TAPI offers benefits and risks for a conflict-torn region

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

Tubes for the under-construction TAPI gas pipeline are shown in Yoloten District, Mary Province, in May. [Photo obtained by Dzhumaguly Annayev]

Tubes for the under-construction TAPI gas pipeline are shown in Yoloten District, Mary Province, in May. [Photo obtained by Dzhumaguly Annayev]

ASHGABAT -- Central and South Asian leaders again are discussing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline.

Construction of the pipeline began last December at a ground-breaking ceremony in Mary Province, Turkmenistan. Top officials from all four countries attended the ceremony.

The pipeline is expected to start delivering Turkmen gas to the other three countries in 2019.

The pipeline came up for discussion again May 20, when Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif conferred with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat, Altyn Asyr TV reported, noting "Pakistan's keen interest in co-operating on energy".

TAPi was the topic again May 29, when re-appointed Pakistani Ambassador to Turkmenistan Abdul Malik presented his credentials to Berdymukhamedov.

Malik said the pipeline would "greatly contribute to the region's peace and stability", the Turkmenistan State News Agency reported.

Major benefits expected

When completed, TAPI, which is expected to stretch 1,735km, will provide great benefits for all four countries involved, Ovezgeldi Charyyev, a spokesman for Turkmenneftegazstroi (Turkmen Oil and Gas Construction), told Central Asia Online.

Turkmenistan hopes to diversify its "routes and customers ... and to generate a stable flow of foreign currency", Charyyev said.

Presently, Turkmenistan has abundant natural gas but limited routes for exports, hemmed in by the old Soviet pipeline system and by other geographic restrictions.

Pakistan, India and particularly Afghanistan will all benefit greatly once the gas starts flowing, Charyyev said.

Pakistan and India, both of which have struggled with chronic energy shortages for decades, have contracted to receive 38m cubic metres of gas each per day.

Afghanistan, the key transit country, will receive 14m cubic metres per day under the same contracts.

Besides the natural gas, Afghanistan stands to "earn $1 billion (69.4 billion AFN) every year in transit fees and to gain 12,000 jobs", an official at the Turkmen State Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources, who identified himself only as Perkhat, told Central Asia Online.

The money and jobs could be crucial for a country devastated by poverty and almost 30 years of non-stop warfare.

All the officials quoted by Central Asia Online identified peace and prosperity in Afghanistan as the primary benefit that the pipeline could bring.

Tough Afghan terrain

Turkmenistan's ability to feed the pipeline is not in question, with the country having the world's fourth-largest gas reserves, according to some studies.

However, plans to build the pipeline across Herat and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan, two provinces with high Taliban activity, pose a challenge.

"Until a complete and lasting peace comes to the long-suffering lands of Afghanistan, all discussions of TAPI and its completion will remain just words," Annamyrat Khalilov, chief analyst of Turkmentransgaz, the gas transport wing of the Turkmen state-owned gas monopoly, told Central Asia Online.

"We know that ... [terrorist] groups blow up railways, power lines, natural gas pipelines and other facilities," Khalilov said.

As a result, Afghanistan could lose out.

Officials reportedly are considering re-routing the pipeline through Uzbekistan or even Kazakhstan.

However, if construction proceeds as planned, 773km of the pipeline would cross Afghan territory.

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