Afghanistan ‘Unleashes’ Hydro Power On Pakistan; Dam On Kunar River Powers Taliban, Haunts Neighbors

By Vaishali Basu Sharma

“We have to manage our water, whether it is in Kunar, Faryab, Farah, or Helmand, this is the right of the Afghan people, they should make good use of their right, and in this regard, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as one of the serious decision-makers, should make it one of their priorities.” (Zabihullah Mujahid, Spokesman of the Islamic Emirate)

The Taliban government in Afghanistan, which remains internationally unrecognized, is going ahead with plans to build dams on major rivers as a source of hydel power, to provide irrigation facilities so that farmers in several drought-prone areas might revert to farming and not the least, to secure the country’s freshwater supply.

Despite the fact that Afghanistan is home to four of the river basins that flow in the region and the country currently has enough water for its own needs, with one of the lowest water-storage capacities in the world markets by frequent droughts, any perception of water sufficiency is illusory.

Construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Kunar River is the latest ambitious infrastructure project undertaken by the Taliban-led government in Kabul. A major tributary of the Kabul River, the 480-kilometer-long Kunar River originates in the Hindu Kush mountains in northeastern Afghanistan and merges with the Kabul River before flowing downstream into Pakistan.

India, which had previously built the hydroelectric project famously known as the Afghan-India Friendship (Salma Dam) in 2016 in Herat province of western Afghanistan, continues to lend technical expertise and know-how for several upcoming hydel power projects in Afghanistan.

New Delhi’s development assistance has translated into the successful implementation of construction projects valued at over USD 3 billion. The earlier government in Kabul was planning to build about twelve dams on the Kabul River with the assistance of India, and New Delhi had also indicated readiness for progress on these projects in Afghanistan.

India and Afghanistan signed an MOU in February 2021 for the construction of the Shahtoot dam at the Maidan River, a tributary of the Kabul River in Kabul province, to provide irrigation facilities and drinking water.

With a height of 92 meters, the Shahtoot dam is designed to store 146 million cubic meters of water, boosting irrigation, with an estimated capacity to store 146 million cubic meters of potable water and irrigate 4,000 hectares of land in the Charasiab district.

In June 2022, India sent a technical team to examine the status of Indian projects in Afghanistan as well as the humanitarian assistance being provided by New Delhi.

The decision to resume the work and finish the already started projects was taken by India after the request by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to India’s Charge d’affaires Bharat Kumar in a meeting with the Afghan Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Hamdullah Nomani, in November 2022. According to the Khaama Press, the Afghanistan government has reiterated its request to India to complete the Shahtoot Dam in Kabul.

In an interview with The Indian Express (August 2022), Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said, “India has a lot of different projects, and they are incomplete. And we have urged them to complete those because if they are not completed, all of it will go to waste.”  The Taliban regime is also “trying to revive the trilateral mechanism. We have sent our proposal and our messages to the Indian and Iranian sites. And they are open to reviving the Chabahar route”. The Taliban regime is also keen to revive the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project.

Other dam projects like the Machalgho dam on the Jelga River in southeastern Paktia province, which was being built with Russia’s assistance, are likely to be resumed. In the previous years since the launch of the project in 2007, with over 1.1 billion afghanis spent, only a fraction of construction had been undertaken on the Machalgho Dam.

Taliban-led government has overseen the work on the Qosh-Tepa canal, a 285-kilometer long, 152-metre-wide, and 8.5-metre-deep artificial river in northern Afghanistan that extends from the Amu Darya starting in the province of Balkh and passing through Jowzjan and Faryab, bordering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

With more than 6,500 people and 4,100 units of machinery assembled to complete the canal, almost half of the digging and construction of the Qosh-Tepa canal has already been completed, and the rest is being built at a rather fast pace.

Afghanistan has plans to bring into operation 200 electricity production projects worth 3.8 billion dollars over the next five years. During a recent visit to the Qosh-Tepa construction site, Abdul Ghani Baradar, the acting Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs of Afghanistan (since 2021), declared, “We have already assured the nation that this project would be completed at any cost.”

Earlier this month, at a conference of the National Procurement Commission in Kabul, Mullah Baradar announced that eighteen projects involving building power dams, reconstructing roads, and providing high-quality internet services worth four billion Afghanis are planned.

The bulk of the surface water flowing through Afghanistan is transboundary water. Four out of five major river basins in Afghanistan, Harirud, Helmand, Amu Darya, and Kabul, are shared watercourses, and in most cases, Afghanistan is the upstream riparian.

The Kunar dam construction plans are already impacting the fluctuating political and security relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kabul’s decision to remedy its water shortages has been a source of considerable alarm for Pakistan, which believes that the Islamic Emirate’s unilateral decision to construct a dam on the Kunar River amounts to a  hostile act.

Afghan analysts have countered Pakistan’s denunciation of the Kunar project by stating that the proposed dam is relatively small and will not threaten water flows to Pakistan. In fact, because the dam will hold back a lot of water during the flood season and reduce the intensity of the flood downstream, its construction is, in fact, in the ‘interest of Pakistan.’

Kandadji hydroelectric dam
File Image: Hydroelectric Dam

Speaking to Radio Azadi, Afghan water expert Najibullah Sadid said, “Pakistani officials are exaggerating the dam’s impact,”…“It will be a small dam aimed at generating electricity, which will store little water.”

There is no existing concrete mechanism of cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad on river water sharing. According to political analyst Sayed Massud, “Kunar’s dam, the same as the Qosh Tepa canal, is an economic-political dam that, in addition to strengthening us economically and again leading us to the self-sufficiency of our other four provinces, is a very good pressure tool in political negotiations for Afghanistan, that can show the power of Afghanistan to the region.”

The Kabul River and its tributaries are a major water source for Afghanistan, providing irrigation for agricultural activities, supplying drinking water to local communities, and supporting livelihoods in the country.

The fact remains that despite having almost 350 miles of the 435-mile-long Kabul river running through its land through tributaries Logar, Panjshir, Alingar, Surkhab, Kunar, Bara, and Swat, Afghanistan is yet to utilize the full potential of its water resources.

Plunging groundwater levels in several provinces of Afghanistan has led to a lack of potable and drinking water. With more than two-thirds of Afghans being impacted by drought and just around 600 megawatts (MW) of current electricity production from a potential to produce over 23,000 MW of hydroelectricity, the expansion of hydroelectric plants is crucial for Afghanistan.

  • Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with the New Delhi-based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.

  • The author can be reached at postvaishali (at) gmail (dot) com