With increasing global demand for rare earth minerals and lithium driving advanced technology, Afghanistan is at the forefront of economic speculation given its famed mineral reserves. In reality, it’s not that straightforward.
Afghanistan is gaining visibility in the public eye for its considerable mineral wealth. The country sits on the Tethyan Metallogenic Belt (TMB) which stretches from Europe through Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran, considered by geologists to hold one of the highest concentrations of metals and minerals in the world.
Replete with lithium, gold, iron, copper and gems, Afghanistan is subject to new global economic scrutiny amid increasingly global reliance on rare-earth metals to produce consumer technology goods, efficient batteries, advanced military hardware and sophisticated computer chipsets.
Other resources to be found in Afghanistan include oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, rare earths, chromium, lead, zinc, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.
Most estimates suggest that Afghanistan is home to at least $1 trillion in mineral reserves, including what could potentially be the world’s largest source for lithium reserves. The figure is questionable, however. For one, the valuation took place in 2010 at the end of a high-performance global commodities cycle.
Other estimates also vary tremendously. In 2010, a former minister of mines assessed Afghanistan’s mineral wealth at nearly $3 trillion. If the figure is accurate, it could potentially be worth more after the global economy’s recovery.
That’s all very good on paper, but little is said about the difficulty in extracting said resources. That’s because most estimates rely on geologic surveys carried out in the 1980s by the Russians. That’s not to say that they’re not accurate, but modern surveying techniques have come a long way in 40 years.
Afghanistan has seen multiple efforts to extract its resources through multiple rounds of government tenders, including one major bid by JP Morgan banker Ian Hannam. Most were discontinued due to security conditions.
In 2018, China’s state-controlled Metallurgical Group and the Jiangxi Copper Company secured rights to Mes Aynak, home to one of the world’s largest copper deposits. The mining bid quickly ground to a halt after discovering that copper deposits were located beneath a UNESCO protected heritage site, and remains in limbo to this day.
A 2019 report by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum estimates the country’s copper deposits at 30 million tonnes. One Afghan mining report shared by the ministry describes another 28.5 million tonnes of copper in undiscovered deposits, bringing the total closer to 60 million tonnes, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars.
Other challenges include logistics. Afghanistan has no access to water, and has a limited railway network. Certain mineral extraction requires advanced technology and similarly sophisticated infrastructure, meaning a 2010 US Department of Defense report describing Afghanistan as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” may be off the mark.
Lithium is witnessing a global shortage as demand for the precious metal increases around the world, particularly with the rise of electric cars, which rely primarily on high-grade lithium for their batteries.
More recent reports are vague as to how much lithium is actually in the country. One 2018 report from the US Geological Survey reports that Afghanistan has significant deposits of minerals that contain lithium, but makes no estimates as to how much can actually be found. A joint US-Afghan assessment in 2019 does not discuss lithium at all, even though it reports 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth metals.
The same report describes over 2.2 billion tonnes of raw iron ore, a precursor to steel valued at over $350 billion, in addition to a far smaller gold deposit estimated at 2,700 kg, with a value of $170 million.
Similar to neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan is also estimated to hold nearly 1.6 billion barrels of crude petroleum and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Amid all the mineral and oil wealth are highly demanded resources necessary for modern green technology. While the US, Europe and Japan see Afghanistan as an opportunity to decrease reliance on Chinese rare earths, the maneuver would require years and millions of dollars in spending.
While Afghanistan is hailed as a super-mineral reserve, the costs of extraction, production and shipping are rarely cited, giving off a starkly inaccurate picture of the nation’s mineral wealth.
Source: TRT World