CENTRAL Asian States (including Afghanistan) make up the largest landlocked region in the world, both by virtue of political boundaries and hydrology, because all the region’s rivers drain into closed basins (ie do not reach the open sea). The exception is the Kabul River, which finds its way to the open sea via the Indus — the key to opening a gateway for CAS to seafaring trade if used for navigation.
The School of Life, a global educational enterprise, has identified lack of river navigation in landlocked countries as one of the major geographical factors resulting in poor economic conditions. Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is landlocked; 11 of the poorest African countries are landlocked. Asia’s poorest country, Afghanistan, is also landlocked — although more politically than hydrologically.
Historically, Kabul River had been used for navigation. According to Article II of the 1921 Anglo-Afghan Treaty, “Afghanistan agrees that British officers and tribesmen living on the British side of the boundary shall be permitted, without let or hindrance, to use the aforesaid portion of the Kabul River for purposes of navigation”.
Research by Sheheryar Shafique, a Pakistani scholar in multi-modal transportation systems at the University of New Mexico, concluded that by using modern river navigation technologies, ranging from solar-powered electric barges to integrated navigation and control systems, it is possible to develop the Kabul-Indus river system into one of the world’s most modern maritime corridors — connecting Jalalabad to the Arabian Sea.
Afghans and Pakistanis must work to negotiate a water treaty.
Jalalabad can occupy a key commerce node on the maritime trade route to Central Asia, just as Singapore and Dubai are in their respective regions. The world witnessed their transformation from fishing villages to global cities; such could be the future of Jalalabad.
Economic benefits aside, historically, inland navigation has fostered regional peace. In Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilisation, Steven Solomon concluded that the Erie Canal (built in 1825) helped keep the union intact during the American Civil War. He also attributes China’s millennia-long unity to its Grand Canal, built 2,500 years ago to facilitate river navigation between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. After 40 years of war, Afghanistan desperately needs economic engines that nurture regional peace.
Through a commerce hub in Jalalabad, Pakistan and Central Asia could benefit too. The University of Central Asia’s Institute of Public Policy and Administration has acknowledged that food production in CAS is difficult and insufficient, while food imports remain expensive in their landlocked disposition. River diversions for irrigation are already overstretched to the extent that the closed basin of Aral Sea has become one of world’s worst environmental disasters. Pakistan, on the other hand, is a food-surplus country according to USAID’s recent Food Assistance fact sheets. A 2015 report published in Dawn underscored that a deeper penetration in the CAS food market is possible for Pakistan. Pakistan could help food security in the region and help reduce the impact of the Aral Sea environmental disaster. Maritime use of the Kabul River is, therefore, an instrument of regional peace and economic uplift.
Currently, however, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are working in isolation and conceiving or developing isolated projects in Kabul River basin. These projects, mostly short-term, non-synergistic, non-integrated and environmentally unsustainable, are falling short of their socioeconomic goals — as concluded in the audit report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Even worse, some of these projects may lead to heightened regional tensions. Historically, damming and diversion of rivers have cultivated friction between upstream and downstream societies. For example, despite the Indus Waters Treaty, blended with a number of infrastructure projects worth tens of billions each, tensions and distrust over water between Pakistan and India have never diluted. To sustain peace in Afghanistan, creating yet another source of distrust or friction should be the avoided at all costs.
As peace returns to Afghanistan, now is the best time for Afghans and Pakistanis to engage with each other in the mutually beneficial venture of developing the navigational potential of the Kabul-Indus river system by negotiating a treaty — a win-win for both, and for the region too.
To quote the late US diplomat Daniel P. Moynihan, just like the “[Erie] canal brought the seaborne … trade right up into the centre of the American Great Plains”, Kabul-Indus navigation could bring seaborne trade right into Central Asia. The Kabul River can be the key to liberating the region from the clutches of poverty and sustaining peace.
The writer is an expert in hydrology and water resources.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2019