Afghanistan's unreachable US$1 trillion mineral bounty

Afghanistan’s unreachable US$1 trillion mineral bounty

The world watched in apprehension as the Taliban advanced through the beleaguered nation of Afghanistan in recent weeks. With reports of the country’s chaotic fall came resurfaced claims of untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan that could, once upon a dream, propel the nation to economic independence, as well as assisting the global green economy.

In 2007 the US Geological Survey (USGS) revealed the country held potential deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. That’s on top of the troves of precious stones including emeralds, rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli (trade in which has allegedly helped fund the Taliban) that the country’s geology provides.

Then, in 2010, a leaked internal Pentagon memo described the potential for Afghanistan to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” – a metal that’s used widely to create batteries needed for the transition to renewables.

Whoever has control of the landlocked country notionally has de facto ownership of mineral deposits that could in theory equip it for a massive trade in metals used for the clean energy revolution.

But how accurate are these claims? And will Afghanistan’s mineral wealth ever be plumbed to its advantage?

In the first three months of 2021, the price of lithium grew by 88% in the Chinese market.

“There have been various estimates in Afghanistan [of mineral wealth] by the Russians, when they were there in the 1980s,” says Dr Nishank Motwani, Director of Research and Policy at ATR Consulting in Kabul (Motwani is currently working in Canberra). “And the Americans most recently have said that Afghanistan has a potential untapped mineral wealth of approximately $1 trillion dollars, including some rare earth materials.”

But the report that’s most often referred to – the USGS paper titled “Preliminary Assessment of Non-Fuel Mineral Resources of Afghanistan 2007” – is just one of 399 Afghanistan-focused studies available at the USGS’s online Publications Warehouse. These confirm the presence of some materials, but fail to provide strong evidence of lithium availability.

What’s all the fuss about lithium?

Lithium is the lightest metal, a soft, silver-white mineral used in all sorts of industrial applications, including the manufacture of batteries. Lithium is particularly good at storing large amounts of energy, which means it’s perfect for renewable technologies where the energy source is not constant, such as solar and wind, and it’s already widely used for energy storage in electric vehicles.

Demand for lithium is soaring, predicted to triple by the end of this decade as the world shifts towards renewable energy technologies. In the first three months of 2021, the price of lithium grew by 88% in the Chinese market, bolstered mainly by the growth of the electric vehicle sector.

But it’s not just Afghanistan’s theoretical lithium deposits that could be industrially important for a renewable-energy-based future. The country is also thought to be rich in copper, which is used extensively in the generation of solar, wind and bioenergy power; chromium, which is used in geothermal energy and concentrated solar power (CSP); and nickel, which is used in electric vehicles and energy storage, hydrogen energy generation, and geothermal.

Too good to be true?

At the time of the 2010 Pentagon memo, the governments of the US and Afghanistan stated that they were optimistic about lithium’s potential to put Afghanistan on the pathway to economic independence. A move away from dependence on foreign aid was seen as a potentially stabilising factor in the establishment of a modern nation-state.

The fabled lithium deposits, however, are not definitively shown to exist, at least not as a viable mining option. As Rick Valenta, a professor at the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute puts it, “there’s literally one [identified] resource for lithium. And it’s not even a resource, it’s something that you would go to jail [for] if you recorded it on the ASX [Australian Stock Exchange], or on the TSX [Toronto Stock Exchange] or anything like that.”

According to Valenta, the salt lakes sampled by the USGS as potentially housing lithium all showed weak results: “They got mildly anomalous lithium results, like four times the global average if you went out and sampled your driveway for lithium, which is nothing.”

“The area we’re talking about is the highest category of water risk … it would be one of the worst places on the planet to consider extracting lithium from.”

Rick Valenta
Satelloite image of nuristan mineral district in afghanistan
This is a high-resolution satellite natural-colour (NC) and colour-infrared (CIR) image mosaic of the Nuristan mineral district, north-east of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Nuristan district has gem, lithium, and cesium deposits. Credit: US Geological Survey

Valenta says that this doesn’t mean there’s no lithium in Afghanistan, but that as it stands it’s not a particularly viable prospect without extensive further investigations which are currently impossible.

David Whittle, a research fellow in the department of civil engineering at Monash University, agrees.

“There’s no evidence to me that there’s anything of substantial value,” he says. “That’s not to say there’s nothing there – there could easily be something there. But there’s the processes you have to go through to get anywhere close to making a mine. There’s significant expense involved, you need safe access, you need a whole lot of things going on, before you could say that you’ve got a potential mine.”

What about other minerals?

“Afghanistan is part of the belt called the Tethyan Belt that stretches all the way from the Himalayas, and further east, through China, all the way out to Turkey and the Alps,” Valenta says. The belt is one of the world’s richest sources of metals, so it seems likely the country houses vast deposits of many of the materials central to manufacturing and development in today’s economy.

More than a decade on from the USGS report, however, most of these mineral resources remain untapped.

Mohan Yelishetty, an expert in resources engineering at Monash University, thinks that whatever the scale of Afghanistan’s mineral resources, the country faces significant geological barriers to any prospect of mining them at scale.

“It’s a landlocked country, so that means to find a port you have to go somewhere in Pakistan or Iran,” he says. “Secondly, it’s a water-scarce country, so given those kinds of restrictions, and the volumes of water required to process ores and concentrates, it’s very unlikely.”

Valenta agrees. “The area we’re talking about is already in the highest category of water risk that you can get, so it would be one of the worst places on the planet to ever consider extracting lithium from.”

Adding to this, Afghanistan’s temperatures are predicted to rise this century faster than the global average, potentially topping an extra 1.4°C–5.4°C by the 2080s and 90s, so climate change may exacerbate the nation’s water availability issues with natural disasters prompted by rainfall changes and glacier loss.

“It’s interesting because with the poppy cultivation that has been taking place – Afghanistan being the largest producer of opium poppies – the farmers who have been growing poppy have been increasingly reliant on solar-powered tube wells,” Motwani says. “This was a technology that was introduced to them for licit [legal] crops, and it’s obviously also had a dual purpose, so they’ve just been pumping a lot of groundwater out. And that has been leading to a significant depletion of the groundwater table.

“So, in terms of the conditions to conduct large-scale mining operations, they’re certainly not there, and if they were to go about it, then it would be at a grave cost to the Afghan people. Because I don’t think they would really have a decision in it. And neither would they really be the beneficiaries of the wealth coming out.”

Even if all these environmental barriers were overcome, any prospective mining in Afghanistan would have to face up to the geopolitical instability that has become a mainstay of the region.

“Given the profound insecurity over the last 40 plus years, it has made it virtually impossible for any extraction to take place because it requires sustained and significant capital investment and trained manpower,” Motwani says.

Help from the outside?

“I think it would be a huge miscalculation for any mining operator – whether state-based or private – to invest their capital in a volatile country such as Afghanistan. Because even if they do that, given the Taliban, given the number of sanctions that are still there, [they won’t] be able to extract those materials and then to sell them, legally speaking. The mineral wealth is there, but it can’t be tapped into.”

The political intricacies of Afghanistan have proven too difficult for Western powers to overcome for centuries – the Soviet Union’s 1979–89 adventure and the American-led intervention that is now over are just the most recent examples. So, if all the many problems could be overcome, and Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was deemed extractable, to whom might the country turn for help?

“I would be very surprised if China put in a lot of money into Afghanistan.”

Nishank Motwani

“I think it would be either Pakistan or China, or the two working together in collaboration,” says Motwani. “The Chinese have obviously invested a great deal of money in Pakistan, through the Chinese–Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC.

“But I would be very surprised if the Chinese put in a lot of money into Afghanistan. It is a significant source of instability, and even given that the Taliban has taken over the country. To think that the Taliban are going to be able to consolidate the power without any resistance in due course, it’s also, I would say, inaccurate.

“So the natural beneficiaries because of geography would be China and Pakistan, but that does not say that they may begin exploring and may conduct feasibility surveys and so on. Would they be thinking in billions of dollars in Afghanistan? Not anytime soon. It would require sustained stability and predictability for that to occur.”

An unknown future

It’s entirely plausible the Taliban may begin attempting to extract these resources themselves, which raises questions around safety and environmental damage, not to mention the issues potential buyers may have about the ethics of the supply chain.

“Hypothetically speaking, would it be possible [to extract minerals] down the track?” asks Motwani. “Sure, I mean virtually anything is possible. The Taliban are going to need to find different sources of revenue and if they maintain their control then perhaps state-owned companies – I don’t see any private money or giant publicly listed ones going in – would then take the direction of the government.”

“It’s reasonable to expect the Taliban will do whatever they can to generate revenue,” Whittle says. In the context of mining, that could mean bypassing ethical and environmental concerns.

“There hasn’t been much reticence in terms of growing opium and producing methamphetamines, so I wouldn’t imagine there are too many constraints on them mining in a dirty way and then selling across the border into China.”

But Motwani says there would still be roadblocks in terms of where and how extracted minerals could be used. “If Afghanistan under the Taliban remains sanctioned – how are they going to export it? Who will be the buyers? There’s going to be heaps of legal issues tied to it.”

“So, it’s just really messy to think that in Afghanistan that untapped mineral wealth could be tapped into in an intensive manner to provide whoever needs the supplies down the track.”

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