A Review of Current and Possible Future Relations in Amu River Basin

The aim of this paper is to familiarize the reader with the key elements associated with Transboundary Rivers in Afghanistan and their implications on policy development. The report synthesizes knowledge and different perspectives of many experts working in the area of Transboundary Rivers. In doing so, it attempts to advance the main points of convergence of opinions in the form of recommendations and highlights those areas where more work is needed to build a common vision.

As the pressures of increasing demand for water and climate change impact the region downstream, countries are becoming increasingly more interested in how development in Afghanistan may impact them. Likewise, over the last several years the government of Afghanistan has increased its awareness of the importance of engaging and discussing issues concerning international rivers with its downstream neighbours to ensure that the precious water resources in the region are used in the most effective way possible. This report helps to advance those discussions by reviewing the situation and developing some possible ways forward for promoting cooperation and water management in the Panj-Amu Darya Basin.

This paper begins by presenting a brief overview of Transboundary Rivers, their importance, and Afghanistan’s need to develop its transboundary water resources. In addition, it highlights the achievements of the Afghan government since 2001 in regards to its water resource management. Also, the paper looks at the existing legal and institutional structure of Afghanistan’s water sector – the Afghanistan Water Law (2009) and its reference to transboundary waters, the Supreme Council of Land and Water (SCoLW) and other key institutions responsible for water protection and management in Afghanistan.

The paper is focused on outlining the context for cooperative development in the Panj-Amu Darya Basin.[1] The Basin is home to more than 50 million people and is shared by Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Panj-Amu covers over 530,000 km2 and generates approximately 67-70 bcm of water each year.  The basin is extremely important for Afghanistan.  It covers nearly 40% of Afghanistan’s surface area, contributes approximately 30% to the country’s annual water yield and holds nearly 25% of Afghanistan population. More importantly, there is a good deal of opportunity to develop water resources in the region for both agriculture and hydropower.  While, unfortunately, the Panj-Amu Darya basin has not had the attention towards infrastructure development that other basins in Afghanistan have enjoyed over the last 15 years, this underscores the potential opportunities in the region.

In general Afghanistan uses approximately 20-25% of the surface water it generates in the Panj-Amu Darya Basin. The country has a very limited capacity for water storage – 100-110 m3/capita/year (one of the lowest in the world), and in particular in the Panj-Amu Darya Basin.  The neighboring countries have been using the waters of the Panj-Amu Darya for their benefit for decades. The region of Central Asia is poised to be under water stress with the combined forces of increased demand and climate change. As Afghanistan begins to develop water resources to stimulate economic development, it is increasingly important to address transboundary water issues.  Fortunately, there are opportunities and possibilities for improved relations and effective water use in the region, as shown in other areas such as transportation and energy development.

This paper elucidates the primary challenges should a developing country like Afghanistan anticipate dealing with its transboundary waters. The challenges range from political matters to technical issues. This research revealed two types of challenges: i) internal (national level) challenges, and ii) external (international or transboundary) challenges.

Internal issues include, lack of expertise (human capital), inadequate institutional capacity, unreliable data, security challenges, lack of public awareness on international water law and/or transboundary water matters, unavailability of budget (monetary limitations) and water quality (both surface and groundwater), amongst others. Transboundary issues include external challenges such as, lack of trust and lack of cooperation between Afghanistan and some Central Asian countries, population growth and increasing urbanization and industrialization on both sides, climate change, and the zero-sum mindset in the region with absolute winners and losers.

There are also positive opportunities for Afghanistan and its neighbors to cooperate on the Amu Darya River Basin in the future. These include:

  • The existing political will and commitment to work together between the government of Afghanistan and Tajikistan;
  • Growing informal activities such as joint studies and researches;
  • Areas of potential mutual benefit such as flood control, erosion control (improving investment for downstream infrastructure maintenance) and joint power development;
  • The possibility to link water development with other areas such as energy and transportation

Finally, the paper presents the conclusion and recommendations on the transboundary waters in the country as a whole, and on transboundary waters of the Panj-Amu Dary Basin in particular.

[1] The Panj-Amu Darya Basin is located in the mountains of the Hindukush and Pamir ranges with an elevation range of 2000m to 6000m above mean sea level. The upper portion of the Basin is called the Panj River, which originates from the Pamir at the Afghan-Chinese border. After the confluence with the Vakhsh River, which flows from the Alai in Kyrgyzstan, the system is called the Amu Darya. This paper uses the term Panj-Amu Basin to describe the entire basin.

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