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Central Asia in Focus: Is the Taliban’s Controversial Canal Leaking Water?

AFGHANISTAN - Satellite image shows major spill of water on the Qosh Tepa canal built by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Courtesy photo.
AFGHANISTAN - Satellite image shows major spill of water on the Qosh Tepa canal built by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Courtesy photo.

In this week’s edition: is the Taliban’s controversial canal leaking water? Plus a Kyrgyz Kurultai turns into a cult fest for President Japarov, oil workers are striking in Western Kazakhstan, and smog returns to Bishkek.

In the Region

Is the Taliban’s Controversial Canal Leaking Water?

The Qosh Tepa canal, currently being built in Afghanistan, is raising concerns in Central Asia since water from the canal will come from a river that Central Asians have had almost exclusive use of until now.

Concern has also been expressed about the quality of the canal’s construction as the Taliban, having failed for find a foreign partner for the project, are building it on their own.

The American-Canadian environmental organization Rivers Without Borders, dedicated to protecting transboundary watersheds, reported on December 12 that a section of the canal was leaking.

The organization posted satellite images showing water running off from the canal and creating a large pool of water in the desert.

Rivers Without Borders said that, within one month of the Taliban opening the first part of the canal in October, a “huge volume of water, escaping from the canal, spread throughout the entire nearby territory.”

The organization said recent satellite images indicate the “area of the spill is steadily increasing (possibly suggesting) the Taliban lack the ability or desire to rectify the situation.”

Uzbekistan, a country that stands to lose substantial amounts of water once the canal is finished, responded to the information from

Uzbekistan’s space agency Uzbekkosmos said that the claims made by are “not true” and that “the leaked water is groundwater.”

Uzbekkosmos also said the area of the Qosh Tepa canal where the large pool formed is not yet receiving water from the Amu-Darya, so a leak in the canal could not be responsible for the pool.

Afghan engineers have a slightly different version, saying the water in question was purposefully diverted to an open area to control the groundwater level.

Why It’s Important: Estimates vary as to how much water the Qosh Tepa canal will take from the Amu-Darya, the river that marks Afghanistan’s border with Uzbekistan and part of Turkmenistan.

It appears that the amount of water flowing into downstream communities in those two Central Asian countries will fall by at least 15-20 percent once the canal opens.

No one disputes Afghanistan’s right to some of the water from the Amu-Darya -- but no one wants to see this precious resource spilling out wastefully into the Afghan desert.

Kyrgyz Kurultai Turns into Cult Fest for President Japarov

Kyrgyzstan’s second People’s Kurultai finished on December 16. The two-day event was notable for sycophantic praise for President Sadyr Japarov and security chief Kamchybek Tashiev.

The kurultai is a convening of leaders and influential people that has been common for centuries among many peoples of Inner Asia. For example, the Mongol leader Temujin was named Genghis Khan at a kurultai in 1206.

Right after the chairman of this latest kurultai, Myktybek Abdyldayev, gave his opening speech, a delegate asked if they could have their picture taken with the president.

President Japarov was in attendance and according to media outlet, “The head of state did not refuse.”

One woman at the kurultai stood up and said, “What would have happened to us if it weren’t for Sadyr Nurgozhoevich (Japarov)?” and added, “Thank God we have happiness.”

Kyrgyzstan’s Kaktus media noted “most of the delegates began their speech by praising President Sadyr Japarov.”

A representative from Talas Province, Mirjamal Dadabaev, went further, reciting verses of praise he wrote about Japarov, the president who put Kyrgyzstan on the “path of prosperity.”

According to Dadabaev’s composition, anyone who did not see this prosperity “not only does not have eyes, but a blind soul.”

As part of constitutional amendments Japarov helped push through in April 2021, the kurultai became part of the official government structure.

The kurultai operates in parallel to Kyrgyzstan’s parliament.

The body has the right to initiate legislation and make proposals to the president on dismissing members of the Cabinet of Ministers.

The kurultai’s representatives are not elected and it meets only once year.

Why It’s Important: Anyone familiar with Central Asia has seen similar praise heaped on presidents of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan’s first President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

All these leaders went on to establish authoritarian regimes where family members and close associates plundered the wealth of those countries.

This fawning display of devotion for President Japarov at an official event seems to be laying the groundwork for a cult of personality in Kyrgyzstan like those seen in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Kyrgyzstan was once considered the most democratic country in Central Asia, but now it seems headed in same direction as its authoritarian neighbors.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the Uzbek government’s crackdown on bloggers.

After Shavkat Mirziyoev became Uzbekistan’s president in late 2016, he encouraged media outlets to report on important issues, including corruption in government.

Bloggers have often led the reporting on corruption, and sparked debate in society on politics, religion, and other topics that Uzbek authorities no longer desire to be publicized.

Some bloggers are now receiving long prison sentences from Uzbek judges.

This week’s guests are:

  • Umida Niyazova, director at the Germany-based Uzbek Forum for Human Rights; and
  • Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer with many years of experience in Central Asia who is currently an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California.

What I'm Following

Oil Workers on Strike in Western Kazakhstan

Workers for West Oil went on strike in western Kazakhstan on December 11, demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

Demonstrations in western Kazakhstan are always important to monitor.

Two of the most significant and tragic events in Kazakhstan’s history – the Zhanaozen shootings in 2011 and the January 2022 unrest – started as protests out west.

As of December 17, there were more than 500 workers protesting in the western Kazakh town of Zhetybai and public support for the striking workers was growing.

Smog Returns to Bishkek

On December 15, IQAir’s World Air Quality Index ranked Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek as having the fourth worst air pollution among major cities of the world behind Lahore, Pakistan; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Kolkata, India.

In recent years, Bishkek has consistently ranked as having some of the worst air quality during winter months, due to the use of coal for heating and fueling the city’s thermal power plants.

Other cities in Central Asia are often not far behind, including Almaty, Kazakhstan; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; and several cities in northeastern Kazakhstan such as Temirtau, where falling snow is sometimes black from coal soot.

Fact of the Week

China and Russia were the leading investors in Uzbekistan in the first nine months of 2023.

Figures from Uzbekistan’s State Statistics Agency show January-September foreign investment was $8.44 billion.

Chinese investment accounted for 24.5 percent of that and Russian investment 15.4 percent.

Thanks for Reading

Just a short note to thank all the readers of the Central Asia in Focus newsletter and wish you all a happy holiday season. See you in 2024!

Until next time,

  • 16x9 Image

    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier authors RFE/RL's "Central Asia in Focus" newsletter and appears regularly on the RFE/RL's Majlis podcast.

About Central Asia in Focus

An authoritarian tide is sweeping through Central Asia, resulting in political repression and a stark retreat in civil liberties. Central Asia in Focus, a bi-weekly newsletter, focuses on key events shaping the course of the region. Author Bruce Pannier shares personal insights informed by his three decades of experience covering Central Asia, and tells his readers what may come next.

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