Afghan Canal Project Affecting Not Only Central Asia but China and Russia Too

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 105

(Source: Afghan Interior Ministry)

Executive Summary:

  • As currently planned, Afghanistan’s Qosh Tepa Canal will divert water from the Amu Darya river away from Central Asian countries, including those usually referred to as “water surplus” states, as well as China and Russia.
  • Kabul does not participate in any water-sharing accord with the Central Asian states and is now self-financing the canal, limiting the ability of both its neighbors and the two outside powers to prevent an ecological and humanitarian disaster from becoming a political crisis.
  • Tajiks, both in Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan, are the most immediately affected, with protests against the canal having broken out already and instability continuing to spread in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.    

Afghanistan is pushing ahead with the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal to divert water that has been flowing into neighboring countries to slow the desertification of its own territory and the threat of starvation to its population. The impact of Kabul’s decision on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has attracted some attention (see EDM, March 7). Now, the project, launched in 2022 and slated to be completed by 2028, is having a far broader impact on more distant Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have long enjoyed the reputation of being “water surplus” countries that do not need water from others (Window on Eurasia, August 19, 2021;, February 29; TASS, March 20; The Times of Central Asia, June 11). The canal is also affecting China and Russia’s influence as the two outside powers most heavily involved in regional geopolitics (see EDM, December 7, 2021; Radio Azatlyk, March 29, 2023;, April 8). While the Taliban’s recent decision to self-finance the project will slow down construction, Kabul hopes to limit the leverage of other countries in the region to influence the canal’s completion and operation.   

The Afghan canal is on its way to having a more serious impact on Tajikistan than any other place in Central Asia. Water shortages in the country are already raising the specter of widespread hunger, and, given Dushanbe’s reliance on hydropower, the Qosh Tepa Canal will lead to a reduction in electric power production (TASS, March 20). Those twin developments, in turn, threaten to amplify Tajikistan’s difficulties in controlling its enormous but sparsely populated Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous region, a restive province bordering Afghanistan. China, Russia, and the United States have all tried to help Dushanbe stabilize the territory, lest the Taliban or other Islamist groups expand their influence northward (see EDM, June 22, November 3, 2022; ASIA-Plus, July 26, December 26, 2023; see Terrorism Monitor, October 31, 2023).

A harbinger of what may be ahead for Gorno-Badakhshan and Tajikistan more generally came on July 7 when a clash took place near the Qosh Tepa Canal between ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan and their Taliban rulers. The fighting sent 11 people to the hospital. The Tajik protesters oppose Kabul’s plans for the canal. They fear that the central Afghan government will use the project to bring more Pashtuns into their region and sell the region’s enormous salt deposits to China, all while not giving any of the earnings to the Tajiks. Beijing has expressed its interest in pressing ahead on such an arrangement (, June 12; Eurasia Today, July 8 [1], [2]).

The wider impact of the Qosh Tepa Canal on Tajikistan and Central Asia means that Russia and China are being increasingly affected as well. Moscow is worried that any instability produced by growing water shortages could threaten its regional influence, potentially leading to the loss of its remaining military base in Tajikistan. Destabilization in Tajikistan could even open the way for the spread of Islamist radicalism into the Russian Federation, something the Kremlin is especially sensitive to in the aftermath of the Crocus City Hall attack (see EDM, March 26, May 2). Some in the Russian capital are even arguing that Russia must counter by reviving a Siberian river diversion project that would send water from Russian rivers southward into Central Asia. The project was rejected in the 1980s and remains deeply unpopular with Russians (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 29, 2023). Meanwhile, Beijing, while fearful of any expansion of Islamist influence, very much wants to expand its economic and military presence in Tajikistan and gain access to the salt in Afghanistan that will become available once Qosh Tepa is fully operational. China’s interests are divided in this endeavor, however, as have been its official policies (see EDM, December 7, 2021, June 22, 2022).

None of the countries affected by the Afghan canal project are finding it easy to deal with Kabul. The Taliban government has taken a hard line that the water on its territory is its own and has refused to join any of the regional accords that seek to allocate water throughout Central Asia more equitably (, January 27;, February 21). After initially seeking foreign funding for the canal, which would have given leverage to the other countries in the region, Taliban officials declared that they are funding the project entirely on their own, even though this will slow the canal’s completion (TOLOnews, June 26;, June 30).

The Central Asian countries have compounded these problems by failing to adopt a united front. All but Tajikistan have attempted to find some common ground with Kabul. Dushanbe has instead taken a harder line, an approach that has made it easier for Afghanistan to ignore its immediate neighbors (see EDM, September 10, 2021). On their respective sides, Moscow is distracted by its war against Ukraine, and Beijing has pursued a divided policy on the canal. All this has allowed Kabul to ignore the complaints of outsiders and proceed with the project.   

What happens next depends largely on how Kabul reads the latest clashes in northern Afghanistan. If Taliban officials conclude that this was a local ethnic matter, the situation may not quickly escalate. However, if the regime decides that Tajikistan was behind these protests, the situation could quickly explode. In response, Kabul would likely expand its efforts to promote Islamist goals to the north, beginning in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region and then spreading more broadly. This course appears especially likely as Kabul has made clear that it sees the canal not only as a national project but also as a weapon to promote Afghanistan’s influence far beyond its borders (ASIA-Plus, January 14). If that happens, Dushanbe will face a serious political crisis, rivaling the worst of the past two decades. The other Central Asian countries will likely seek to present themselves as mediators despite past failures in that regard. Nevertheless, for the moment, they seem committed to including Afghanistan in international conversations rather than excluding it (, September 15, 2023; The Times of Central Asia, June 11).

Russia and China are also likely to respond to any Kabul move, Moscow by increasing security at its base in Tajikistan and Beijing by leaning on its influence in Dushanbe and Kabul, lest it lose the gains it has made in both countries. Neither step will block the canal project, though both may slow Kabul’s response in Tajikistan. Meanwhile, due to minimal influence in Kabul, the United States has few options in this situation. Nevertheless, the wider impact of the Qosh Tepa Canal on Tajikistan and the geopolitics of Central Asia mean that Washington cannot stand aside or risk losing influence either to Islamist radicals or China and Russia. The United States is not without options: it can promote better water usage measures in Central Asia and even desalinization projects there—two moves that could reduce threats emanating from the Taliban and from Russia and China. This will only be possible, however, if Washington connects the dots between a canal project few have even heard of and the future of an enormous portion of Eurasia.