The recent mapping of massive mineral deposits in Afghanistan is sparking speculation about a modern gold rush in Central Asia -- although gold may not be a good comparison. The estimated $1 trillion in valuable metals discovered reportedly includes lithium. Essential for high-tech, rechargeable batteries, lithium is being talked about as the hot commodity in the post-petroleum age.
While governments and corporations are salivating at the financial prospects of the Afghanistan mineral discovery, some very basic issues need to be resolved. First and foremost, of course, are Afghanistan's crippling poverty and corruption, dangerous political instability and an infrastructure broken by decades of war.
What Would It Take?
But let's imagine Afghanistan had a stable government that respected international law and was committed to putting in the roads, waterworks, worker housing, transportation and other infrastructure needed for a major mining project. What would it take, then, to get all these minerals out of the ground and into the global market? Dr. Mary Poulton, professor and head of the University of Arizona's Mining and Geological Engineering Department, says education and expertise would have to be at the top of the list.
"They would need to build a university system that would have the capacity to train Afghans. . .in mining and metallurgy [and] every other engineering support, plus sciences like geology and hydrology and environmental sciences," she says. "So they've got to build up the university system at the same time that they're building all of the other infrastructure. And that probably means that they're going to have to import faculty."
Poulton. who is also director of the university's Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, was involved in discussions with Afghan government and education officials on that topic several years ago. At the time, she says, "they recognized that they needed to develop a stronger mining/engineering programs in the university system. And so they were over here, looking at what the U.S. capacity was. And then it never went anywhere. I think largely because there wasn't any money to invest in it."
A Cue From Mongolia
When it comes to the challenges facing Afghanistan, Poulton points to another developing nation, Mongolia, as an analogy. The former Soviet satellite has a democratically elected government, an educated work force and huge mineral deposits, but is still lacking in infrastructure.
"If you look at the length of time that it's taking Mongolia to get up to the point where they can support really world-class mines, it's been maybe 10 years with a stable government," she says. "I think that you're looking at a similar sort of time frame in Afghanistan, if not longer."
Even if you had all the infrastructure in place, she says, basic costs for a relatively large mining operation start at about $1 billion. "That would be all of your drilling and your consultants, and building the mill and buying equipment, getting your water. If you. . .put infrastructure in on top of that, you could easily double or more the price tag."
It might be years, if not decades, before Afghanistan even scratches the surface of its apparent new mineral wealth. But Poulton believes mining could change everything for the Afghans. "The country desperately needs investment, it needs education, its needs jobs," she says. "It needs people to have something to do."
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