In early 2021, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan officials inaugurated three joint projects that will improve connectivity in the region and boost the quality of life for each country’s citizens. On January 14, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president of Turkmenistan, and Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president, announced the three projects via video link from the capitals of their respective countries.
At the announcement, President Ghani stated that the projects, which include a fiber optics network, a power transmission line, and a railway segment, will “link South Asia to Europe by land and to the rest of the world will transform the living conditions of the Afghan people for the better and improve the situation in the entire region.”
The two leaders also spoke of the benefit of building relationships with neighboring Central Asian countries and said that the projects are the results of multi-year cooperation between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
“All three projects that have been completed in short time are united by a common meaning and goal—to give strong impulse and ensure long-term development of our countries, well-being and prosperity of Turkmen and Afghan people, assist expanded international cooperation, mutual understanding, political and social stability,” President Berdimuhamedov said during the video conference.
Here’s what you need to know about recent infrastructure projects in the region:
1. Fiber Optics Network
The 500kv Karki-Andkhoy-Pul-e Khomri power transmission project is a 153-kilometer power transmission line designed as part of a system to import and export electric power between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan. In the video announcement, Waheed Tauhiki, a spokesperson for Afghan utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Shirkat, said that the power line would supply many Afghan cities, including Mazari Sharif, with power and connect about 300,000 Afghan families with electricity.
In addition, the project will add two fiber optics networks that will connect about 2,500 Afghan users to the Internet in and around the Herat province.
While the telecom industry has grown rapidly in Afghanistan in the past two decades, many residents of rural areas lack connection. Of the country’s population of 35 million, the Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority estimates that about 18 million do not have an internet connection, often due to lack of infrastructure.
In remote regions, mobile operators often only provide 2G internet service, and mobile service is only available for a few hours during the daytime. In addition, many rural residents cannot afford the hourly rate for internet use charged at local Internet cafes.
However, along with the recent announcement of an expansion of Afghanistan’s fiberoptics network, the country has made strides toward building a working telecom industry. According to a recent report on the country’s telecom advancements, the World Bank and other donors have supported the Afghan government’s development of a national fiber network. Now, Afghanistan also has cable connectivity with five nearby countries, and a project connecting Afghanistan to China is almost complete.
In addition, the mobile industry has shown significant growth, although ongoing conflict in the country, population displacement, and infrastructure damage have led to a recent drop in subscribers. Political uncertainty and COVID-19 are expected to also impact mobile users negatively in 2021, while gradual growth is expected to resume in 2022. Progress toward a 5G network is expected to be slow.
Another project highlighted in the January video announcement was the opening of a 30-kilomenter railway through northern Afghanistan connecting Aqina, which is on the Afghan-Turkmen border, and Andkhoy in northwestern Afghanistan. The rail segment will be a link in an eventual rail connection between China and Iran that will pass through Tajikstan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.
After the video announcement, a 20-car train carrying Turkmen exports left Aquina and headed toward Andkhoy.
The two countries agreed on this segment of railway after a series of high-level talks in Ashgabat in early 2019, when officials signed a memorandum of understanding. The project included 24 kilometers of primary railway, 6 kilometers of branch line, and the building of small bridges and level crossings along the route. A road running alongside the rail line also was part of the agreement.
“Through the railroad, Afghanistan can connect with many countries, which is a significant step towards turning Afghanistan into the Asian roundabout,” Afghan officials said in a press statement.
3. Gas Pipeline
While the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) was not one of the three projects highlighted in the January video conference, Ghani referenced it in his remarks as an example of expanding connectivity in the region.
After it completes the segment of the pipeline within its borders, Turkmenistan will begin building a segment of the natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan this year. The full pipeline, which will consist of 56-inch OD pipe, will be 1,810 kilometers long with a capacity of 33 billion cubic meters per year. The line will connect the Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan to Fazilka at the Indian border, and it will run alongside fiber optic and power lines.
The entire line should be completed in 2022 provided that the work in Afghanistan stays on schedule.