Afghanistan Joins the Conversation

Speeches Shim

Thursday, October 22, 2020
Afghanistan’s Representative at the Central Asian Leadership Programme (CALP) Idrees Malyar
Petro Kotzé for the Smart Waters program

The USAID-funded Smart Waters program helps make space for Afghanistan at the Central Asian water negotiation table.

The Central Asian region includes Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but the region is inextricably linked to neighboring Afghanistan by a vital resource: water. More than a third of Afghanistan falls in the Aral Sea basin, which it shares with Central Asian nations. Transboundary rivers like the mighty Amu Darya, Syr Darya, the Pyanj, the Murgab, Kunduz, Kokcha, and others are integral to all countries whose borders they cross. 

Yet, not all countries sit around the negotiation table when water management decisions are made. Following independence, Central Asian countries declared that water resources would  be managed together to be  mutually beneficial. However, Afghanistan is not part of key platforms that are working toward this, including the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), created in 1992 by the heads of the Central Asian states to improve the social, economic, and ecological situation in the Aral Sea basin.    

“Cooperation between Central Asian countries and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on transboundary water management issues didn’t take place in any format,” says Serik Bekmaganbetov, Kazakhstan’s Representative to the IFAS Executive Committee. Unlike concrete collaboration in humanitarian, educational, trade, and economic fields, there were only isolated conversations and hopes voiced for possible future cooperation in the sphere of water management.  

The impact of exclusive water management  

“The exclusion of Afghanistan from the main platforms for transboundary water discussion in the region created issues for the management of water regionally,” says Idrees Malyar, Afghanistan’s Representative at the Central Asian Leadership Programme. Idrees is also the Deputy Director-General, Policy and International Affairs, for the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA). “Because we are not included in the water discussion, we are not familiar with management plans of other countries, and as a result, we manage our water resources differently than Central Asian countries,” he says. Consequently, uniformity across the region is lost.  

This has changed, thanks to the USAID-funded Smart Waters program. “Smart Waters is the first program in this region to include Afghanistan in transboundary water resources management,” says Idrees. 

Launched in 2015, the program brings the countries in Central Asia together with Afghanistan by creating a network of like-minded water management specialists and policymakers across multiple levels. 

“Since the Smart Waters program started, Afghanistan gradually got involved in the process of regional and interstate water cooperation in the Aral Sea basin,” says Serik, who was an advisor to the Pan-Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan when the program was launched. “It has had a direct impact on the use and management of transboundary water resources in the region.”  

Cooperation across boundaries

“Not only has the understanding that part of the Aral Sea basin is also the territory of Afghanistan become clearer, but thanks to the program, concrete foundations for collaboration have been laid in at least two important areas,” he says.  

First, thanks to the program’s interventions, representatives of all six countries have begun to cooperate in bilateral formats on small transboundary rivers across the participating countries. For example, the Smart Waters program created basin councils that work to establish best management practices for transboundary water in 13 pilot sites across the region. At regional and national levels, joint events are regularly held; the experiences of individual basins are shared between all participating countries. Throughout, local communities have been brought into decision-making processes for shared water resources.

Secondly, Smart Waters is helping future water managers and professionals from across the region to interact. Part of the program entails USAID-funded scholarships for students from participating countries to pursue a master’s degree in Integrated Water Resources Management as a cohort together at the Kazakh-German University. Through the degree students get an opportunity to visit transboundary river basins and receive specialized training in water diplomacy and integrated water resources management.

Idrees says that thanks to the program funding, Afghanistan’s participation in initiatives such as the Central Asian Leadership Programme (CALP), and the establishment of steering committees that bring the five Central Asia countries and Afghanistan together, large strides have been made toward a shared understanding of water resources management. “This has had a very good impact on the management of transboundary waters,” he says.

In addition to the formal platforms that have been created, the impact of the Smart Waters program’s initiatives will ripple further beyond, creating change in vital areas of water management that cannot be measured. “Water specialists and managers, diplomats, representatives of academia, and other fields getting to know each other, interacting and getting more information about each other, has helped build trust, which I hope will grow,” says Serik.

With such foundations for collaboration over shared water resources in place, the region can move forward toward a future in which the rivers that bind them are a source of partnerships, and not exclusion, to the benefit of all. 

The Smart Water program is implemented by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC).

Last updated: November 25, 2020

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