The swift takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban militants has not only drawn global attention to an unfolding humanitarian crisis – but has also turned a spotlight on the country’s vast and untapped mineral wealth, CNN reported Thursday.
Whilst Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world, supplies of minerals such as iron, copper, and gold are scattered across provinces. There are also rare earth minerals and, perhaps most importantly, what could be one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium — an essential but scarce component in rechargeable batteries and other technologies vital to tackling the climate crisis.
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More than a decade ago – in 2010 – US military officials and geologists estimated that the country’s mineral supply could be worth about $1 trillion.
“Afghanistan is certainly one of the regions richest in traditional precious metals, but also the metals [needed] for the emerging economy of the 21st century,” said Rod Schoonover, a scientist and security expert who founded the Ecological Futures Group.
A multitude of challenges including security issues, a lack of infrastructure and severe droughts have prevented the extraction of valuable minerals in the past.
And while that is unlikely to change imminently, experts believe there is a growing interest from countries including China, Pakistan and India, which may try to engage and tap into the vast resource, despite the chaos.
“It’s a big question mark,” Schoonover said.
Even before President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw US troops from Afghanistan earlier this year, setting the stage for the return of Taliban control, the country’s economic prospects were dim.
As of 2020, an estimated 90 percent of Afghans were living below the government-determined poverty level of $2 per day, according to a report from the US Congressional Research Service published in June. In its latest country profile, the World Bank said that the economy remains “shaped by fragility and aid dependence.”
However, discoveries about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which built on earlier surveys conducted by the Soviet Union, have offered huge promise.
Demand for metals like lithium and cobalt, as well as rare earth elements such as neodymium, is soaring as countries try to switch to electric cars and other clean technologies to slash carbon emissions.
The International Energy Agency said in May that global supplies of lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements needed to increase sharply or the world would fail in its attempt to tackle the climate crisis. Three countries — China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia — currently account for 75 percent of the global output of lithium, cobalt and rare earths.
The average electric car requires six times more minerals than a conventional car, according to the IEA. Lithium, nickel and cobalt are crucial to batteries. Electricity networks also require huge amounts of copper and aluminum, while rare earth elements are used in the magnets needed to make wind turbines work.
The US government has reportedly estimated that lithium deposits in Afghanistan could rival those in Bolivia, home to the world’s largest known reserves.
“If Afghanistan has a few years of calm, allowing the development of its mineral resources, it could become one of the richest countries in the area within a decade,” Said Mirzad of the US Geological Survey told Science magazine in 2010.
A decade later, and calm has not only never arrived, but chaos and turmoil still whirl around the poverty-stricken nation meaning most of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has remained in the ground, said Mosin Khan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Middle East and central Asia director at the International Monetary Fund.
Right now, minerals generate just $1 billion in Afghanistan per year, according to Khan. He estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent has been siphoned off by corruption, as well as by warlords and the Taliban, which have presided over small mining projects.
Still, there’s a chance the Taliban use their new power to develop the mining sector, Schoonover said.
“You can imagine one trajectory is maybe there’s some consolidation, and some of this mining will no longer need to be unregulated,” he said.
But, Schoonover continued, the “odds are against it,” given that the Taliban will need to devote their immediate attention to a wide range of security and humanitarian issues.