of water from the Amu Darya River.

Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north have acted gingerly around the initiative, stopping short of adopting hostile rhetoric. In September, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke at a regional conference about how the canal threatened to “radically change the water regime and balance in Central Asia.” He then proposed involving Afghan regime representatives in regional dialogue on the joint use of water resources.

Turkmenistan’s statement advances the agenda a little by gently making the case for more technical cooperation. It recommends a “science-based approach to drawing water from transboundary rivers,” the enlistment of “highly qualified personnel” capable of properly managing the canal (which the statement does not name), and neighborly respect for the interests of all riparian states.

“The meeting with the Afghan delegation took place in a friendly and constructive atmosphere,” the Turkmen Foreign Ministry concluded, lest anybody imagine this candid approach could serve as a prelude to tensions.

The cordiality has done little to slow down work on the canal. On February 21, Afghan outlet TOLONews reported that the second phase of the project had got underway. TOLONews says 198 kilometers of canal were excavated during the first phase of works, and that another 177 kilometers will follow over a 12-month period.

Intriguingly, the outlet cites the deputy head of the Afghan Chamber of Agriculture and Livestock, Mirwais Haji Zada, as saying that completion of Qosh-Tepa will enable Afghanistan to become self-sufficient in wheat.

This feels like grandstanding, but the voicing of such autarkic ambitions may cause some discomfiture in places like Kazakhstan, which has been pressing for construction of a grain terminal on Turkmenistan’s eastern border so as to facilitate exports to Afghanistan.

The question of this facility was indeed brought up during Afghan-Turkmen consultations earlier this month. Ashgabat-based NewsCentralAsia cited Turkmen officials as informing their guests that a planned storage silo on their shared border would be able to accommodate 100,000 tons of grain.

While Turkmen officials have stopped short of spelling out what they mean by the phrase “science-based approach to drawing water from transboundary rivers,” NewsCentralAsia, an outlet that offers reliably complimentary and on-message coverage of Turkmen government policies, offered what looked like a well-briefed explanation of what that might entail. The website alluded to unspecified media reports about the lack of plans to line the Qosh-Tepa Canal — a course of action that it warns could pose all manner of environmental and structural hazards.

Happily, as NewsCentralAsia points out, “Turkmenistan has the capacity for the production and use of … canal lining materials.”

Related: Forgotten Gas Reserves Could Be A Gamechanger For European Energy

It would be only fair for the Afghans to buy Turkmen manufactured goods seeing how much is going in the other direction. As TOLONews reported on March 7, Turkmen National Leader (and ex-president) Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has apparently put in an order for 100,000 cubic meters of white marble from Afghanistan. There are no details on what is to be done with this marble, but a good bet is that it will be used to clad buildings in Berdymukhamedov’s pet project: the new city of Arkadag.

Officials in Turkey are trying to maintain the buzz around a memorandum of understanding on accelerating cooperation in the natural gas sector signed with Turkmenistan on March 1 that has been sold as a certain prelude to gas deliveries. Speaking at a conference on March 7, Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar described the options, as he sees them, for getting Turkmen gas flowing westward.

“We have three alternatives for the supply of Turkmen gas, including supplies via Iran through a swapping deal and via Iran and Azerbaijan, again, by swapping. A third, more sustainable way is establishing a trans-Caspian pipeline. All options are on the table,” Bayraktar was quoted as saying by Daily Sabah.

This prospect is playing out against the backdrop of reinvigorated efforts by Ankara to consolidate its presence in Central Asia through the promotion of the Organization of Turkic States, or OTS, format. On March 11, Ashgabat hosted the opening of the 15th session of the Council of Elders of the OTS, which would be an entirely ignorable event but for the fact that Turkmenistan’s representative is Berdymukhamedov, who is de facto his country’s co-president along with his son, Serdar.

Turkmenistan only participates in the OTS in an observer capacity, but there is a strong chance it could become a full member later this year — a notable development for a country that typically eschews full commitment to such overtly political multilateral formats.


In other multilateral body news, President Berdymukhamedov (the younger) met on March 5 with the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helga Schmid.

Related: Europe’s Secret Weapon In Its Energy War With Russia

Even though human rights issues are explicitly a core component of the OSCE’s mandate, it does not appear these got much of an airing. Ahead of Schmid’s visit, her office intimated that talks in Ashgabat would “focus on the implications of climate change for security and stability,” the challenges of transboundary water management, energy security, sustainable connectivity, and disaster risk reduction.

A readout of the meeting between Berdymukhamedov  and Schmid produced by Turkmen state media suggests they stuck close to that script. Pleas from international advocacy groups for Schmid to express “strong concern” over Turkmenistan’s failure to respect its citizens’ right to freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance appear to have been ignored.

By Eurasianet.org

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